The B street pier, near where the Port of San Diego installed a series of smart streetlights to monitor traffic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The city of San Diego has drawn national scrutiny for its smart streetlight program over the last year, but it turns out another government agency was also running a surveillance system downtown that was capable of watching and listening to the public. Both are now dark.

The city’s smart streetlights were defunded this summer as part of a massive backlash to the way the technology had been pitched to officials and then evolved without the public’s knowledge or consent. The City Council is working now on rules governing the use and acquisition of surveillance gear and considering the creation of a privacy advisory board.

On the periphery of that camera network was another camera network.

Inspired by the city’s partnership with General Electric, the Port of San Diego installed 23 audio and visual sensors along Harbor Drive, between Seaport Village and the airport, to collect information about cars and pedestrians. It was dismantled at the end of 2019 after a year-and-a-half trial run.

At the time, port staff were involved in several big mobility projects and interested in how the technology might assist with their traffic studies. They found they could get the same, if not better, information — they could count cars but couldn’t necessarily track the movements — by sending people to watch roadways or by relying on sensors already embedded in the ground.

“You can get a lot more granular-level data just using old tried and true methods,” said Job Nelson, the port’s chief policy strategist.

The port still owns the equipment, so its streetlight surveillance system could be resurrected in the future. But that would depend, in part, on more public agencies building out their smart platforms to increase the quality and analysis of the data they collect.

“We know how to make it work if there’s a regional effort to use sensors that is broadly supported by the public,” said Zach Birmingham, the port’s senior environmental specialist.

Devices that hook up to the internet and collect data — including video footage — in public rights of way are beginning to proliferate across the county, as governments look for ways to save money and reduce carbon emissions. Chula Vista is ahead of the curve with drones and autonomous vehicle testing. Carlsbad is working to get its digital infrastructure off the ground. El Cajon has been entertaining proposals from tech companies.

Qualcomm recently announced “a plug and play” platform sold as a subscription that includes hardware and data analytics. The company is trying to speed up the adoption of smart cities programs and it’s targeting schools and hospitals in addition to municipalities and ports.

Many of the local projects are still in the early phases. If there’s a lesson in San Diego so far, it’s that smart technologies aren’t as cost-effective and sophisticated as salespeople often claim and not as useful as officials had hoped.

The port’s streetlight system never evolved into a tool for law enforcement, as San Diego’s did. The city pitched the system as an energy-saving initiative, intended to dim or brighten lights from afar, but it ballooned into a costly program that was exclusively used by police to investigate crimes ranging from vandalism to murder.

Rather than pay for itself, as promised, San Diego’s system required more and more resources, prompting officials to reduce the size of the program as they searched for a long-term funding source. The city’s initial plans called for the installation of approximately 3,200 sensors, spread across neighborhoods.

Staff at the port came to a similar conclusion about the true cost of technology — San Diego wound up hiring a data scientist in-house — but they were considerably more upfront and open about what the devices could do. Port managers didn’t need the approval of the commissioners who oversee the agency but brought them into the discussion anyhow.

It’s likely the port would have never bought the streetlight sensors if San Diego hadn’t bought them first. In May 2017, six months after the San Diego City Council signed off on a long-term financing agreement, port commissioners heard a glowing presentation from one of the program’s architects.

David Graham, then a deputy chief operating officer for the city, portrayed the streetlights as an environmentally friendly way to generate economic development. He cited a block party that the city had held to generate possible ideas and offered the example of a food truck app based on where parking is available.

“This is the openness and new ways of connecting with people to get these traditionally scary, Big Brother projects to make sense to people,” he said.

Graham also pointed to the economic impact of the region’s major research institutions, and argued that the metro needed to use smart technology to keep its smart workers happy.

“Why do we do this? Because the talent and the folks that we want to be living and staying in our cities demand this of their city,” he said. “They demand it.”

Birmingham followed Graham’s presentation with an overview of his own, noting that the port would be “proceeding with the public’s privacy as the highest priority.” The port doesn’t have residents, but it does have plenty of visitors.

