In a few weeks, the San Diego City Council could be faced with a decision: whether to spend millions of dollars equipping a network of streetlights with advanced surveillance tools.
They’ve said yes before.
In 2016, council members signed a $30 million project that promised to use energy-efficient Smart Streetlights to assess traffic and parking patterns in the city. What the public didn’t know — and wouldn’t know for years — is that the technology came with cameras accessible to law enforcement.
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The resulting outcry — based on privacy and equity concerns — led San Diego to shut down the network and fueled the creation of a regulatory ordinance that would regulate the use of Smart Streetlights and similar technologies.
And now those new rules are being put to the test.
On Wednesday, the San Diego Police Department proposed installing 500 new Smart Streetlights, complete with cameras that double as automatic license plate readers. If the plan goes through, the city would become the nation’s largest to use cameras and license plate readers as part of a single network, police officials said.
The city launched a detailed webpage outlining what the streetlights could and couldn’t do, suggested policies for using the technology, and information about where the cameras would be installed.
Officials also organized community meetings to solicit feedback on the proposal — all before a single streetlight would be fitted.
“I share the general public’s skepticism about technology, especially if you’re not directly against them about what you have, why you have it, and what you’re going to use it for,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said in an interview. last week.
“What I’m encouraged by is that we get to ask these questions,” he said. “We will provide answers, and we will do it before purchasing or deploying this technology. I feel passionate about this issue, just as passionate as I feel that (these street lights) will be good for our city and keep more people safe.”
The approach is markedly different and apparently more transparent than when the Smart Streetlights were first installed, but community groups are still concerned that the process is being rushed.
Lilly Irani, an associate UC San Diego professor who specializes in technology ethics, is part of the coalition that helped draft the city’s new oversight regulations. She said the community needs more time to look at the technology the city wants to use to better understand what it does and who it will affect.
Public input meetings were announced a few days ago and will be held Monday through Friday. The following week, on March 15, the plan will be submitted to the municipality’s Privacy Advisory Board.
That rapid turnaround, Irani said, doesn’t give the department time to evaluate feedback from community members or potentially make changes to its proposal.
“It looks like you’re trying to penetrate a new technology while ticking off the checkboxes of the oversight regulations,” Irani said.
“If you’re going to install this system that you’re going to use in the city for the next decade or the next 100 years, isn’t six months worth it?” she said.
Experts have long criticized surveillance technologies for having a disproportionate impact on black and brown communities.
A Union-Tribune analysis of the proposed sites found that more than one-fifth of the streetlights would be placed in San Diego’s District 8, which is more than 70% Latino and includes communities such as Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, Otay Mesa and San Diego. Ysidro includes. The district is said to see about eight cameras per 10,000 people, a rate nearly double that of some other districts.
How high-tech street lighting works
The high-tech street lighting that San Diego plans to install is being manufactured by Ubicquia, a telecommunications company headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The streetlight platform comes with a host of features, according to the company’s website, including cameras and two-way microphones. The product can be equipped with various software packages.
It is up to the city to choose which features to use.
Captain Jeff Jordon of the San Diego Police Department said the department plans to use the cameras to record footage in public areas where people have no reasonable expectation of privacy.
The department also wants to add automated license plate reader technology to the lights. The tool would capture vehicle license plates as they drive by, note when and where they were seen, and then compare that information against a variety of law enforcement databases.
The databases contain information about vehicles that may be related to missing persons or crimes such as car thefts. Some databases are used by law enforcement agencies across the country, while others are produced by nearby departments. San Diego can also create its own waiting lists if crimes and other incidents occur.
If the system picks up a vehicle suspected of an incident, that information is sent to the department’s communications center, which relays the information to officers.
Jordon said the CCTV footage would not be viewed in real time, but would instead be viewed to investigate serious crimes or incidents.
Police and city officials praised the tools for their effectiveness and cited their impact on policing as a reason to continue the installation.
“These two technologies together provide tremendous power to immediately impact our ability to concentrate resources, investigate crimes, and successfully prosecute and hold those who commit those crimes accountable,” Jordon said.
Between August 2018 and September 2020, the department used Smart Streetlights footage to investigate hundreds of cases, including 56 murders or attempted murders, 55 robberies or burglaries, and 55 assaults involving a weapon.
Those installed in San Ysidro helped investigators track down a suspected gunman in the Nov. 6, 2019 shooting of three Church’s Chicken employees, one of whom was killed.
In downtown San Diego, they helped identify a man suspected of donning a costume mask and fatally shooting a business owner in October 2018.
Police officers also went to streetlights 35 times to gather evidence against protesters suspected of committing crimes during protests held in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd — a practice that officials said would continue last week.
The department wants to start with 500 streetlights and posted a map showing the proposed locations. The technology would be placed all over the city, from Carmel Mountain Ranch to San Ysidro. Many of the locations are near highways and along major roads.
Suggested locations for Smart Streetlights and automated license plate readers
The San Diego Police Department has proposed reinstalling Smart Streetlights and adding automated license plate readers at 500 locations across the city. Many are located near highways and other major roads.
Zoom in to find your neighborhood.
Jordan said the department used crime data and input from investigators to determine where to place the cameras.
Under the proposed plan, District 8 would contain 111 streetlights, the most of any district. In addition to being largely Latino, nearly half of the district’s households earn less than $45,000 a year, according to estimates from the San Diego Association of Governments.
Councilman Vivian Moreno, who oversees District 8, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the placements.
Another 91 cameras will be placed in District 3, which includes Hillcrest, North Park and downtown San Diego. That’s a rate of about four cameras per 10,000 people.
The neighborhood is approximately 55% White, 29% Latino, 7% Asian, and 5% Black.
Councilman Stephen Whitburn, who oversees District 3, said in a statement last week that the neighborhoods he represents consistently view public safety as a top priority. He said he thinks the technology will help meet that need.
“When the Smart Streetlights were active, they helped solve crimes and got criminals off the streets,” he said.
What about privacy?
While police and city leaders emphasize that technologies such as license plate readers collect anonymous data — meaning it contains no personally identifiable information — privacy advocates argue that what is actually being collected is location data.
And those are personal things.
Dave Maass, director of research for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization, said it would be “intellectually dishonest” to anonymously name license plate information.
“Your location data can provide clues about who you’re dating, what your medical condition is, how you worship, and whether you’re involved in civil protests or city politics,” Maass said. “It’s personal information that can reveal intimate details about your life — information that doesn’t concern anyone but your own.”
While the policies proposed by the police provide guidelines on how and when to use the technology, detectives still have a lot of freedom.
They must have a “legitimate law enforcement purpose” to access license plate information or enter a license plate into the system, according to the department’s proposed policy. Those legitimate purposes can include anything from locating vehicles wanted in connection with a crime to “confirming parking enforcement violations.”
The policy also states that no reasonable suspicion or probable cause is necessary to access license plate reading equipment.
The department has said anyone with access to the system will be specially trained, but the list of those who can access has expanded to include groups such as the department’s Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol.
Maass also said the alerts that license plate reader systems send out can sometimes direct departments to certain types of crimes — and those crimes may not be the same ones communities want officers to focus on.
Jordon said the department will pay close attention to the number of alerts the system generates, and is prepared to change course if necessary.
For more information about the technology and the community meetings being held to discuss it, visit the the city’s website.