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Captain Jeffrey Jordon speaks during a Smart Streetlights & Automated License Plate Recognition Community Meeting in Point Loma on March 6, 2023.
San Diego Police Capt. Jeff Jordon speaks during a Smart Streetlights & Automated License Plate Recognition community meeting in Point Loma on March 6, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

The city of San Diego kicked off a series of public meetings this week about a proposal to revive its streetlight cameras and merge the devices with license plate readers. Though police are promising to do essentially the same things they were in 2020, the technology is different. 

In the years since the smart streetlights program went bust, the devices have advanced to enable other forms of surveillance that weren’t present to officials before. 

While the city is taking its $4 million request to communities directly affected, and assuring it has no interest in the more sophisticated types of analysis available, there’s plenty of apprehension among activists. It’s not so much the process but the platform the city wants to buy that’s raising alarm

“This hardware is, in fact, capable of some of the most egregious forms of mass surveillance that exists and that’s what we’re talking about putting up on the poles,” said Seth Hall, a member of the Trust SD Coalition, which championed the current rules and creation of a Privacy Advisory Board. 

A streetlight camera in downtown San Diego / File photo by Megan Wood

In recent days police officials have stressed that the single network will not be accessible to investigators in real time and will not incorporate facial recognition — even though that’s permissible now under state law. But the new platform can be outfitted with different software, even microphones, and it’s up to the city, as the Union-Tribune reported, to pick which features it uses. 

The old platform was built by General Electric and the new one was built by Ubicquia, a Florida-based company incorporating self-learning analytics into their products. The cameras can distinguish objects like cars from people — further classifying along lines of age, binary gender, clothing color — and set criteria for clients that, when met visually, trigger automated messages. 

For example, the cameras can detect “unusual motion” or “unusual activity” in public, such as a crowd forming where the artificial intelligence hasn’t seen a crowd before. The coalition said it’s worried these alerts could create dangerous or wasteful false alarms should the city decide to rely on them. 

But clients can also set their parameters to look for an “appearance” that matches certain characteristics, possibly a lost child. 

“We’re turning people and we’re turning vehicles into searchable data,” said Tod Riedel, director of government video solutions at Avigilon, during a webinar last year about advancements in camera technology that the Trust SD Coalition dug up and shared. 

Later in the same discussion, a Ubicquia employee was asked about the industry’s biggest opportunities long term. Joe Friedman, director of product management, cited data-sharing among law enforcement agencies as a way to track individuals. 

“Once we’ve identified somebody as a possible risk or something like that,” he said, “for all the agencies even locally and nationally to be able to maybe, kinda, flag that person and keep a better eye on them.” 

Friedman then referenced Minority Report, a 1956 novella by Philip K. Dick — later adapted to the screen — about a world in which psychic human visions are interpreted by a machine to arrest suspects before those suspects commit an actual crime. Friedman said he looked forward to the day when data could be used in the service of predictive policing algorithms to “proactively have the right resources in the right places. And to me, that’s the future of law enforcement.”

Though research over the years has found that predictive policing models are biased against people of color, some law enforcement groups continue to argue that it’s an efficient use of time and money. 

When asked if the police department has any plans to incorporate the more sophisticated analysis, visual searches or predictive policing models, Capt. Jeff Jordon said no. Doing so in the future should trigger a new round of public deliberations. 

Ubicquia’s history with the city goes back to 2020 and has been fraught at times. 

That summer, city officials tried to shut down the streetlight network following complaints about the way the project was originally pitched and how it had evolved into an exclusive tool for law enforcement. There were also complaints about the cost, sources of funding and implications for civil liberties, causing the City Council to pull the purse strings. 

In response, Ubicquia CEO Ian Aaron told officials that he would keep the cameras on and accessible to police at no charge. His reason was that most of his customers had been expressing the need for more rather than less streetlight video. 

“Clearly these are unprecedented times for law enforcement,” he wrote in an email weeks after the George Floyd protests began. 

Ubicquia eventually cut the city’s connection to the devices but refused to create an off-switch until the company got paid $771,480 for the work it had already done. Police agencies continued to gain access to the footage with warrants. 

Captain Jeffrey Jordon speaks during a Smart Streetlights & Automated License Plate Recognition Community Meeting in Point Loma on Mar. 6, 2023.
San Diego Police Capt. Jeff Jordon speaks during a Smart Streetlights & Automated License Plate Recognition community meeting in Point Loma on March 6, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

In December 2021, the city settled a pre-litigation claim filed by Ubicquia. The company got $448,500 with the money coming out of the Community Parking District Administrative Fund.

The struggle over the platform raised new questions about who really had the power to make decisions about public infrastructure — the government or a private entity. San Diego’s surveillance ordinance, passed last year, gave the City Council the authority to approve or reject technology projects and to reconsider them on an annual basis. 

After making the rounds this week, the proposal is supposed to go before the city’s Privacy Advisory Board on March 15. That volunteer group has yet to officially meet and still has a vacancy, according to the website. 

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  1. Police powers of the state always need to be checked.
    Give police new powers, t hey will they use it, historically, and often abuse it.
    Police also are allowed to operate covertly, and lie.
    Here SDPD is selling (to increase their own capabilities, those of private profitmaking entity(ies), untold numbers of other police agencies – and the public they serve, allegedly- new, ever-expandable ,intrusive technological surveillance platforms .
    Who believes the data, tools & techniques won’t be used in any fashion they ( exactly whom, all, again?)
    so choose?

  2. Does the city need to get Newsom’s OK to do business with a company based in Florida?

  3. As a million-mile club member, running/walking/cycling in San Diego since 1967, I have seen it all being cars driving on sidewalks, motorists not yielding to pedestrians in marked cross walks, speeding drivers in school and construction zones, tailgating with a finger out the window. Somehow, I don’t see the police behaving like one third of San Diego animals who belong in our zoo.

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