San Diego’s Privacy Advisory Board Needs a Re-Set

by on July 11, 2023 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, San Diego

By Brian Hofer / The Voice of San Diego / July 6, 2023

I’ve sat through a lot of chaotic city meetings, and the San Diego Privacy Advisory Board, or PAB, meeting on June 22 was no exception.

Public commenters accused law enforcement of acting in bad faith for not sharing more information about a new proposed street camera and automatic license plate reader project. Board members were visibly frustrated by the San Diego Police Department’s refusal to answer questions about the project. The advisory board had previously forwarded 111 questions to the police department. The department’s response was that it is legally prohibited from producing certain documents. The department also argued it didn’t need to answer all the board’s questions — which the board, understandably, did not appreciate.

It’s clear that the status quo is not working, and that San Diego needs a reset.

San Diego’s history with such projects isn’t great. As the Voice of San Diego and others began to investigate a 2017 installation of smart streetlights under then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the public became aware of the civil liberties concerns and financial boondoggle that the project became known for. This led to a well-organized effort by the Trust SD Coalition and their champion Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe to enact both a surveillance technology vetting framework, along with a privacy advisory board of subject matter experts to advise the city on best practices regarding data security and surveillance technology. San Diego modeled their framework after Oakland, which in 2016 created the first municipal oversight body of residents with expertise in the country that would serve such a purpose.

I was invited by the coalition and Councilwoman Montgomery Steppe to consult on the project. As an outsider with insider access, here’s my perspective: no stakeholder is blameless here. Everyone has room for improvement. There is honest confusion as to what the expectations are, and how the process works.

SDPD has steadfastly refused to meet with advisory board members to work on the required policy. SDPD’s documents are also missing legally required information that both the PAB and Secure Justice have identified and made SDPD aware of.

At the same time, the police department is correct when its officials say the ordinance is impossible to comply with as currently written, and that the advisory board does not understand municipal procurement procedures, which usually occur in piecemeal, not all at once. Board members asked to see contracts with the surveillance tech vendors upfront, and when SDPD said it had no contract to provide, officials were telling the truth. The ordinance, as it currently stands, prohibits SDPD from soliciting a contract until after the advisory board has reviewed the proposal. That said, SDPD had more than two years to suggest amendments to the proposed ordinance and chose not to. Attacking the language after-the-fact is yet more fuel for those who don’t believe SDPD will ever act in good-faith.

For the balance of this article, please go here.

Brian Hofer is the chair of the city of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, which he helped form in 2016. He is the founder of Secure Justice and helps cities implement smart city technologies. He previously served as an adviser on San Diego’s oversight framework.

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