Aug 2, 2023 - News

San Diego approves smart streetlight cameras

A camera-equipped smart streetlight in the Gaslamp District of San Diego. Photo: Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

San Diego police will soon be able to rely on surveillance cameras and license plate readers attached to 500 streetlights citywide, after the City Council approved their use Tuesday.

Driving the news: Nearly three years after the city turned off its "smart streetlight" network amid protests from privacy activists, the Council gave police authority to use the technologies — despite concerns from many of those same activists.

Why it matters: It's the latest installment of an ongoing debate over the role of surveillance technology in public space — and the city's first major decision to greenlight such tools after adopting an ordinance last year meant to guide policy and safeguard privacy.

Catch up quick: The city installed streetlight cameras in 2016, with sensors for parking, congestion and environmental factors.

  • Police recognized their utility in 2018 and began using them for crime-solving.
  • Two years later, the city turned them off amid protests, then passed a broad policy governing its use of surveillance technology.

State of play: The Council approved streetlight cameras 7-2, with Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe opposed.

  • The Council approved license plate readers 6-3, with Councilmember Vivian Moreno joining the opposition over concerns that immigration authorities could access the footage and data.

Yes, but: The city still needs to finalize contracts with private vendors before implementing the technologies.

How it works: The surveillance cameras record public areas where they're stationed, and the city can retain the footage for 15 days.

  • License plate readers document all cars that pass their fixed locations and can alert officers in real time if they register a wanted or stolen car. The city would retain license plate data for 30 days.

What they're saying: Local law enforcement argued that resuming use of surveillance tech was a matter of common sense, now that the city has adopted and followed a policy governing use of the technology.

  • "This is a simple vote: it is a vote for public safety, or it is a vote to embolden criminals in our public spaces," Sgt. Jared Wilson, president of SDPD's union, said.

The other side: The city created a privacy advisory board to guide its use of surveillance technology. The board in June advised the Council not to resume the program.

  • "You don't know enough about this, do not vote for this," said Paul Khalid Alexander, a board member.

Zoom in: A Council majority approved the measure after arguing the city's policy regulating surveillance tech had been followed and was working as envisioned.

The Council opposition said questions on privacy, data storage and sharing with third parties remain.

  • "Any inference that those of us who are vigilantly fighting to maintain civil liberties are any less concerned about safety is unfair, I would say disingenuous, and very counterproductive to the goal of producing holistic safety in this community," Elo-Rivera said.

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