A smart streetlight / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

A piece of San Diego’s smart streetlight system is now in the possession of a suburban police department — because San Diego gave it away.

In late October, the city uninstalled several of the surveillance devices in response to a search warrant. El Cajon was investigating a homicide and believed the cameras in San Diego had captured evidence useful to detectives.

Time was running out, though. The footage on the streetlights deletes itself every five days. Over the summer, San Diego City Council members defunded the program in response to community pushback while they got to work on new rules governing the use and acquisition of technology and a privacy advisory board.

In response, then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer ordered his staff to turn off the network. But that’s easier said than done because the streetlights and the cameras rely on a single power supply. The devices are still technically rolling — they’re just not accessible.

Public records suggest that the murder took place on the morning of Oct. 23 and El Cajon reached out to San Diego three days later. They only had two days to come up with a solution.

Ubicquia, the Florida-based company that owns the underlying technology, offered to download the video for El Cajon from “a handful” of streetlights. But first, San Diego needed to re-activate its digital subscription.

Instead of reconnecting the devices to the cloud, which would have required the city to re-up its data plan with AT&T, thereby spending money without authorization, officials decided to comply with the legal order in the next best way. They literally handed the devices over.

What happened after that is unclear. Lt. Randy Soulard, a spokesman for the El Cajon Police Department, declined to say whether any evidence had been recovered from the cameras, citing “the integrity of the case.” The original search warrant is sealed.

Gustavo Portela, a San Diego public information officer, also declined to say which devices had been handed over but noted that the “devices are typically returned at the conclusion of a trial or criminal proceeding.”

This wasn’t the only time that officials gave up surveillance gear because a judge said so. The district attorney’s office confirmed that it, too, has submitted a similar search warrant in search of evidence connected to a separate investigation.

Both examples illuminate an awkward truth about surveillance and who it serves. The footage on San Diego’s smart streetlight cameras does not belong to San Diego alone. It belongs to any law enforcement agency with enough probable cause to justify a look-see — one of the many things that officials never considered upfront.

The program was pitched in late 2016 as a way to save money on energy costs because the devices can be dimmed or brightened from afar. The streetlights can also collect data on passing cars and pedestrians and measure air quality. But by mid-2020, the cameras had become exclusively a tool for police.

SDPD has also shared streetlight camera footage with state and federal agencies, including the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center, a federally recognized hub of intelligence and investigative support.

In June, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of California charged a 24-year-old Lemon Grove man with aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter during a Black Lives Matter demonstration. SDPD made the initial arrest and pulled the video in connection, but county prosecutors stepped aside. Federal prosecutors wanted to make an example out of the man, who faces stiffer penalties under federal law.

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