San Diego officials are pushing for the installation of a new streetlight surveillance system, but the old one is still putting pressure on city coffers.
The Independent Budget Analyst has concluded that San Diego will be paying $1 million in annual interest payments over the next decade. That comes out to roughly $2,740 a day from the Transportation Department budget for equipment that hasn’t technically been in operation for years.
The original rollout was financed through a General Electric loan as part of a public-private partnership. The company offered $30.2 million in 2016 on the promise that infrastructure upgrades would pay for themselves through energy cost savings, but the city only drew down $19.9 million before the program went belly up in 2020 in response to community pushback.
Of that $19.9 million, $11.8 million is directly attributed to the cameras, according to the IBA. The remainder of the money went to lighting and other non-camera equipment.
The city did end up saving on its energy costs thanks to the upgrades, but it wasn’t enough to offset the overall cost of the project. Officials also ran into trouble after realizing that the technology wasn’t living up to expectations. About a third of the cameras installed on street poles didn’t work properly.
The final payment is scheduled for July 2032. The GE loan isn’t the only financial cost of the first streetlights project, though.
The original rollout was also funded with Community Development Block Grants totaling $2.9 million. The federal anti-poverty program is intended to help cities overcome poverty, and San Diego justified its use by putting the cameras in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.
Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for Mayor Todd Gloria, said $2.9 million was moved from the city’s general fund to the CDBG fund and will be reallocated to another CDBG program.
On Monday, the City Council set aside another $3.5 million for the San Diego Police Department’s new proposal, a scaled back version of the original but more sophisticated, if approved later.
At a recent meeting of the city’s Privacy Advisory Board — created out of the ashes of the first streetlights project — public commenters pointed to the ongoing financial harm of the original rollout and urged officials to properly vet the new technology.
During the initial discussions in 2016, the City Council failed to interrogate the mass surveillance capabilities of the equipment they were buying. It was pitched as a tool for mobility and air quality monitoring but evolved into an exclusive tool for the police, prompting protests from community groups.
As the cost of the project exploded, then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer moved to shut it down.
This time around, members of the Privacy Advisory Board have complained that they don’t have all the information they need to make a recommendation. SDPD didn’t disclose the name of the technology vendor in its privacy impact reports or PowerPoint presentation to the board. In April, Vice chair Pegah Parsi said she only learned of Ubicquia’s involvement from public commenters.
SDPD has also yet to produce any draft agreements with Ubicquia.
Instead, SDPD insisted in written responses to the board’s questions that it doesn’t plan to use certain features like facial recognition and that Ubicquia will not be allowed to sell, license or give up data captured by the cameras to third parties. But the Florida-based company does reserve the right to use aggregated, anonymized statistics for analysis and to improve its own products.
Without legally enforceable details to review upfront, the board members — selected for their various expertise in finance, law, privacy and community organizing — are at a disadvantage. And that’s just on the camera side of the project. The surveillance system is also supposed to incorporate automatic license plate reader technology, but SDPD hasn’t disclosed that vendor.
“They’re literally setting themselves up for all the same potential problems to occur again,” said Brian Hofer, chair of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, who has advised police officials and activists and runs the nonprofit Secure Justice.
SDPD didn’t respond to a request for more information.
Board members have until July 11 to make a recommendation either for or against the project. It’s also possible they could make no recommendation at all, sending a message to the City Council, which has final say.
Though cost considerations are outside the scope of the Privacy Advisory Board’s mission, there’s nothing preventing members from asking about it. They do, on the other hand, have an obligation to ask city officials about alternative vendors of similar technology or whether a non-technological solution exists to meet the same goal — in this case, crime reduction.
It’s a roundabout way of inquiring into whether a particular surveillance system is worth the price tag.
In written responses to the board, Acting Capt. Charles Lara said SDPD has “extensively reviewed the capabilities of other vendors and their pricing models” but didn’t specify who those vendors were.