In San Diego, ‘Smart’ Streetlights Spark Surveillance Reform

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A homicide detective looked up from the scene of a fatal shooting in San Diego’s Gaslamp District in August 2018 and saw something unusual: The streetlight glowing overhead didn’t look like a normal streetlight.

That’s because it wasn’t. The LED light on the pole was also equipped with an optical sensor. As it illuminated the city, it was capturing 24-hour video footage of the scenes beneath it.

“We had no idea what the quality of video would be, or what it would capture,” said Jeffrey Jordon, who leads special projects and legislative affairs for the San Diego Police Department. “The first time we saw it we were like, ‘Holy cow, that’s really good video.’”

The San Diego Police Department knew that the city had been recently outfitted with a few thousand such “smart” streetlights, installed to monitor car and foot traffic, Jordon says. But until that moment, he said the department had not yet thought to ask the city for the light’s recordings.

After that week, police started regularly pulling video from the lamp post sensors. The rest of the city — and several members of San Diego’s own city council — wouldn’t find out about the practice until months later, when activists raised concerns at community meetings and the San Diego Union-Tribune and Voice of San Diego reporter Jesse Marx started digging. To date, police have used streetlight footage nearly 400 times, to investigate cases ranging from sexual assault to vandalism. Records reviewed by Bloomberg CityLab and reports from the Voice of San Diego show that in two weeks over May and June, police requested access to footage in cases of “civil unrest” and “looting” associated with Black Lives Matter protests at least 35 times. 

In the coming months — after more than a year of advocacy by a coalition of 30 local groups called Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego (TRUSTSD) — San Diego council members are poised to propose two new ordinances. One would introduce new city council approval processes before adopting new technologies, establish clear public reporting guidelines throughout their use, and prohibit non-disclosure agreements with surveillance-related companies that would shroud decision-making from the public. The other would create a Privacy Advisory Commission (PAC), made up of lawyers, privacy experts and community members — and no police or elected officials — who could evaluate the civil liberties implications of tech projects and review their applications on an ongoing basis. 

“There have been some decent uses for these. But there is no oversight,” said council member Monica Montgomery, who took office in 2018, after the streetlight program was approved, and has since become a leading advocate for the surveillance ordinances.

“To me, it’s really important to be guiding the introduction of [technology] with full transparency, and parameters, and accountability,” said council president Georgette Gómez, who also supports the legislation. “We have none of the above.”

Tech-laden lamp posts are fixtures of the international “smart city” landscape; cities in Europe and Asia have rushed to install streetlights equipped with features that can monitor traffic, weather, and other urban phenomena. It’s not uncommon for them to drift into the hands of law enforcement. Fears of China’s AI-powered surveillance “panopticon” led Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters to topple that city’s smart streetlights during demonstrations in 2019. As U.S. cities like Baltimore; Kansas City; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and Portland, Maine upgraded their streetlight networks, the American Civil Liberties Union has cautioned against the “stealthy” rollout of “spying technology.” 

“Rather than call them smart bulbs in smart cities, I’d call them surveillance bulbs in surveillance cities,” Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy council for the ACLU,told CityLab in 2018. 

When San Diego launched its smart streetlight pilot program with GE Current in 2016, officials promised it would open up a pantheon of opportunities. Not only would the LED lights use less energy and save money, their sensors would collect air quality and mobility data. Parking would be easier, streets would be safer, and entrepreneurs would build businesses around all this open data. The pilot was extended into a full-fledged program in 2018. Under a $30 million contract, GE retrofitted 14,000 of the city’s 60,000 streetlights with LEDs, and placed sophisticated sensors on 3,200 of them — including small nodes that captured video.

“This is beyond cool,” Austin Ashe, the then-general manager of GE Current’s project, said at the time. “San Diego has always been an innovative city, they’ve always wanted to be cutting edge, and what they’ve done today is made a statement that they’re all about transformation.”

In an email statement, a spokesperson for San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office said that the streetlight network has been a boon for businesses and residents, citing its ability to collect “near-real time data of vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic across San Diego,” as well as environmental information “at a spatial granularity not normally available.” 

