Activists and San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott got into an impromptu debate over the city’s smart streetlight program. / Photo by Jesse Marx
Activists and San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott got into an impromptu debate over the city’s smart streetlight program. / Photo by Jesse Marx

2020 has been a year of many changes, but it has also unquestionably been the year where mass surveillance boldly emerged into the lives of San Diegans.

It’s not just surveillance cameras on “smart streetlights;” although, that program was an early canary of what was to come. Within the last six months, San Diego has also battled to keep insecure and inept facial recognition technologies out of the hands of law enforcement. We’re still struggling to understand why our government wants to begin flying a predator drone over our city.

Troubling questions about how the government is tracking our “smart” utilities, like water meters, are right around the corner. Small camera-equipped drones operated by police will soon begin creeping into the lives of residents in San Diego County. Should we even mention the complicated questions that arise with the idea of installing government apps on our phones, to support the fight against COVID?

San Diegans deserve better than to live with the threat of mass surveillance popping up around every corner with no notice. That is not the character of America, nor of its finest city.

Until now, the selection, adoption and operation of mass surveillance has occurred without the public’s knowledge, and without proper oversight. The TRUST SD Coalition believes a change is overdue.

Private companies are continually developing new technology that they try to sell to “smart” cities with promises of improving society and reducing costs. Sadly, these programs more often end up inflating city expenses, as they did here, rather than reducing them, while also increasing a city’s risk of being sued for carelessly operating invasive technology.

We believe the allure of new surveillance technology will continue to be difficult for government agencies to resist, and that they will be tempted to adopt the new technology at the lowest possible cost and effort. This inevitably leads to an absence of diligence, a lack of expertise and a lack of ongoing control in the way the technology is implemented and operated.

The implications of this haphazard strategy are enormous for San Diegans. Consequences of abusive surveillance technology can already be seen in the city’s budget, as well as in areas of criminal and civil justice, law enforcement, economic equality and privacy. We must not allow these harms to mature and metastasize.

To counter these threats, our coalition is pleased to finally reveal our proposal for a new privacy advisory commission that will be considered by San Diego’s Public Safety and Liveable Neighborhoods committee on Wednesday, July 15th. Over the last year, our coalition has hosted collaboration meetings with the public throughout the neighborhoods of San Diego. Using that community response, we partnered with Councilmember Monica Montgomery to establish a new vision for surveillance technology in San Diego that will be based on transparency, accountability, and community oversight.

Our proposed privacy advisory commission and surveillance technology ordinance will accomplish three goals:

  1. They will require the city to go through a standard process prior to acquiring new surveillance technology, during which best practices can be assured, and community input sought.
  2. They will require the city to report regularly on its use of surveillance technology and whether that technology has been effective for its intended use.
  3. They will establish a privacy advisory commission made up of volunteer citizen experts to ensure existing and new surveillance technology is thoroughly vetted for financial, technological, legal and ethical concerns. The commission’s sole role will be to make thoroughly researched recommendations to the City Council.

You can read the full language of the ordinances at

Our coalition has not been quietly waiting around while work on this ordinance progressed. Through the work of our members, we helped persuade the San Diego City Council in May to eliminate most funding from San Diego’s streetlight surveillance system, which was ballooning out of control. This result saved San Diegans millions of dollars, during a time when libraries and garbage collection were under threat of budget cuts. This system should never have been allowed to be deployed in the reckless and over-budget manner that it ultimately was exposed as having been, and our proposed surveillance ordinance and privacy advisory commission would ensure San Diego is protected from such a result ever recurring.

San Diegans deserve nothing less than a community commission to formally check the advancement of surveillance technology in our city. If you believe, like we do, that San Diegans must join with the citizens of Oakland, New York City, Seattle, Detroit and other cities in establishing community control of mass surveillance technology, we ask for your help. Talk to your neighbors and friends about this issue. Ask your City Council member if he or she plans to support the privacy advisory commission as brought forward by the TRUST SD Coalition.

Geneviéve Jones-Wright, Khalid Alexander, jean-huy tran, Lilly Irani, Homayra Yusufi and Seth Hall are members of the TRUST SD Coalition Steering Committee.

Seth Hall is a local writer and technologist. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter: @loteck.

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