Streetlight cameras in downtown San Diego / Photo by Megan Wood

Newly obtained emails show San Diego considered giving its police real-time access to video footage collected by the city’s smart streetlights before reporters and community members began to publicly question how the streetlights program was growing.

The emails paint a different picture than the one communicated to the public as questions over the program mounted. City officials have made a case over the last year that they’re discerning about how and when they access the cameras and that the footage is only accessible through a third party.

When asked about the emails, both SDPD and the mayor’s office said the cameras are not being accessed in real-time — although a high-ranking police official said his department has had an ongoing conversation internally about when live-streaming might be useful to emergency responders.

Activists and researchers who discovered the emails said the communications demonstrate a lack of oversight and control that has been prevalent since the beginning of the project.

“I’ve been in public and private conversations with police and they’ve stated that they only access recorded footage after the fact for an investigation,” said Seth Hall, a technologist. “And they say this as though they understand that live-streaming surveillance … is a bright line that they don’t want to cross or understand shouldn’t be crossed.”

City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery is convening a working group in March made up of community organizers as well as tech and privacy experts to draft rules on how devices capable of watching the public and measuring decibel levels are acquired and used.

Hall and others are pushing for a citizen’s commission that would monitor the city’s use of the streetlights and potentially other gear. The goal, he said, is to increase public trust and transparency because the city’s “surveillance wildfire … appears to be zero percent contained.”

In late 2016, the city’s Environmental Services Department pitched the City Council on a partnership with General Electric to bring down energy costs. The company would loan the city $30 million to retrofit thousands of street poles with new technology that could dim or brighten the lights from afar while collecting anonymized data to measure things like air quality and traffic.

Less than two years later, in July 2018, an employee of a GE subsidiary emailed the city’s energy and sustainability program manager, Lorie Cosio-Azar, to say, “we will need to get pricing” from the company, Genetec, that was storing the data. He noted in the same sentence that live-streaming into the Police Department’s security center could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Cosio-Azar responded with figures that would help GE come up with a better financial estimate.

In January 2019, the same GE employee emailed a pair of city traffic engineers to inquire about startups that might be able to run analytics over the data and help the city meet its planning goals. He referred again to Genetec and wrote: “they already tap into the CityIQ cameras for the Police Dept. to do evidence management and soon live streaming for situational awareness (2Q of this year).”

Gustavo Portela, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, confirmed that the streetlights are equipped with live-streaming technology, but said the devices have never been used in that way. He portrayed the conversation as one-sided rather than a collaboration between public and private partners.

“GE representatives tried to sell the city on the added capabilities by GE, but the city declined,” he wrote in an email.

Earlier this year, the city’s Sustainability Department made a similar point in a memo to the City Council, and noted that the video footage is not monitored in real time.

Still, the timing of the emails that reference live-streaming is important.

The first was sent in July 2018 — one month before SDPD began requesting access to the cameras to help solve major crimes, following a murder in the Gaslamp. The second was sent in January 2019 — two months before SDPD put some rules down on paper for how investigators would go about obtaining access to the cameras.

That same month, the Union Tribune reported on the growing police interest in the smart streetlights, which were primarily pitched to the City Council to reduce energy costs and collect data that’d be useful to planners. Some of the materials given to elected officials in late 2016 highlighted the potential crime-fighting uses of the devices — at least one document mentioned the word “surveillance” — but it was not a topic of public conversation.

A 2017 report produced by Environmental Services also highlighted the law enforcement capabilities of the technology.

“In the long run, San Diego’s smart city sensors are expected to act as a deterrent to crime, thereby increasing public safety,” Cosio-Azar wrote.

It also predicts annual energy cost savings, but an internal memo recently obtained by NBC San Diego shows that the project has suffered from cost overruns, lax supervision and a lack of properly trained staff. Management of the streetlights within the city has changed hands in recent years.

City officials held a series of community meetings in acknowledgement that they should have done more to communicate the full scope of the project and solicit feedback.

At the same time, though, they argued that they’d built privacy protections into the system, because the data it collected on cars and passersby was anonymized. A log providing some basic details about how and when the devices are being accessed is available to the public through a records request.

But what happens to that data when it’s out of view of the city is still an open question. That concern and others have been raised primarily by the Trust SD Coalition, whose members have been applying public pressure on the City Council to take a more active oversight role. In October, several Council members, including Montgomery, called for a moratorium on smart streetlight installations.

Last month, the city’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee decided a surveillance ordinance that includes but extends beyond the streetlights was overdue. To this day, the procedures defining police access to the cameras were written by police.

SDPD isn’t necessarily opposed to using the cameras in real time.

Capt. Jeffrey Jordon, who oversees special projects for the police chief, said his department has had ongoing conversations “about when, and under what limited circumstances, live streaming would be appropriate given the nature of this technology, as well as balancing public safety and privacy rights.”

Live-streaming is not expressly prohibited in SDPD rules for the streetlights, but investigators also do not possess the ability to activate that function, Jordon said.

“I believe live streaming, under limited circumstances, could be critical to enhance public safety,” he wrote in an email. “For example, in a fast-moving fire that requires mass evacuation, like the Cedar Fire, having access to live streaming to determine exit routes though intersections would be invaluable to incident commanders.”

This isn’t the first time SDPD has shown an interest in accessing cameras around the city in real time.

In 2010, police officials tried to gain access to a public and private surveillance network already installed around the city, but the project fell apart because the video feeds were relying on software that was incompatible with the department’s operating system.

Brian Hofer, who chairs the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission and worked on several surveillance ordinances in the Bay Area, said San Diego needs to do a “temperature check” on technology and come up with stronger rules and boundaries so that everyone’s on the same page. Without policies that have buy-in from the community, a versatile tool like the streetlights is going to be used in any number of ways.

The people may ultimately decide that live-streaming is acceptable.

“But they’re not even being given the choice to weigh in,” Hofer said. “That takes away from good government and it’s not very democratic, which is why we’ve pushed for these ordinances all across California.”

Otherwise, he said, the uses of such devices will be made unilaterally, out of sight.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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