Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego’s smart streetlights program — pitched to the City Council as a means of public planning to capture data about air quality and traffic — is now officially and exclusively a tool for local police, with the consent of the mayor’s office. The stream of transit and mobility data, one of the original selling points for the program, was turned off several weeks ago.

What the program looks like long term is still an open question. Some elected officials, including the Council president, have signaled support for winding it down permanently, and they’re scheduled to debate its ongoing financing on Tuesday.

In May, Ubicquia, an electronics manufacturer based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., purchased the technology that underlies San Diego’s smart streetlights from the Boston-based GE Current. Since then, Ubicquia and the city’s Sustainability Department have been engaged in contract negotiations.

In 2016, when the City Council approved the original deal, officials said the program would pay for itself through energy cost-savings. Instead, it’s been plagued by cost overruns, lax supervision and a lack of properly trained staff, according to an internal memo obtained by NBC 7. In February, a top city manager vowed to “aggressively” renegotiate the city’s contractual relationship with its outside vendor.

That effort is ongoing. Christina Chadwick, senior press secretary for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said officials intend to put a revised contract in front of the City Council in September.

In the meantime, the city’s Sustainability Department requested that Ubicquia shut down the entire smart streetlights system because officials didn’t want to incur additional costs for the service until the City Council signed off on a new agreement. The company, in turn, according to the mayor’s office, offered to keep the video footage accessible to the San Diego Police Department at no cost.

“The mayor considered that offer acceptable because the footage has proven to be an effective public safety tool many times over,” Chadwick wrote in an email.

As of June 30, the visual sensors attached to streetlights across the city stopped producing various types of data. The technology has never worked great — it’s never produced all the data that boosters of the program promised. Last week, though, UCSD researchers who’ve been interested in the privacy implications of the data attempted to gain access to the city’s portal and couldn’t. They were greeted with error messages.

The city has also posted a notice on its website that the public planning data is temporarily suspended.

“Ubicquia has committed to continuing to provide the city with video footage of serious incidents where bodily harm has occurred upon request by the police chief or assistant chief,” Chadwick said. “Should video need to be accessed during this period, staff will notify the City Council within 24 hours.”

The company declined to shed light on the ongoing contract negotiations. Instead, a public relationship professional sent over a statement on behalf of Ubicquia CEO Ian Aaron: “We are committed to working with the city of San Diego and the community to take advantage of the significant investment made to make San Diego and their residents safer, more efficient and more connected.”

The smart streetlights have been an ongoing source of controversy for more than a year, as the technology experienced mission creep, meaning the devices were deployed for one stated purpose but wound up serving another. During the recent Black Lives Matter protests in late May and early June, SDPD accessed the streetlight cameras at least 35 times in search of evidence to be used against protestors accused of vandalism, assault and other crimes.

Last week, the city’s Public Safety Committee approved the first draft of an ordinance intended to set new rules around the use and acquisition of surveillance gear. They also gave their initial blessing to the creation of a new privacy advisory commission, which goes before the city’s Rules Committee on Wednesday.

But first, the full City Council will turn its attention to the financing of the smart streetlights program. After initially proposing a $2.1 million budget for the 2021 fiscal year, Faulconer requested that elected officials dramatically scale back the size of the program and the number of streetlight sensors by placing it under the city’s Community Parking District budget, which come from parking meter revenue, at a total cost of about $825,000.

That discussion is scheduled for Tuesday.

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

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.