Still, the program ended up plagued with maintenance issues and unforeseen cost overruns. After smart city company Ubicquia announced a deal to buy the streetlight platform, CityIQ, from GE Current in May, San Diego effectively defunded the program as it renegotiates its contract. The mayor’s spokesperson says that a revised contract is expected to be presented to the city council in September. Until they come to an agreement, Ubicquia has turned off most of the data-collecting sensors. As of June 30, only the video capabilities have been left running, free of charge.

“Nobody asked us to keep the video on,” said Ian Aaron, Ubicquia’s CEO. “I actually decided to do it, from the standpoint of public safety.”

Civil liberties and privacy advocates say that streetlights’ drift from eco-friendly mobility utility to surveillance tool illustrates how  devices installed for one stated purpose can easily expand in scope. While TRUSTSD was galvanized by the streetlight fallout, San Diego is joining a growing number of cities — many on the West Coast — that are trying to install guardrails on the expansion of surveillance technologies.

Currently, oversight in San Diego comes mainly from the police themselves, who in March 2019 published a policy governing use of the streetlight data. In it, the department promised not to “invade the privacy of individuals or observe areas where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists,” and pledged that they would not integrate the streetlights’ cameras with facial recognition technology or automatic license-plate readers. They also created their own retention policy: Recordings can only be pulled as evidence if they’re accessed within five days; after that, they’re deleted from the database. Until February 2019, police had to request streetlight data from the mayor’s office, but Jordon says that took too long. Now, they contract with a video management service that can give them direct access within hours. 

While the streetlight program’s other data-gathering abilities are suspended, Mayor Faulconer’s office re-emphasized a message that the police department first used when the program began: that the video footage would only be accessed by police for “serious or violent incidents that result in serious bodily injury or death.” The police department will have to notify the city council within 24 hours of making a request to collect video.

The police department’s current license to essentially self-regulate has frustrated local activists. “We’ve been talking about the police policing themselves for a very long time, especially as of late,” said Geneviéve Jones-Wright, the executive director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance (MoGo) and a leader of TRUSTSD. “It was like the fox writing the policy on how many freaking hens it can eat.” 

San Diego’s ordinances borrow heavily fromlegislation passed in Oakland in 2019. Brian Hofer, a privacy advocate and paralegal, helped lead the effort to establish a surveillance oversight commission after the Bay Area city started centralizing a system of license plate readers, cameras and gunshot detectors in a Domain Awareness Center in 2013. Intended as a violent crime prevention hub, the DAC ended up tracking political protesters. Three other cities, including Minneapolis, are currently drafting similar legislation to analyze that kind of mission creep and build in protocols to prevent misuse, he says. “Every single app, every data collected — it’s always potentially at risk for the police to come and get it,” said Hofer. “If they need it, they’re going to come and get it.”

San Diego’s initial public appeal for smart streetlights didn’t elevate their policing potential, but GE’s original pitch did mention public safety as a possible use case. In January 2018, San Diego’s then-deputy chief operating officer, David Graham, told IEEE Spectrum that the sensor-laden streetlights could be linked into San Diego’s existing Shotspotter network, which monitors neighborhoods for gunfire. Graham suggested that the bulbs “could detect other sounds, too, and automatically alert police to dangerous situations, by recognizing the sound of broken glass or a car crash,” the site reported. (The streetlights’ auditory sensors have not been turned on, Jordon and Aaron say; if activated, they could only pick up high-frequency sounds, not conversations.)

Jones-Wright is skeptical that police just stumbled serendipitously across the streetlight’s surveillance capabilities in August 2018. “Whether you believe them or not, this shows how ridiculous this program is — that the city didn’t know what they were getting into,” she said.

But Ubicquia’s Aaron says that deploying technology first and discovering use cases later is typical in the cities he works with. “Cities want a lot of data, and then when they get the data it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, what do we do with it?’” he said. 

Lilly Irani, an associate professor of communication and science studies at the University of California San Diego who helped write the draft surveillance ordinances, sees a familiar pattern here: Cities often start with “smart city” solutions without understanding the community’s real problems, then rely on public safety fears to justify their investments. It makes sense to her why Ubicquia preserved only the policing features during contract negotiation: “If you give them the opportunity to stop using the data, you give them the opportunity to consider whether they needed it in the first place.” 

