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Carlsbad is well on its way to becoming the region’s next “smart city.” In recent weeks, elected officials have laid the groundwork for a new digital infrastructure that will one day capture data about public rights of way and connect citizens with government services.

But Connected Carlsbad, as the effort is branded, is significant for what it leaves out. It does not include one of the central and most controversial components of San Diego’s smart city program: the streetlight cameras that’ve become useful to police.

Carlsbad chief innovation officer David Graham said streetlight cameras are not being considered there because cameras won’t get the city any closer to meeting its mobility goals.

“There’s not really an opportunity nor an interest in doing that sort of project,” he said, and the devices are not necessary to count cars and pedestrians.

Instead, the city is considering a range of possible methods and technologies — everything from counters to physical sensors buried in the road to surveying equipment that relies on light. Graham also cited “visual sensors that analyze data” as one option and said whatever the decision, “any technology that is adopted needs to have a policy that protects personally identifiable information if that data is collected at all.”

Researchers and activists are keeping an eye on Connected Carlsbad, and they’re not totally convinced that what the city may end up building is all that different than what they’ve seen — and criticized — in San Diego.

“Visual analytics, broadly, have all the same issues as the smart streetlamp technologies,” said Lilly Irani, a UC San Diego professor who specializes in the cultural politics of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. “Just eliminating this one technology does not address all the potential harms that surveillance analytics can have for different communities.”

Graham had been one of the early officials working on the city of San Diego smart city initiative. In 2018, he appeared on national television promoting the streetlights and the city’s larger digital infrastructure. Months after he left for a job in Carlsbad, community activists, reporters and members of the San Diego City Council began to question how and why a program meant to save energy costs and count cars had grown into a tool to fight crime.

The definition of what constitutes a crime worthy of investigating with the aid of one of San Diego’s thousands of streetlight cameras has been expanding, and there aren’t clear definitions in place.

San Diego officials acknowledge that they walked backward into the streetlights project, rolling out new technologies without fully appreciating their power and without writing adequate rules on their use or getting buy-in from local communities. The San Diego City Council is now working on a broader surveillance ordinance that’ll govern the future acquisition and use of devices that have the potential to watch and listen to the public.

Carlsbad’s digital transformation is still in its early stages. Rather than a series of individual projects based on specific types of technologies, officials consider their proposal to be more like a strategic outline for modernizing IT infrastructure, using data to make government decisions and improving safety and sustainability.

Already, though, Carlsbad is thinking about privacy and public input in a way that San Diego never did — upfront and with the knowledge and support of the City Council.

In January, officials released the results of an online survey showing that safety was among residents’ top issues. Yet 80 percent of respondents were either “very” or “somewhat” worried about the privacy implications of the city’s digital transformation.

To ease those concerns, the city intends to hire a data scientist and business intelligence manager who can “assist in ensuring clear citywide data policies that protect privacy while encouraging citywide data-driven decision making,” according to a staff report.

The criticisms and concerns emanating from San Diego appear to be having an effect in Carlsbad, as officials there think aloud about the positive and negative aspects of new technologies and cybersecurity threats.

Graham acknowledged that he’s not a technologist and said he’s mindful that analogue solutions — say, an intern with a clipboard — are sometimes the best and cheapest option.

“We shouldn’t start by saying, ‘Well, can technology solve this?’ We start by properly defining the challenge or the opportunity that we’re going after,” he said.

In Carlsbad, the challenges identified by the City Council include housing affordability, traffic, homelessness and open space, although it’s not yet clear how publicly collected data could aid in those discussions.

Graham said he’s learned three things from San Diego and from other parts of the country also rolling out digital initiatives: The impact of the technology itself needs to be prioritized upfront; technological solutions are not as simple as the companies selling them would have you believe; and cities are not prepared for the cost of connectivity and the relatively quick rate of replacement. A building may last three decades, for instance, and roads need to be resealed every few years.

In the meantime, Graham said he’s also open to the creation of a commission — similar to the one being kicked around in San Diego — made up of technologists and community members who could help develop policies around who has access to the data the program would generate and how to protect it.

City Councilwoman Cori Schumacher said she’s “absolutely open to that level of oversight” as Carlsbad builds out its digital infrastructure and considers the potential effects on privacy.

“We’re extremely mindful of that,” she said.

In January, she and Mayor Matt Hall both questioned the cost of the city’s new digital infrastructure. Officials said they’d return to the City Council with longer-term estimates, but noted that any individual projects under the Connected Carlsbad umbrella would need to be approved separately or through the annual budgeting process. They assured Schumacher, in the words of the Coast News, that “no actionable items within the roadmap would slip through the cracks.”

Schumacher said she’s supportive of Connected Carlsbad in part because the city’s IT platform is decades old.

“This leap is going to feel pretty big to a lot of people but that’s because the city’s past administrations have not invested in keeping us up to date with any digital shift into the 21st century,” she said.

Going forward, Schumacher said she’s particularly interested in knowing how the city’s automatic license plate readers, which are used by police to identify lost or stolen vehicles and provide information for ongoing investigations, will be incorporated. Carlsbad owns the cameras installed on police cars and intersections, and the city’s policy states that the information collected can only be accessed for law enforcement purposes.

When asked what they made of Connected Carlsbad, some members of the Trust SD Coalition, which is helping to write San Diego’s surveillance ordinance, described it as a broad program that didn’t seem invasive, at least on the surface. The upgrading of traffic signals and phone lines are reasonable, they said.

But they also flagged language in a January staff report that noted the increased “opportunities for cities to collect data from the private sector for public use.” That report says individual smartphone location data, if stripped of personally identifiable information, could be useful to government officials.

“The city’s economic development staff has already begun using this type of data to glean insights about commute patterns between the city’s rail stations and business parks,” the report reads.

Activists find that particularly worrisome because anonymized data can be de-anonymized.

Graham said the city partnered with a private company to collect commuter patterns as part of its new app-based shuttle program and narrow services to the Poinsettia rail station. The information, he said, was provided in the aggregate and the city didn’t receive any source data, so it couldn’t be de-anonymized.

But private companies are in the business of making money, so these types of relationships with public agencies will undergo increased scrutiny — and not just in Carlsbad.

Irani, the UCSD professor, said it’s becoming common for governments to outsource their data processing operations, and the public can’t see what’s happening on the other side. This has been a point of contention in San Diego over the data captured by smart streetlights.

“So governments get to say, ‘We’re not violating privacy,’” Irani said, “but they outsource the concerning data aggregation to the black boxes of entities the public doesn’t have oversight over.”

Graham acknowledged the concern and said these issues need to be addressed in contracts with outside companies. More and more cities, he said, are going to share best practices.

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

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