Cowles Mountain
A trail on the southeastern side of Cowles Mountain in San Diego on March 25, 2022. / Photo by Jesse Marx

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I took a trip last week to Cowles Mountain and walked around the southern and eastern sides of the summit. It is the highest point in the city of San Diego, surrounded by regional park trails that weave through hills and grasslands illuminated with wildflowers.  

But I didn’t go there, like so many others, to exercise and replenish my soul in the middle of a workday.  

About five years ago, the San Diego Parks and Recreation Department installed trackers at trailheads that use infrared wavelength to distinguish people from animals and vehicles by studying physical patterns of whatever crosses its path.  

The technology is more commonly known as gait analysis, and in other forms and places has been used to identify people without their cooperation, even when their faces are not exposed.  

“The devices do not capture behavioral biometric information, only numbers of users per day that pass by these trails,” Tim Graham, a public information officer, told me after I asked. He said the data is used internally and isn’t shared with third parties.  

To my knowledge, the city has never publicly disclosed the trackers, and I couldn’t spy them out in the open. I went looking for the devices after they turned up in a draft of the city’s surveillance inventory.  

Last year, Mayor Todd Gloria’s office began cataloging the hardware and software in possession of various city departments that meet the definition of surveillance under an ordinance approved by the City Council in November 2020. That ordinance is still awaiting a second, potentially final vote. A separate proposal, for the creation of a privacy advisory board, is scheduled for discussion and adoption on Tuesday.  

Though the inventory has yet to be released officially, it is a central part of the city’s effort to be more transparent about how it uses technology after a series of controversial roll-outs involving streetlight cameras and gunshot detection devices. The inventory, though, shows that surveillance technology spans far beyond those high-profile examples, and is in fact embedded across city operations. It’s unclear how useful — or concerning — each of those applications may be, but it is clear that virtually every city department has found a place to implement some form of surveillance tech. 

The inventory’s disclosures raise more questions than they answer. Each piece of software and hardware has its own backstory, and the task of making sense of it all — understanding its potential for abuse or benefit — has only just begun.  

There are hundreds of items in the inventory, many of which might strike the public as benign and even necessary. It includes microscopes and binoculars, aircraft noise readers, various social media networks, as well as the Get It Done app, where residents can report things like graffiti and potholes. NextRequest, the city’s public records portal, makes an appearance.  

Other items appear more sophisticated. The Transportation and Stormwater Department, for instance, has real-time access to 47 traffic monitoring cameras and a subset of video detection systems located at more than 200 intersections. The department also deploys traffic data collection devices that detect Bluetooth and WiFi signals from passing cell phones to adjust timing and speeds.  

Anthony Santacroce, another public information officer, told me the department does not share its traffic data with other officials internally or with outside parties.  

The inventory, in other words, reveals a spectrum of technologies, some of which pop up in places the public might not expect.  

A trolley passes by the San Diego River in Mission Valley on March 25, 2022. / Photo by Jesse Marx

There are cameras at more than a dozen recreational sites, including Balboa Park, Tecolote Nature Center, Camino Ruiz Neighborhood Park and Carmel Valley pool, with the stated purpose of keeping employees and patrons safe. Other cameras can be found in open space parks, collecting data on the wildlife that may inhabit those areas. Graham said the observations were required by the city’s Multi-Species Conservation Program. 

It’s not just researchers keeping an eye on the undeveloped world. The San Diego Police Department has also relied over the years on motion-activated trail cameras near the San Diego River to help document and investigate people who illegally dump trash.  

Homeless encampments have grown in the area after downtown enforcement kicked up, and the residents of the riverbed for years have gotten much of the blame for the ongoing cleanup. The Union-Tribune reported in 2018 that officers during a sweep went into the area with facial-recognition software to check the denizens for outstanding warrants.  

Some of the worst of the pollution appears to have come not from the encampments but non-residents who’ve gained access to nearby properties and used the riverbed to dispose of chemicals and debris. Several years ago, the city sent letters to nearby businesses, urging them to tighten up access to the riverbed and do their part to stop polluters. SDPD Capt. Jeff Jordon told me that crews ended up hauling out 40 dumpsters worth of trash.  

