As San Diego Police Increase Their Use of Streetlight Cameras, Criticism Mounts Over Lack of Oversight and Potential for Abuse

by on August 9, 2019 · 4 comments

in Civil Rights, San Diego

Public Workshop scheduled for August 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the downtown Central Library.

San Diego Police have increased their use of so-called streetlight cameras that the City has installed recently, stating they’ve aided in the solving of crimes. At the same time, criticism of their use has increased, mainly around issues of lack of civilian oversight, the potentials for abuse and of outside hacking.

Since 2016, San Diego has installed roughly 3,200 streetlamp cameras with a goal of 4,200 by summer of 2020. The City’s corporate partner and sponsor, General Electric, beef the system up as the “world’s largest smart city platform.”

Initially called “smart streetlamps”, the City began the  program ostensibly to collect metadata from cameras tracking the number of people walking, biking or driving through busy intersections. And as a LED upgrade, the City installed the recording system to the streetlamps. Officials tout all the savings the new bulbs will bring in by 2030 – enough money (on electricity savings) to pay for the $30 million program.

All these thousands of microphones and cameras in streetlamps made San Diego’s Police Department sit up straight and look into their potential. Which they did. Now police say they’ve used the videos from the smart streetlamps to aid them in over 140 investigations – with the video being crucial in about 40 percent of those cases.

Lt. Jeffrey Jordon of SDPD oversees the program for the department and told the San Diego Union-Tribune, the new streetlamps are “game changing”.

“We’ve had a lot of success stories recently, a couple of convictions where people have actually seen the video through a defense attorney and they immediately took a guilty plea rather than go to trial.”

Yet questions have been raised by critics about the lack of oversight and other problems the smart streetlamps pose.

Among those critics, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken the lead locally – and around the country – to push elected officials to adopt surveillance oversight ordinances. They reason that there’s a need for strict rules around the use by law enforcement of the video/ sound recordings that capture everything from license plates to gunshots.

Such ordinances in setting up oversight over this government surveillance can guard against abuses, hacking and other privacy issues. Tending to agree with that – 13 cities and counties across the US have adopted versions of the ACLU’s proposed surveillance oversight legislation; these include San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle. The State of California is reviewing whether to have a statewide bill on the issue.

In response to the criticism, San Diego has organized a number of “workshops” for feedback from the public. One is scheduled for August 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the downtown Central Library. KPBS

Even the U-T has its doubts. Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith – in his August 5 piece – lamented, “Three years later, it’s still unclear what the [smart streetlamp] data will ultimately be used for.” Maybe all that info could “fuel an app that helps people find empty parking spaces,” or maybe it can aid city officials “to use the system to track parking meter violations, as well as the number of people using bike lanes.”

Who knows? All that money and effort – all those 3.200 installations to our innocent streetlights – and nobody is certain what is all going to be used for – except the police. As Smith reports:

Right now, only the police department has the authority to view the actual video footage, according to officials. Although subject to change, the department’s internal policy says footage should only be reviewed in connection with violent crimes.

Authorities said that direct access is currently restricted to roughly 100 investigative officers in the sex crimes, robbery, traffic, internal affairs and homicide units. Other members of the department’s more than 1,800 sworn officers can request access but must be cleared by a designated authority before they view footage. …

“We don’t have a room set up where anybody’s watching this,” Jordon of the police department recently told members of the San Diego City Council at a public meeting in June. “It’s a reactive tool, typically accessed following a violent crime,” he added.

And as Smith added, this doesn’t sit well with the ACLU. He quotes Matt Cagle, ACLU’s technology and civil liberties attorney:

“This sounds like the quote, ‘just trust us’ approach to surveillance technology, which is a recipe for invasive uses and abuse of these systems. There needs to be meaningful oversight and accountability.

“Decisions about how to use surveillance technology should not be made unilaterally by law enforcement or another city agency.”

Despite claims by police on how great it is that they can have access to all this crime-solving data, the critics are still out there wondering whether potential abuses outweigh the benefits. One such critic is our old-friend Dave Maass – who used to write for the Voice of San Diego – but has since moved up to San Francisco where he works with a group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation as a senior researcher. Maass says the systems used are vulnerable to hacking.

Maass told the U-T’s Smith:

“We’re seeing government systems becoming subject to ransomware across the country. This is a huge problem.”

He cites the risk of a criminal [ed.: we add: or rogue government agent or Russian hacker] gaining access to San Diego’s smart streetlamp video / recording system which could jeopardize the safety of everything from government buildings to places of worship.

“You could see what time people are visiting a particular facility, what time they are leaving, what time the security guards come in, what patterns those security guards walk. Does this reveal stuff about locations that might make them vulnerable? Sure.”

Here are other aspects and elements of the system we learned from Smith’s U-T piece:

  • Mayor Faulconer’s office stated a citywide policy to regulate use of the microphones and cameras in streetlamps is “under development.”
  • Newly-elected Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, chair of the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee, stated she’s “open to exploring” oversight of the program. She told the U-T: “Technology is advancing at a rapid pace. As elected officials, we have to not only keep up with the increasing developments, but also ensure that the civil rights and civil liberties of our residents are protected.”
  • Suggested guidelines over the systems include:
    • mandating a public process to review technology before it’s implemented,
    • conducting regular audits of existing systems to document how the surveillance technologies are being used and potentially abused.
  • Lt. Jordan as the officer in charge of monitoring who’s using the video and compiles a publicly available log that lists every case where video has been viewed, including the date, time, and location of an incident, along with identifies the supervising officer and the offense a suspect was charged with.
  • Jordon says that the cameras do not record private property or use facial recognition or license plate reading technology.
  • According to Jordon, the video is stored on the device and erased every five days if not downloaded for an investigation.
  • The smart streetlamps are not recording audio although they do have the capability.
  • While video has been shared with federal agents involved in local task forces, Jordon assured the City Council and Mayor that the footage has never been used to enforce immigration rules.

Lt. Jordan stated publicly in June:

“This is not a tool to be involved in homeland security as far as border patrol and being involved in enforcing immigration laws outside of our policy.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune



{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

kh August 9, 2019 at 7:46 pm

I attended one of these workshops. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was very informative. The Lt. was quite frank about what they use them for and don’t use them for. One use was for parking police downtown. Of course its telling that this is being presented after the fact as a PR effort. They also showed some footage. I pulled the camera specs from the city council meeting way back when they rubberstamped these. I think there are more to be installed but I don’t have my notes handy. Thy record very clear video, it’s stored in the device for 5 days. They absolutely are equipped for audio recording and SDPDs own use policy discussed managing audio recordings. The Lt. is aware that CA law strictly prohibits recording of private conversations, even in public places. Clearly whoever wrote the policy and signed off on it doesnt. He says the audio is disabled. He suggested it might be possible to use he audio for gunshot detection without it recording conversations. The data but not video is currently publicly available but you’d need to be a real computer whiz to know how to access it.


thequeenisalizard August 10, 2019 at 9:11 am

The police would never use video or audio to monitor citizens, just like they would never infiltrate or spy on groups using their constitutional rights to protest, organize, take photos at the border. Just ask the Panthers, student movements, anti-Trump protesters, etc.. They will all confirm how honest and trustworthy the police are.


Frank M Pitarro August 10, 2019 at 10:07 am

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety Benjamin Franklin


Mark Sundahl August 12, 2019 at 8:08 am

Choosing my words wisely!
I am from the government and I am here to help you.


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