Seth Hall is a co-founder of the community group San Diego Privacy, which is a member of the TRUST SD Coalition.
San Diego’s streetlight surveillance drama is about to come full circle.
Over the years, the community coalition I am part of has attempted to work with members of the police department, the mayor’s office, the Privacy Advisory Board, and all members of two different City Councils to create sufficient protections for streetlight-mounted surveillance cameras to be used transparently and responsibly, if they must be used at all. In all cases we have been pushed off to a future day, a different government body, a different agenda, or another process. But on Tuesday, Nov. 14, the buck will finally stop at City Council.
We have been working with city leaders since 2019 when it was discovered that a network of thousands of surveillance cameras had been quietly installed on streetlights throughout the city. Dubbed “Smart Streetlights,” it turned out there were no smarts at all involved in the design, acquisition or operation of these devices.
Those original devices never once fulfilled any of the promises that the city paid more than $20 million for. There was never a plan to make the technology’s dreams come true. The dreams were merely a disguise for the nightmare of financial debt, threats to our civil rights, and profound damage to community trust in government that were quickly realized.
On Tuesday, City Council will give final consideration to a contract that will put San Diego back in bed with the same vendor, for a similar system.
Tuesday’s meeting will be focused uniquely on a new contract with that same company, Ubicquia, and its subcontractor for license plate tracking, Flock. The question for council members is: Is this the right technology for San Diego, with the right partner companies, at the right cost, with the right protections?
We think the answer to those questions is “no,” although it’s not for lack of us trying to help the city achieve those goals.
Is this the right technology? This technology, like all mass surveillance, will inevitably record people committing some crimes. But mostly, it will permanently monitor us all when we are living our normal lives, going to church, going to a medical appointment, or even working around our homes.
We tried to put more protections into the contract, for example by increasing protections for San Diegans when the city points these cameras at people’s private property. But our city leaders have rejected many of our proposals at every stage. If this technology cannot be changed to operate in a democratic and accountable way, we think more people should entertain the idea that it isn’t the right technology for us. There are other options.
Is this the right company to partner with? The company Ubicquia has never been held accountable for selling us a previous system that never fulfilled its promises. They also refused to follow our city’s instructions in 2020 when asked to stop retaining surveillance video on the devices. This contract rewards that vendor rather than holding them accountable. In fact, this new contract gives the vendor even more power over us, by giving them ownership of the camera devices, expanding the data collection to include license plate tracking, and transferring all of our sensitive data into their hands.
We have asked the city to require a city-controlled kill switch on the devices so it can be shut down if needed. But you won’t find that improvement in the contract on Tuesday.
Is the price right? This is a strange time for the city to be flirting with an expensive combination of surveillance technology that has never been used in any other city, when we are already paying millions of dollars for the previous, unusable system, and when the city is facing a $1 billion deficit over the next five years.
How many core services are San Diegans ready to potentially cut so that we can play footsie with authoritarian-style mass surveillance technology that has burned us before? We advised the city that leasing (rather than owning) this system exposes the city to more costs and more risks. Our city would be banned from touching these devices once installed; we would have to pay Ubicquia to make any changes to the devices. Again, all these requests to improve the contract have been ignored.
Finally, are we well protected with this contract? Most importantly for surveillance, we need to know how our data will be protected. We have advised the city that our data is not well protected at all. In fact, our sensitive data is wholly transferred to Ubicquia in a contract provision that categorically sends our sensitive “city data” into a bucket called “aggregated data” that Ubicquia has broad discretion over.
We have also warned city leaders that out-of-state law enforcement may be able to ask Ubicquia to provide recordings from our system, so that our residents and visitors can be prosecuted for violations of out-of-state laws. Yet the contract remains unchanged.
The community has not been working against technology nor working against policing. What our work over the last three years has demonstrated is that we are working for San Diego on much deeper questions, about whether a proposed surveillance technology is being well crafted and well controlled to protect the millions of us who live under its gaze.
The question is not whether San Diegans love cameras or hate cameras. If this specific proposal from this specific company cannot be brought into line with the community values of San Diego, then San Diegans and its leaders should of course be willing to reject it and continue the search for a proposal that is a better fit for our city.