“It was an environmental nightmare,” he said. “It created a sense of urgency.”  

The trail cameras, he added, were not permanently installed but deployed on an as-needed basis.  

A hiker starts his ascent up Cowles Mountain near Barker Way Trailhead on March 25, 2022. / Photo by Jesse Marx

One could argue the trail cameras served a public good, but their function was punitive nonetheless — a common predicament for the more invasive forms of surveillance. In 2016, officials pitched the smart streetlights as an environmental solution to count cars and measure air quality, and in time the network evolved into an exclusive tool for investigators that the city struggled to turn off after the City Council blocked its funding source.  

Surveillance affects some more than others, and its harms are not always apparent, in part, because we tend to talk about it in abstract terms dealing with the rights of assembly and free association. We talk about the risks of stacking different systems of data extraction on top of one another to reveal previously unknown details about people’s habits. We talk about the blurring of public and private interests when companies start budding-up to municipalities in search of new markets that can turn a profit.  

But some harms are more immediately recognizable. Concerns, for instance, over the use of facial recognition specifically have been propelled over the years by reports of immigration agents going into jails to unmask individuals who are undocumented. Black men have also been falsely identified and accused of crimes thanks to law enforcement’s reliance on the technology.  

Even if regular people decide that the monitoring of public space is a worthy tradeoff, said Maritza Johnson, the founding director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Digital Civil Society, governments don’t always understand what they’re buying. They defer to sellers for advice on how to render the physical world into bits of data. In turn, the surveilled self becomes the real self, somewhere out of sight.  

“The people who own the tech … gain an upper hand in deciding what is true and what really happened,” she said.  

Nancy Relaford came across my radar last year as an activist organizing against Chula Vista’s use of license plate readers and drones. I was surprised to learn recently that she’d ended her career at the University of California, San Diego, library as head of safety and security.  

Relaford knows first-hand how much pressure there is for governments to adopt every surveillance opportunity that arrives and how useful the technology can be.  

As a librarian, she regularly dealt with behavioral issues and thefts. There was always a temptation to “expand your system, expand your view of things,” she told me. Vendors would come in wanting to hook up new devices at no cost, or to test beta versions on library patrons.  

Relaford said the library avoided putting the devices in spots that could discern what someone was reading, but she also sympathized with the campus police and the job they had to do. She went from prioritizing people’s privacy to looking for bad actors. It was a subtle shift. 

In retrospect, she didn’t push back as hard as she should have because she was worried about antagonizing her colleagues. “You get this image of yourself as a protector,” she said. “I have access to these systems, and I can look because I’m trustworthy.”  

This dependency on surveillance wasn’t born in a vacuum. It stems, on the one hand, from a quasi-religious belief that the problems of society are technical in nature, mere matters of engineering that can be solved with only a little more data. At the same time, it is inseparable from a security mindset that has been creeping into the built environment for decades and constitutes a kind of militarization of city life.  

In response to civil unrest in the late 1960s, a presidential commission on the causes and prevention of violence warned that Americans were living in increasingly divided cities that had taken the shape of fortresses. More than 20 years later, the San Diego writer and activist Mike Davis wrote about the “unprecedented tendency” in Los Angeles and elsewhere “to merge urban design, architecture and the police apparatus into a single, comprehensive security effort.”  

Technology, he argued, was creating its own spirit of paranoia and changing the character of policing by supplanting the traditional role of a beat officer’s knowledge of the community. It began with radio patrol cars. Today one finds search and rescue helicopters with thermal imaging, license plate readers that look for suspects and stolen vehicles, and drones that respond to 911 calls.  

Because technology amplifies the power of governments and private companies, regular people are within reason to ask whose interests and values are served with the rise of the smart city.  

This was, in fact, one of the justifications for the reforms that earned the City Council’s initial approval in November 2020 and lead to the creation of the surveillance inventory. As Lilly Irani and Khalid Alexander noted in a magazine last year, community groups in San Diego started mobilizing on their own after learning about the city’s network of streetlight cameras that “could bring anyone into the law enforcement dragnet.”  

