Smart streetlight controversy in San Diego prompts surveillance revamp | Smart Cities Dive

Amid swirling controversies surrounding San Diego’s Smart Streetlights program, including its use to surveil protestors marching against systemic racism, new laws being debated in the city would more strictly govern the use of surveillance technology.

One ordinance sponsored by City Councilmember Monica Montgomery would set policies governing the current and future use of surveillance technology and set parameters for how it can be used. It also creates requirements on oversight, auditing and reporting. Another would establish a nine-member Privacy Advisory Commission (PAC), which would create a use policy for the San Diego City Council to consider and adopt, and would also need to be informed whenever the city is about to partner on a new type of surveillance technology.

The legislation comes as many cities face a reckoning over policing methods, funding and the culture of surveillance, with calls to “defund the police” upending some cities’ budgeting processes. While some police departments have worked to try and assuage residents’ fears about the use of technology in law enforcement, it has prompted legislative action in cities including New York, where the city council voted in June to force the New York Police Department (NYPD) to be more transparent about the tech it is using.

The two ordinances unanimously passed the San Diego City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee and the Rules Committee, setting up a vote before the full council in September.

“The impact will be at the very least that we’ll have oversight and certain uses will not be allowed,” Montgomery said in an interview. “I think it’ll make people feel safer, I think it’ll build more trust with law enforcement in using these the right way.”

Controversy has dogged San Diego’s Smart Streetlights program, powered by CityIQ, for some time. Montgomery said elected officials started hearing “rumblings” in 2018 and 2019 that the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) had started using the cameras primarily as a crime-solving method, rather than for the original purposes of optimizing parking and traffic and tracking air quality. Earlier this year, there was a dust-up in city council as Mayor Kevin Faulconer proposed paying for the program through the city’s community parking district budgets, but saw that proposal rejected.

Objections came as the SDPD wrote the policies for how its officers would use the surveillance footage collected on the smart streetlights. “[There] was no oversight, there were no parameters given to the department and they had their own internal policies. That’s when this stuff started to rise to the surface,” Montgomery said. City officials did not respond to requests for comment on the program, which was the subject of a lawsuit late last year over its data collection and use.

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The city’s Smart Streetlights program has been the subject of some change in recent months, as smart streetlight company Ubicquia acquired all CityIQ assets in May, including the program in San Diego. Ubicquia declined to comment on the legislation through a spokesperson.

The program raised the hackles of various community organizations, which objected to the streetlights’ use by law enforcement and wanted to see some changes to the program. That helped prompt the formation of the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego (TRUST SD) Coalition, which collaborated on the legislation and has run public education and advocacy campaigns on the technology.

Genevieve Jones-Wright, the TRUST SD Coalition’s facilitator, said given the public interest in surveillance technology and the desire to see policing methods change, this legislation and the new PAC are steps in the right direction.

“When we started doing those community education forums, we were worried a little bit that maybe it would be a little too highbrow for some folks and they wouldn’t care, as it’s not that sexy,” Jones-Wright said in an interview. “But people were really pouring into these forums … So many people were interested in this, and a lot of people were extremely concerned and appalled. I think when we have this open discussion, we are going to see more civic participation.”

Lilly Irani, an associate professor at the University of California-San Diego who is involved with the TRUST SD Coalition, published a report earlier this year that said the Smart Streetlights program has merely resulted in “broken promises on civic innovation.” 

“Instead, the city is left with a surveillance system that pervasively records video in public thoroughfares and near homes, workplaces, and places of worship — and the city, not citizens, access and use the data,” Irani wrote.

Montgomery said while there is a recognition that technology can play a role in helping keep people safe in what she called a “technological world,” its use must be governed properly to prevent over-surveillance, especially of communities that have traditionally been targets of such practices.

“We use technology quite a bit, we’re very dependent on it,” Montgomery said. “And the police department and law enforcement can use some of these things in their crime-solving methods. But overwhelmingly, people believe there should be very consistent oversight, because folks are really concerned about technology and surveillance creeping into their lives, and their privacy and civil liberties being violated through this technology.”