Hey, Amidst All the Campaigning, Don’t Forget About San Diego’s ‘Smart Street Lights’

by on February 18, 2020 · 1 comment

in San Diego

Amidst all the electioneering this season, it’s easy to overlook that there’s other local San Diego issues of keen interest to city residents out there. One of them is San Diego’s use of so-called “smart street lights.”

These, of course, are the specialized street lights – 3,200 of which have been installed around the city – which include sensors equipped with cameras, microphones and other tech elements. A variety of info and data is captured by the sensors, like for instance, pedestrian and vehicle movements, parking availability, temperature and humidity. And San Diego police have access to the images under department-imposed guidelines.

The issue of smart street lights has swung back into the open just recently, when UC San Diego students pushed back against the use of smart street lights in the San Diego area. Last week some of the students addressed a San Diego city council committee and called upon the city to hold a town hall meeting for residents to discuss the lights.

A student spokeswoman said they were “baffled by the lack of information” for the public and requested other reforms, such as creating an independent commission to review the program and giving the public notice whenever law enforcement officers use data from the street lights.

The students are joining a chorus of politicians and community members who wish to apply brakes to the use of the technology. Late last month, the City Council’s Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods Committee rejected a staff recommendation for a policy on the use of the data and instead raised their collective voice for stronger and more broad regulations, particularly policy that addresses public concerns that have been raised over this last year and half.

Representing UCSD’s student government, student Alisha Saxena addressed the city council members:

“We’ve been following the issue of smart street lights and we’re baffled. We’re baffled by the lack of information which the public has received on this potentially far-reaching program, we’re baffled that members of this City Council, as reported by the Union-Tribune, were seemingly unaware of law enforcement’s access to this data — access which was not included in the original proposal, which the public approved.”

Saxena continued:

“We will not stand to be baffled any longer, and as a result we have come up with some requests for the City Council to consider and act upon.”

She then listed the recommendations noted above. And said:

“The community was robbed of having a discussion with law enforcement about privacy concerns, discriminatory concerns and more.”

The students want the city council to host the town hall meeting no later than April. Fox5

Last month, when the the Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods Committee met on this issue, Committee Chair Monica Montgomery expressed the important idea that the committee should know more about all the city’s surveillance tools before approving rules that would govern data from sensors on the street lights. Montgomery stated:

“Too many of these programs are moving forward without public conversation, careful consideration of the costs and benefits, or adequate polices in place to prevent misuse and protect rights. We cannot deny that we are here today because of the imbalance between what these technologies are capable of and people’s rightful expectation to privacy.”

Councilwoman Vivian Moreno, also on the committee, was quoted as saying confusion over the technical capabilities of the smart street lights was “caused by the city not being transparent from the outset.” She said the city “should be explicit about why we want the devices out there.” “If the main purpose is investigating crimes, we should just say so, plain and simple.”

Moving to apply the brakes to the whole installation gambit was music to the ears of those who have been raising red flags. One such vocal critic is Geneviéve Jones-Wright, who is with TRUST SD – and who also ran for DA two years ago –  issued a news release that called the committee decision to pursue an ordinance a “huge win,” which stated:

“The Councilmembers on the Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods Committee should all be commended on their community-centered and common sense approach to the oversight of the surveillance technology that our City employs.”

Also an associate professor at UC San Diego, Lilly Irani, said:

“It looks like they understood they need a good process for evaluating and acquiring this technology more broadly than a Band-Aid for one type of technology.”

Irani specializes in the cultural politics in technology.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune:

In 2016, the Smart Street Light Program was sold to the City Council and public as energy-saving LED lights that could save the city up to $125,000 a month.

It was revealed later that the light poles also included sensors and cameras equipped the gather data. In August 2018, police started accessing the camera footage to help solve serious crimes, such as murder.

The city’s failure to disclose sooner that the smart street lights allowed for electronic surveillance stoked fear among some members of the public that data from the sensors — including the video footage — might be misused against segments of the population, including communities of color. Critics demanded full transparency and better oversight of the program.

We should also undoubtedly note that besides the push-back against the reformers by SDPD – whose leadership is quick to reassure the public that their guidelines are sufficient – San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott has attacked the reformers, accusing them of lying and using “scare tactics.”

Last month Elliott held a news conference and praised the smart street lights, attempting to high-light their role in solving recent violent crimes, including the arrests of two men accused of killing an Alpha Project security guard. Elliott – who is of course running for re-election – then went on the offensive.

“To date, police have used streetlight recordings to help solve nearly 250 crimes, including murders, sexual assaults, kidnappings, carjackings, arson and hate crimes. Yet now a small group is telling a bunch of lies about smart streetlights to try and shut them down.

“I may be the only elected official in San Diego who is not intimidated by their scare tactics. I’m not going to turn my back on a powerful crime-solving tool that removes murders and rapists from our streets.”

But Genevieve Jones-Wright struck back at her own impromptu presser:

“This has never been about not allowing law enforcement to use the technology for a law enforcement effort. It’s been about transparency and responsible use.

“From the very beginning, we have asked for a moratorium on the use, acquisition and further installation of the smart streetlights unless and until we have an ordinance that provides for proper mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability.”

And of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t note the issue of smart street lights has entered the election campaigning, completing the cycle described at the start.  As the LA Times reported:

The battle over smart streetlights has become an election issue for Elliott and attorney Cory Briggs, who is running to take Elliott’s seat. That tension made its way into the dueling news conferences, and Jones-Wright said she believed Elliott’s decision to hold the news conference was politically motivated.

So if you’ve been baffled as well, perhaps it’s time to pay attention to all the electioneering.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Avatar triggerfinger February 18, 2020 at 2:04 pm

Everything Mara does is politically motivated. I’m ashamed I voted for her the first time around. It won’t happen again.

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