The Trust SD Coalition’s proposals are intended to create a framework so that community members would at least know what the city had in its possession and could weigh in on past and future purchases. Rather than play whack-a-mole with any individual piece of technology, the proposals are supposed to provide oversight across a spectrum of digital and physical tools.  

There’ve been calls during the 16-month interim to put certain surveillance systems back in the hands of SDPD specifically. Police Chief David Nisleit said as much during a press conference in January following the arrest of a man accused of pushing another in front of a train near cameras owned by the Metropolitan Transit System.  

Former Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman joined the PR offensive a couple weeks later by complaining in the Union-Tribune that the delay with the ordinance had caused the city’s contract with ShotSpotter to expire. She blamed elected officials for “keeping essential tools from the police, threatening our public safety by giving criminals an unfair advantage.”  

She neglected to mention, as other have, that ShotSpotter has come under fire for the accuracy of its secret algorithm.

Because the surveillance ordinance is still being reviewed by the mayor’s office and public employee unions behind closed doors, it’s too early to know whether the proposal will reappear at the City Council level with any meaningful changes.  

Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for Gloria, told me the ordinance requires a full accounting of technologies that could spur privacy concerns and that subsequent vetting and policy considerations will take place at public hearings.  

“Mayor Gloria believes many of the technologies that will be evaluated, including many on this list, are useful in improving habitat conservation, wildfire prevention, public safety and city services,” she said in an email. “But he also recognizes that the public has a right to know what technologies are in use and how the information collected will be used and accessed.” 

While Zimmerman gripes that the ordinance is overly restrictive, others argue it doesn’t go far enough. Mitra Ebadolahi, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, told me she’s in favor of banning surveillance devices until their effects are fully known, but thinks the ordinance has value just by putting materials like the inventory in the public domain.  

Though surveys suggest that most Americans are concerned about a loss of privacy thanks largely to internet and cell phone tracking, surveillance isn’t a topic that dominates the public discourse for long. Ebadolahi said the complacency is understandable given the scale and scope of modern technology — which functions at previously unfathomable levels — and because most people are busy dealing with more immediate problems in their lives.  

But she also worries that surveillance can and does have disproportionate impacts along lines of class and race, and that data collection, if left alone and shared with the unregulated industry of brokers, will hinder people’s ability long term to access things like credit and housing.  

“Like all externalities,” she said, “that is hard to put an accurate price on.”  

Correction: This article has been updated to remove references to circumstances in which the source of a sound identified by ShotSpotter’s algorithm was reclassified based on human evaluation. Following the original publication of the story, ShotSpotter said in a statement, “We respond to requests to further investigate an incident, but only to provide the facts that we can determine — not to fit a predetermined narrative.” Voice of San Diego did not intend to imply — and disclaims any implication — that ShotSpotter manipulates data to match law enforcement’s theory of a crime.

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2 Comments

  1. Who cares? It’s like being in church. If citizens behave, who cares! The opposite is the popular shunning on social media. In both cases, you are yourself. Who cares? Why are people so frightened? So long as honesty, truthfulness and openness prevail, who cares? I’m certainly not cowering over a silly little camera and crazy society. Smiechowski candidate D2 SDCC PS SEE RIENHOLD NIEBUHR Moral man and immoral society Jimmy Carters favorite book

  2. There is also all kinds of private surveillance systems. If you go to any mall, you are tracked. If you go to any of the large stores and many of the small stores you are tracked.

    Then there is you phone. There is software out there that can pinpoint your location to with in a 3 foot circle. The military can do it in a much smaller area. As long as you have batteries in you phone, it doesn’t have to be on, you are track-able. Plus as an extra added attraction your phone has cameras and microphones.

    Some of you have brought devices into your house, Alexa is one, your TV is another, there may be more, that listen to everything you say or that happens in the home. Some of them have cameras. Ditto for your car.

    You have little if any privacy left.

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