Jordon says that streetlight evidence has been valuable both to convict and to exonerate suspects: In the case of the August 2018 investigation, for example, video from the incident indicated that the killing was done in self-defense, and the homicide charges were dropped. “It’s just video evidence, no different than it would be from 7-Eleven or anything else,” Jordon said. “Except that this evidence is out in the public domain, controlled by a public entity versus a private entity.” Police can’t monitor the footage 24/7 — they only pull the tape once an investigation is already in progress. He agrees, however, that “the manner in which it was rolled out could have been done better,” he said. “The police department is not opposed to oversight.”

In a presentation given to the city council and reviewed by CityLab, the police department stressed that they’d use video footage to investigate serious crimes and fatal collisions. But Jones-Wright says that the police have violated their own policy guidelines. Recordings have been used as evidence in cases of vandalism and illegal dumping, Voice of San Diego reported. (Jordon says the vandalism cases led to serious property destruction; the illegal dumping case was considered a threat to a local FBI headquarters.) And when the city erupted in Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the police turned to the streetlights to gather evidence against protesters.

“It took place after the protests were over, and to investigate people who are already in custody or people who we were seeking for committing some pretty significant crimes,” Jordon said. Six video pulls involved vandalism and looting of a CVS; one focused on a protester who threw objects at police vehicles and another on a protester who threw a bottle at a police officer. One woman filmed by the streetlights was arrested for “failure to disperse.”

Local protests have fanned momentum for the surveillance oversight legislation, says council member Montgomery: She sees putting checks on technology as part of addressing the disparate impact of law enforcement on communities of color. “The concern is that it will be misused, and folks will be abused by it, based on their religious affiliation and their race,” she said. 

Black San Diegans make up 6.5% of the city’s population but are more likely to be targeted by police, reports from the Voice of San Diego show, receiving a quarter of citations for coronavirus-related violations, and subject to disproportionate police stops. Montgomery’s district in Southeast San Diego is the city’s most diverse, and it’s also home to the only four neighborhoods where Shotspotter devices are used. While streetlights are dispersed across the city with little correlation to race or economic class, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that “a greater proportion of black residents and poor residents live in neighborhoods where smart streetlights have been accessed by police.” 

The prospect of federal law enforcement gaining access to local data is another concern, Gómez says: As a border city, San Diego’s undocumented residents have a heightened fear of monitoring and deportations by Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — third parties that have used license plate readers to track immigrants. (ICE even runs its own network of streetlight cameras, QZ reported.) 

“With body-worn cameras, and with the streetlights footage, and with drone footage, the people who have the money to maintain those technologies and control the data flow of those technologies get to control who gets access to the footage and who gets to narrate its public meaning,” said Irani. “Cameras don’t help us tell the truth in an objective way.”

Advocates hope the proposed Privacy Advisory Commission can rebalance that power. In 2016, there was little discussion about privacy or civil liberties when smart streetlights were pitched; under the new ordinances, those conversations would be mandatory, in both City Hall and in community forums held in each district. “As a body, they will vet any surveillance technology that the city wishes to acquire, before the city actually acquires it,” Jones-Wright said.

Elliott, the city attorney, must review the ordinances for legality before the city council votes on them; that could be as early as September. Elliott declined to comment. A spokesperson for Faulconer said he’s still reviewing the policies, and Jordon also declined to comment on the ordinances before the city attorney weighs in. But he defends the police department’s ongoing use of streetlight footage for crime-solving: If police lose that access, they’d “have a lot less evidence,” he said. 

In Oakland, Hofer says the privacy ordinance hasn’t eradicated technology from public life, but it has helped rein it in. Oakland still collects license plate data, for example, but its retention policy has shrunk from a year to 30 days, and the information collected for traffic-related purposes can’t be shared with third parties like immigration enforcement.

 “I do think that there’s a major function for technology,” said Montgomery. “I just think that it moves so fast, and we give up so much in the process.”

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