San Diego’s Surveillance Street Lights and License Plate Readers — Answers to Questions That Lead to More Questions

by on August 8, 2023 · 1 comment

in San Diego

On Monday, August 7, the Union-Tribune published writer Lyndsay Winkley’s ‘question and answer’ piece about the new high-tech smart street lights and license plate readers that will be installed soon in San Diego.

It was entitled, “Much of San Diego will soon be surveilled by a network of police cameras. Here’s what you should know.” (It’s a subscriber-only piece and we cannot link to it.) We’ll attempt a summary of the “some answers to those queries and others” Winkley writes.

Where will the cameras go?

The official line is that “the cameras are slated to be placed across the city — from Rancho Bernardo to San Ysidro,” in every council district, and “many” will be “located along freeways and main thoroughfares.”

However, the Union-Tribune analyzed the proposed locations of the streetlights and found the following:

  • more than a fifth will be installed in District 8, about eight cameras per 10,000 people, a rate that’s nearly double that of some other districts.
    • more than 70 percent Latino and includes communities :
    • Barrio Logan,
    • Logan Heights,
    • Otay Mesa and
    • San Ysidro.

Critics express concern that cameras may be located too close to sensitive locations such as:

  • religious institutions (Police “have already relocated at least one camera after a representative with the Council on American Islamic Relations expressed concern about its proximity to a mosque.”
  • or abortion clinics.

Police have a map of all the proposed camera locations – see here.

How do smart streetlights work?

  • high-tech cameras on deck are produced by Ubicquia, a telecommunications company.
  • streetlight platform comes with a host of capabilities, but police stress “that some available features including microphones will not be put to use.”
  • cameras do not pan or move
  • they will be positioned to record footage in public spaces — if private property appears in the camera’s field of view, police are supposed to use a process called masking to digitally block those areas.

How are the cameras monitored and how do police access the technology?

  • cameras will be recording 24/7
  • police say they will not monitor the footage in real-time.
  • police say “they will access the cameras after serious crimes or incidents such as fatal crashes or violent acts occur.”
  • “Unless footage is being used in an investigation, it’s purged after 15 days.”
  • Only trained people will have access to the system, people trained to operate the system, “and the legal and privacy-related issues associated with it…”
  • A person in order to access info from the system, must log on, and then “access is automatically recorded by username, license plate number and other aspects of a search.”
  • A publicly available log will be maintained by police with info about who received images from the system and what incident was being investigated. (Log entries involved in an ongoing investigation will be withheld.)

How do automated license plate readers work?

  • Cameras will have automated license plate reader technology incorporated in them.
  • The technology will capture
    • the plates of vehicles as they pass by,
    • note when and where they were seen, and
    • run that information against a variety of law enforcement databases.
    • databases contain info on vehicles that may be connected to missing-person cases or crimes such as car thefts.
    • Some databases are used by law enforcement across the country, while others are produced by departments nearby.
    • San Diego can build its own watch lists as crimes and other incidents happen.
  • “If the system picks up on a vehicle suspected in an incident, that information is sent to the department’s communication center, which then relays the information to officers.”
  • All license plate data not being used for an investigation is scrubbed after 30 days.

Writer Winkley then discussed how the Privacy Advisory Board recommended the City Council reject the department’s proposal. (Which the council ignored.)

Members felt the department hadn’t provided enough information about various aspects of the plan, including how data would be collected and safeguarded, who would have access to the information gathered, how those individuals would be trained, and how the effectiveness of the technology would be assessed.

But one concern outweighed the rest.

While the board was doing its review, the department said it was unable to provide information about the vendor that would supply the automated license plate reader technology. Board members said the ordinance requires that the department produce this information and that, without it, they couldn’t effectively assess potential privacy or security risks the tools may pose.

Plus Winkley discussed how “San Diego Privacy, a community group that seeks to boost the public’s understanding of privacy issues, found serious flaws in the department’s plan.”

The group compared the department’s proposed policies with best practices for video surveillance as established by organizations including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Security Industry Association.

The result? A 74-page report detailing 43 deficiencies and 69 recommendations for how the department could improve its approach.

One recommendation suggested the department include additional information in its policy about how the system will be evaluated to determine whether it is meeting its objectives. Another recommended the department place more stringent limits on how other law enforcement agencies access data collected by San Diego’s system.

Then Winkley did a quick history of San Diego’s involvement and reaction to earlier efforts at having smart streetlights. (We’ve covered that history in earlier posts, but do note this:

The city is also still paying those old cameras off, to the tune of about $1 million a year.

Lastly, the question everyone has been waiting for – how soon before the cameras are operational?

  • The cameras and ALPR (automated license plate readers) and their network could be up by the end of the year.
  • Police are currently working on drafting a contract with Ubicquia
  • The contract will then go to the City Council for approval.
  • It will take an estimated three to four months to install and turn on the technology, once the contracts and “paperwork has been ironed out”
  • The project is expected to cost about $3.5 million.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dr. Jack Hammer August 9, 2023 at 2:50 pm

“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

? George Orwell, 1984


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