Pitch for smart streetlights from San Diego police gets resounding ‘no’ from city privacy board
The department wants to use cameras equipped with license plate readers on 500 streetlights across the city. The board’s recommendation on the proposal will go to the City Council.
After months of deliberation, the Privacy Advisory Board — a volunteer group charged with evaluating San Diego’s surveillance technologies — issued its response to the San Diego Police Department’s request to spend millions of dollars to use a network of streetlights with sophisticated cameras and license plate readers as crime-fighting tools.
The board’s response: No.
At a June 22 meeting that went late into the evening, six of eight board members voted to recommend to city officials that they not allow the streetlight program to move forward. Two members were absent.
The vote marked a pivotal point in a process that started in September when the city’s new surveillance ordinance went into effect. Under the legislation, city departments are required to disclose their surveillance technologies and compile reports outlining how those tools are used and their impact on communities.
The list highlights more than 70 types of technology and how each is used, what it collects, and who gets to use it and under what circumstances.
That information then makes its way to the newly formed Privacy Advisory Board. Though the board can make recommendations, it is not a decision-making body. The City Council will decide whether to adopt the board’s recommendation regarding the smart streetlights in coming weeks.
The Police Department plans to present the proposal to the council’s Public Safety Committee on Wednesday, July 19. Sometime after that, the full council will vote on whether the plan should be given the green light.
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Smart streetlights have been a subject of controversy in San Diego since 2019, when it was revealed that the Police Department could access cameras on more than 3,000 devices perched atop light poles that could collect images and other data to assess traffic and parking patterns and had used some of the information to investigate criminal cases since 2018. The city cut off direct access to the cameras in 2020 after public outcry about surveillance and privacy issues.
That fueled the creation of the surveillance ordinance and the Privacy Advisory Board.
Now the Police Department wants access restored to 500 of those devices and wants to add automated license plate readers. Because the smart streetlight cameras have not been well-maintained over the years, the city would need to install new cameras. Adding the license plate technology would mark the first time San Diego would have the readers in fixed locations.
San Diego would be the biggest U.S. city to use cameras and plate readers as part of a single network. But the community will get to weigh in first.
According to a map provided by the department (online at bit.ly/3SHei8y), the technology would be placed all around the city, with many of the locations near freeways and along thoroughfares. In the Ocean Beach-Point Loma-Midway area, locations would include West Point Loma Boulevard at Nimitz and Sunset Cliffs boulevards; Sports Arena Boulevard just south of Interstate 8; and around Camino del Rio West and Hancock Street.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria has spoken in favor of the technology, and the $4 million needed to kick-start the program is included in the city budget.
The streetlight proposal was the first of the surveillance technologies to be reviewed by the Privacy Advisory Board, and the review highlighted challenges that may plague the evaluation of future technologies.
Board members felt the Police Department hadn’t provided enough information about various aspects of the plan, including the purpose or goals of the streetlight program, how data would be collected and safeguarded, who would have access to the information gathered, how those people would be trained and how the effectiveness of the technology would be assessed.
But one concern outweighed the rest.
Department officials have said they plan to install cameras made by Ubicquia, a telecommunications company, but no information has been provided about the vendor that would supply the accompanying automated license plate readers.
Board members said the ordinance requires that the department produce that information and that without it, the board can’t effectively assess potential privacy or security risks the tools may pose.
“That’s why we keep asking all these questions, because we want to make sure that everything is spelled out as clearly as humanly possible,” said Pegah Parsi, a board member and chief privacy officer at UC San Diego. “We’re not trying to be obstructionist. We understand that the technology is here, but it’s very important for the Police Department and for the city to show how the cow eats the cabbage.”
Police officials said they haven’t provided information about a vendor because one hasn’t been selected. Acting Capt. Charles Lara told the board that, based on the department’s understanding of the ordinance, police need City Council approval of the technology before a company can be chosen.
It’s a challenge department officials expect will continue to crop up.
In a memo addressing several questions from the board, Lara said that “because of the way the ordinance was drafted, city departments will have to bring proposals without the purchasing and contracting process being completed and all potential vendors being identified or selected.”
Seth Hall, a member of the TRUST San Diego Coalition, which helped craft the surveillance ordinance, said the department’s failure to provide the name of a probable vendor flies in the face of the spirit of the legislation.
“They’ve said they welcome oversight,” Hall said. “So welcome it.
“Bringing unknown technologies that you refused to identify, that we don’t even know who manufactures it or what it can or can’t do — that’s not participating. There’s no way for us to use that to inform the public. It’s not sufficient.”
Community group claims deficiencies
Hall, who also is the co-founder of San Diego Privacy, a community group that seeks to boost the public’s understanding of privacy issues, said his organization found serious flaws in the department’s plan.
The group compared the department’s proposed policies with best practices for video surveillance established by organizations such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Security Industry Association.
A 74-page report details 43 deficiencies and 69 recommendations for how the department could improve its approach.
One recommendation suggests the department include additional information in its policy about how the system will be evaluated to determine whether it is meeting its objectives. Another recommendation is that the department place more stringent limits on how other law enforcement agencies access data collected by San Diego’s system.
“When we compare the Police Department’s policy to the way the standards say it should be written, we just come out with a bunch of stuff missing,” Hall said.
The group also raised concerns about provisions that appeared to allow the department to surveil private property with permission from the property owner. Hall noted that many San Diegans are renters and said the department policy doesn’t specify that officials would need permission from tenants as well.
“Perhaps a department person will come along and say: ‘Yeah, that’s what we meant. We’ll get approval from the people that it affects.’ But that’s not what they wrote,” Hall said. “And that’s the primary problem here. These policies need to be carefully written.”
Department officials have said they believe the documentation they have provided, including proposed policies, complies with the city’s surveillance ordinance.
Over the past few months, police have responded to 111 questions from the board about the streetlight proposal. Police leaders also have stated that, in addition to the privacy board’s review, the technology is subject to vetting through the city’s information technology processes.
“The department and the city work tirelessly to ensure our information technology systems are sound, protected from malicious intrusions and protect the civil liberties and data of San Diegans,” Lara said in a recent memo to board members.
Many of the concerns were echoed by community members who attended the June 22 meeting — in person and online — to speak out against the streetlights.
Speakers said they worried the technology would invade people’s privacy and fuel unequal enforcement in communities of color. Many said they didn’t trust the police to be good stewards of such powerful tools and felt the money to fund the program could be better spent if funneled to community groups working to prevent crime and violence across San Diego.
“The goal for this technology is to enforce more safety, but I feel it will do the complete opposite by targeting innocent people,” said Sumaya Abdullahi, 16. “My community is already targeted and watched enough, and this will make it worse.”
Abdullahi is a member of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans’ Youth Congress, a group that empowers young immigrants and refugees to participate in the organization’s policy work.
Moments after she spoke, other members of the Youth Congress who stood alongside her began to chant, “Every step we take, every move we make, we don’t want to be watched or surveilled — put the camera away.”
A few speakers voiced support for the technology, saying they’re in favor of tools that would aid officers in solving crimes.
In the past, police and city officials have praised smart streetlights for their effectiveness and cited their positive impact on police work.
Before losing access to the technology, police had used footage from the smart streetlights to investigate hundreds of cases, including 56 homicides or attempted homicides, 55 robberies or burglaries and 55 assaults involving a weapon.
Lara thanked the privacy board and community members for their participation in the review process.
“The board is working vigorously to defend the privacy rights of San Diegans, and that is an important charge,” he said. “I also want to acknowledge the time and passion of all the people who came to express their opinion regarding this proposed program.”
— Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report.