A smart streetlight / File photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

Seth Hall is co-founder of the community group San Diego Privacy, which is a member of the TRUST SD Coalition.

Two important recent events hint at whether San Diego is ready to responsibly handle the use of mass surveillance technology in our city.

The first was a recent agreement between community groups and the San Diego City Council.  Under the leadership of Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, we reached a solution to extend an important deadline for the city of San Diego to review and approve the use of all its existing technology. The community and City Council successfully worked together to avoid the “reset” of the ordinance proposed by the mayor and his outside consultant, which would have gutted important portions of the oversight process. The city now has three more years to get this part of its oversight responsibilities right. 

Everyone would like it to be done faster, but we all agree that getting it done right is more important than speed. 

The second important event was when the San Diego Police Department’s proposed policies for “smart streetlights” surveillance cameras and license plate trackers went to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee last week. 

There, the committee looked past the dozens of community members who showed up asking for major improvements, and looked past the Privacy Advisory Board of experts who have recommended major improvements, and also looked past the one councilmember who represents a district that will be burdened with a large number of devices, who determined that SDPD’s proposal needed a deeper look before moving on. 

Instead of listening to any of those stakeholder voices, three council members abandoned their oversight duties and simply rubber-stamped the department’s proposed policies, exactly as written. Perfect 10, on the first try? No notes? Really?

In 2020, the TRUST SD Coalition proposed and defended this surveillance oversight process because we believed that San Diego was ready to move beyond the oversimplified fights over surveillance of the past. We thought this city was ready to build bridges of collaboration between the community, city leaders, city departments and the many experts who reside in our city. We wanted to move past accusations of being pro-surveillance or anti-technology and instead ask: How can our city engage in Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology?

Two different city councils agreed with us, unanimously. Presumably, neither voted to approve a robust, multi-stakeholder oversight process, just so councilmembers could whip out their ear plugs and rubber stamps. 

The “smart streetlights” technology is currently this city’s most controversial surveillance technology proposal. The Privacy Advisory Board did its job by examining the proposals the best they could, and making recommendations. The community has shown up tirelessly in this process; my own community group authored a painstakingly detailed report that identified 43 deficiencies in the proposed “smart streetlights” policies.

Yet it seems possible that councilmembers will not use their oversight power to improve even this, the most controversial proposal, from the most sensitive city department, in even one meaningful way. Why, then, did they vote unanimously to give themselves oversight?

When the smart streetlights and license plate tracking policies show up for full City Council consideration on Tuesday, Aug. 1 at 2 p.m., it would be right to expect that any serious city councilmember, who has any interest in protecting the public, will be holding in their hand not a rubber stamp, but instead a red pen ready to make the improvements San Diegans want and need. 

It would have been more efficient for everyone if those improvements had happened at the Public Safety Committee, and it’s a failure of Councilmembers Marni von Wilpert, Raul Campillo and Jennifer Campbell that it didn’t happen when it should have. It now falls to our full City Council to make sure we do things the right way. 

Everyone would like it to be done faster, but we all agree that getting it done right is more important than speed. 

Seth Hall is co-founder of the community group San Diego Privacy, which is a member of the TRUST SD Coalition.

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    1. Unbelievable article. The point of the committee’s is provide a forum to discuss issues. The committee’s did that and council listened. And the silent majority of supporters of this technology won. Trust SD wants less police and no technology in their place – this is a non-serious proposal that was rightly rejected.

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