San Diego’s Surveillance Technology Now Under City Council Oversight

by on August 5, 2022 · 1 comment

in Civil Rights, San Diego

The San Diego City Council on Tuesday, August 2, gave final approval in an unanimous vote to a new privacy and technology ordinance that will place the City’s surveillance technology under the Council’s oversight.

The passage of the “Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology” ordinance was the result of a long three year effort by more than 30 community organizations that make up a coalition called TRUST SD (Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego). Members of the Coalition wrote and proposed the ordinance after they sounded alarm bells about the dangers of the City’s surveillance technology deployments.

Work on an ordinance began after residents learned in 2019 that the city had installed a network of about 3,000 cameras on streetlights three years earlier, and police used the technology to investigate certain types of crimes. Some residents expressed concerns over potential liberty violations and overpolicing, particularly in communities of color.

San Diego will now be the largest city in the US to oversee acquisition and use of surveillance technology, while also inviting a community-led Privacy Advisory Board to vet the city’s surveillance technology proposals.

The TRUST SD Coalition originally proposed the ordinance in 2020, and it received unanimous approval from San Diego City Council in November 2020, guided by ordinance champion Council President Pro Tem Monica Montgomery Steppe. In June 2022, the ordinance was considered for final passage, but it instead received amendments. One controversial amendment exempts the City’s federal task force activities from oversight. The newly amended ordinance received its first vote in July 2022 and then its final vote this week.

The passage of the TRUST surveillance oversight ordinance goes in tandem with the creation of a community-led Privacy Advisory Board, which was created by an ordinance also written by the TRUST SD coalition. The Privacy Advisory Board ordinance was approved by the City Council in April 2022 and a new board should strongly advocate for community perspectives when surveillance technology is proposed. The board includes seats for representatives of communities historically impacted by surveillance.

These coupled ordinances provide San Diegans with an enforceable framework for significant transparency and accountability regarding how the City acquires and operates surveillance technology such as streetlight cameras, noise-detecting microphones and body-worn cameras.

Crucially, the ordinance lets the general public be involved in decisions to adopt surveillance technologies. The ordinance requires the City to hold public meetings in City Council districts where the technologies will be deployed early in the process. Community input should inform the Privacy Advisory Board and City Council’s deliberations. Community members can also offer their input on the use of technology at those district meetings or at Privacy Advisory Board meetings.

Since this ordinance was proposed in 2020, the TRUST SD Coalition stopped the City from using controversial surveillance technologies such as “smart streetlight” surveillance cameras and “Shotspotter” noise detection microphones. The surveillance oversight ordinance brings these and other technologies, such as “ALPR” license plate location trackers, into public oversight advised by the Privacy Advisory Board. Finally, any proposal to use these systems must now receive City Council’s approval annually.

The City must now finalize the appointments for the Privacy Advisory Board so that the board can begin reviewing surveillance technology currently in use by the City of San Diego. Per the oversight ordinance, the city has one year to move all its existing surveillance technology through the oversight process.

Members of the TRUST SD Coalition’s Steering Committee made the following statements:

Lilly Irani, Tech Workers Coalition and Professor at UC San Diego, Communication & Design Lab

“This is one step towards making sure technology serves people’s needs, not the needs of profiteering tech companies or people experimenting on the City’s residents. Next time we find a library being defunded while surveillance technology is being funded, a lot more people have learned to stand up, understand the technology, organize together, and say no.”

Seth Hall, Tech Lead San Diego

“Surveillance technology will continue to be widely used in San Diego, but now it will be under the watchful eye of our elected officials and also with nine seats at the decision making table reserved for expert community members. Our coalition will be watching closely and will continue to hold all stakeholders accountable if they decide to violate the rights guaranteed to all San Diegans. San Diego’s communities should control this technology, not be controlled by it.”

Geneviéve Jones-Wright, Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance (MoGo)

“These victories were hard fought by the Community. They serve as perfect examples of how impacted community members can be — and why they should be — a part of policy creation. Without the vigilance of the TRUST coalition coupled with the leadership of Council President Pro Tem Monica Montgomery Steppe, the City would still be failing San Diegans and its visitors.”

 Khalid Alexander, Pillars of the Community

“Over the last year we have learned the importance of community oversight of technologies and their increasingly intrusive presence in our lives. Too often these technologies are sold to politicians by law enforcement and unscrupulous companies that profit from fear and misinformation. These ordinances are an important step to avoid abuses. For the first time in San Diego history, the community and elected officials have a tool which will help them understand these technologies and, hopefully, avoid wasteful government spending on shiny toys like the “smart” street lights.”

Homayra Yusufi, Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA)

“Our communities are the ones most impacted by unfettered surveillance technology and we finally have an opportunity to be a part of the discussions about the surveillance technologies our city uses and acquires. This is a step in the right direction for repairing trust with our communities and increasing transparency, which is so crucial to the democratic process.”

From TRUST SD news release and from SDU-T

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mat Wahlstrom August 6, 2022 at 1:23 pm

Thanks, Editordude, for sharing this. The right of The People to oversight on government surveillance has been established, and we need to ensure there’s follow-through.


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