At a second hearing on the streetlights in October 2017, Birmingham cited public safety as a possible use case for the technology. In addition to cameras, the devices were equipped with microphones that could detect gunshots. When the project first came up, commissioners asked questions about the data and how it would be stored but were generally positive in their comments — one even suggested that the new technology might someday make traffic engineers obsolete.

A breakdown of the smart streetlights technology as included in a 2018 agreement for services

The only bit of criticism came from Commissioner Garry Bonelli, a retired Navy rear admiral, who said he envisioned the devices “becoming a dinosaur real fast, but I’m OK with it,” because the project was expected to pay for itself through energy savings.

Commissioner Bob Nelson, a public relations professional, was among the most vocal supporters. He’d been involved in the port’s early conversations about adopting more smart technologies. He wondered aloud at the board meeting whether the port’s streetlights system and another project on the table at the time — a system of interactive kiosks — could be joined together to better understand how port visitors were moving around.

But first, Nelson urged the port’s staff to reach out directly to its tenants, civil liberties groups and minority communities that might be suspicious of the new technology in public rights of way. He encouraged the port, with outside feedback, to develop guidelines on the accumulation, retention and use of data collected by the port long term.

Nelson left the board shortly after making his comments, so he didn’t see the streetlights project through. If he’d stuck around longer, he said, he would have kept advocating for more community involvement. Nelson also used to sit on the board of Cleantech San Diego, a business association that promotes smart city concepts to governments. He’s a believer in the cause but he’s also aware of the dangers.

Looking back on his advice to the port, he jokingly compared it to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which the commander in chief famously warned about the threat to democracy posed by the military-industrial complex.

“We need industry, we need the military,” Nelson said. “But you guys gotta keep an eye on where this is going.”

He said he was shocked to later discover, based on reporting by Voice of San Diego, that police were the sole benefactor of San Diego’s smart streetlights.

A fraction of the size, the port’s streetlight system was only intended as a pilot. San Diego took out a $30 million loan to get the whole thing rolling. The port spent $85,368 on equipment, plus another $23,805 on data services, according to a memo attached to the master agreement. The port also looked into the possibility of expanding the number of devices from 23 to 200 down the road.

In the end, though, the streetlights didn’t pay for themselves. Staff at the port realized that setting up the light-control grid would have actually cost more money. “It would have required a pretty big retrofit in order to get the technology in,” Birmingham said. “The light poles aren’t designed for that.”

The port streetlights also didn’t end up serving the needs of law enforcement. Birmingham said he spoke to Harbor Police about the technology and, while there was interest in the devices, port staff ultimately decided to keep the pilot focused on traffic. The port also didn’t turn on the gunshot-detection software, he said.

The port has experimented with other types of technologies over the years, including sensors that are supposed to tell when a trash can is full, so workers can arrange their route accordingly — that project wasn’t extended either.

The interactive kiosks, which were capable of counting passersby, never got off the ground. The commissioners discussed it in July 2018 but were split, in large part, because of the public pushback to putting advertisements on the screens. At the meeting, Commissioner Michael Zucchet, the general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, also zeroed in on the cameras attached to the large digital signs.

“This technology, I know it’s unavoidable, and we’re being counted all the time” thanks to cell phones, he said, but “I think this stuff is really creepy.”

Before the agency will consider pulling the streetlights out of storage and reinstalling them, a couple things would need to happen, said Job Nelson, the port’s chief policy strategist. The pandemic needs to end. The technology needs to be integrated into a broader smart cities network across the region. And the industry’s costs need to come down, so that it’s reasonable to hire people on the outside to do the necessary data analysis.

But Nelson is also conscious that the port would need stakeholder buy-in.

“The public needs to get comfortable with what you’re doing with the data,” he said. “I know I heard from people on the outside saying to us, ‘Well, the private sector uses this stuff all the time.’ My response back was, ‘We’re not the private sector. We’re the public sector. And the public expects something different of us.’”

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

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