SDPD’s smart streetlights pitch gets resounding ‘no’ from city privacy board

The city had previously installed 3,000 smart streetlights across San Diego.
The city had previously installed 3,000 smart streetlights across San Diego, like this one photographed in 2019 at the corner of Illinois Street and El Cajon Boulevard in North Park. Community members learned years later that police could access the technology, and the ensuing outrage fueled the creation of the city’s new surveillance ordinance.
(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The department wants to add cameras equipped with license plate readers to 500 streetlights across the city; although the privacy advisory board rejected the proposal, the City Council could still approve it


The San Diego Police Department wants to spend millions of dollars to outfit a network of streetlights with sophisticated cameras.

This week, after months of deliberation, the Privacy Advisory Board — a volunteer group charged with evaluating the city’s surveillance technologies — issued their response to that request: No.

At a Thursday 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.

That information then makes its way to the newly formed Privacy Advisory Board and, subsequently, to the City Council. Council members will decide whether to adopt the board’s recommendation regarding the smart streetlights in the coming weeks.

The Police Department’s streetlight proposal was the first to be reviewed by the board, and the undertaking highlighted challenges that may plague the evaluation of future technologies.

Questions remain

Before voting on whether to support the technology, the board highlighted several pressing concerns.

Members felt the 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 individuals 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 reader technology.

Board members said the ordinance requires that the department produce this information and that without it, they 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, 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 during its meeting 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, “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 TRUST San Diego Coalition, which helped craft the surveillance ordinance, said the department’s failure to provide even 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,” Hall said. “There’s no way for us to use that to inform the public. It’s not sufficient.”

Report finds deficiencies

Hall, who is also 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 as established by organizations like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Security Industry Association.

The result? A 74-page report detailing 43 deficiencies and 69 recommendations for how the department could improve its approach.

One recommendation suggested the department include additional information in its policy about how the system will be evaluated to determine whether it is meeting its objectives. Another recommended 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 that 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 the department policy doesn’t specify that officials would need to obtain 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 its proposed policies, complies with the city’s surveillance ordinance.

Over the last few months, police have responded to 111 questions from the board about the streetlight proposal. Police leaders have also 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.

Community outcry

Many of these concerns were echoed by community members who attended Thursday’s 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 that are already 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 16-year-old Sumaya Abdullahi. “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 were 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 as the reason for pursuing their installation.

In 2016, City Council members signed off on a $30 million project that pledged to use 3,000 energy-saving smart streetlights to assess traffic and parking patterns throughout the city. What the public didn’t know — and wouldn’t know for years — was that the technology came with cameras that could be accessed by police.

The resulting outcry — based on concerns about privacy and equity — led San Diego to shut down the network and fueled the creation of the surveillance ordinance and the Privacy Advisory Board.

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.

Smart streetlights installed in San Ysidro helped investigators zero in on a suspected gunman in the Nov. 6, 2019 shootings of three Church’s Chicken workers, 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 officials also accessed streetlights 35 times to gather evidence against demonstrators suspected of committing crimes during protests held in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

On Thursday, Lara thanked both the board and community members for their active participation in the 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.”

What’s next

Despite its vote against the program, the Privacy Advisory Board is not a decision-making body.

The Police Department plans to present the proposal to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on July 19. Sometime after that, the City Council will vote on whether the tool should be given the green light.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria has already spoken out in favor of the technology, and the $4 million needed to kick start the program is included in this year’s budget.