As San Diego Readies to Approve New Street Light Surveillance System on Tues., Nov.14, — Here Are the Questions

by on November 13, 2023 · 4 comments

in Civil Rights, San Diego

Is this the right technology for San Diego, with the right partner companies, at the right cost, with the right protections?

by Seth Hall /Op-Ed Voice of San Diego/ November 10, 2023

San Diego’s streetlight surveillance drama is about to come full circle.

Over the years, the community coalition I am part of has attempted to work with members of the police department, the mayor’s office, the Privacy Advisory Board, and all members of two different City Councils to create sufficient protections for streetlight-mounted surveillance cameras to be used transparently and responsibly, if they must be used at all. In all cases we have been pushed off to a future day, a different government body, a different agenda, or another process. But on Tuesday, Nov. 14, the buck will finally stop at City Council.

We have been working with city leaders since 2019 when it was discovered that a network of thousands of surveillance cameras had been quietly installed on streetlights throughout the city. Dubbed “Smart Streetlights,” it turned out there were no smarts at all involved in the design, acquisition or operation of these devices.

Those original devices never once fulfilled any of the promises that the city paid more than $20 million for. There was never a plan to make the technology’s dreams come true. The dreams were merely a disguise for the nightmare of financial debt, threats to our civil rights, and profound damage to community trust in government that were quickly realized.

On Tuesday, City Council will give final consideration to a contract that will put San Diego back in bed with the same vendor, for a similar system.

Tuesday’s meeting will be focused uniquely on a new contract with that same company, Ubicquia, and its subcontractor for license plate tracking, Flock. The question for council members is: Is this the right technology for San Diego, with the right partner companies, at the right cost, with the right protections?

We think the answer to those questions is “no,” although it’s not for lack of us trying to help the city achieve those goals.

Is this the right technology? This technology, like all mass surveillance, will inevitably record people committing some crimes. But mostly, it will permanently monitor us all when we are living our normal lives, going to church, going to a medical appointment, or even working around our homes.

We tried to put more protections into the contract, for example by increasing protections for San Diegans when the city points these cameras at people’s private property. But our city leaders have rejected many of our proposals at every stage. If this technology cannot be changed to operate in a democratic and accountable way, we think more people should entertain the idea that it isn’t the right technology for us. There are other options.

Is this the right company to partner with? The company Ubicquia has never been held accountable for selling us a previous system that never fulfilled its promises. They also refused to follow our city’s instructions in 2020 when asked to stop retaining surveillance video on the devices. This contract rewards that vendor rather than holding them accountable. In fact, this new contract gives the vendor even more power over us, by giving them ownership of the camera devices, expanding the data collection to include license plate tracking, and transferring all of our sensitive data into their hands.

We have asked the city to require a city-controlled kill switch on the devices so it can be shut down if needed. But you won’t find that improvement in the contract on Tuesday.

Is the price right? This is a strange time for the city to be flirting with an expensive combination of surveillance technology that has never been used in any other city, when we are already paying millions of dollars for the previous, unusable system, and when the city is facing a $1 billion deficit over the next five years.

How many core services are San Diegans ready to potentially cut so that we can play footsie with authoritarian-style mass surveillance technology that has burned us before? We advised the city that leasing (rather than owning) this system exposes the city to more costs and more risks. Our city would be banned from touching these devices once installed; we would have to pay Ubicquia to make any changes to the devices. Again, all these requests to improve the contract have been ignored.

Finally, are we well protected with this contract? Most importantly for surveillance, we need to know how our data will be protected. We have advised the city that our data is not well protected at all. In fact, our sensitive data is wholly transferred to Ubicquia in a contract provision that categorically sends our sensitive “city data” into a bucket called “aggregated data” that Ubicquia has broad discretion over.

We have also warned city leaders that out-of-state law enforcement may be able to ask Ubicquia to provide recordings from our system, so that our residents and visitors can be prosecuted for violations of out-of-state laws. Yet the contract remains unchanged.

The community has not been working against technology nor working against policing. What our work over the last three years has demonstrated is that we are working for San Diego on much deeper questions, about whether a proposed surveillance technology is being well crafted and well controlled to protect the millions of us who live under its gaze.

The question is not whether San Diegans love cameras or hate cameras. If this specific proposal from this specific company cannot be brought into line with the community values of San Diego, then San Diegans and its leaders should of course be willing to reject it and continue the search for a proposal that is a better fit for our city.

Seth Hall is a co-founder of the community group San Diego Privacy, which is a member of the TRUST SD Coalition.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mateo November 13, 2023 at 1:58 pm

In an article printed in the Rag before the first crooked City Council vote:
Proponent’s, all possessing conflicts of interest, nefarious argument has centered around the “camera”. Which is the way they want to craft the narrative, to get citizens to get hung up on surveillance “cameras”, and not the ALPR’s.

The Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR’s) are where the real data collection money will be coming from. AI enables staggering collection and manipulation of data that will be received from ALPR’s in real time. Though the City said the third party company will purge unused data in a specific time-frame there exists no way to confirm that and no regulatory body to legally confirm it either.

Currently less than 20% of public records requests are being filled as required by law, and Rob Bonta is going to make sure that number goes even lower. What makes anyone think that the public will have any input on the sale of our own location data and 24 hour movement monitoring?

The City Council gutted the recommendations of the Privacy Advisory Board; as to be expected as they possessed no budget, no subpoena power and henceforth zero power as perfectly exemplified by the City Council’s rush to pass, and cash the checks.

Your data regarding your every movement will be sold, and you will be powerless to stop it.

These ALPR surveillance systems hardware and software are proprietary black box systems that will require specific search warrants to access the code for any errors or insidious manipulation of hacking, and these systems are the farthest from secure as you can get, deliberately. Our locally elected leaders sure do love them some weaponized incompetence. I mean, what better way to absolve one of responsibility for harmful, ill-conceived policies and provide plausible deniability?

Just blindly trust the third party data mining corporations, with no established method or means of accountability, nor protections against hacking is not a policy serving the public in any capacity.

Cash the check first; let it cost the taxpayers later! Just get that high dollar data mining money that tracks EVERYONE, regardless of the long term damage it does.

Do not kid yourself there are NO PUBLIC PROTECTIONS the way this is written. Like everything under Sean Elo-Reivera’s council presidency, this proposal is only beneficial to the campaigns of the City council, Mayor and City Attorney. San Diegans will NEVER benefit from any of it.

There exists no empirical evidence that surveillance “cameras” have ever “prevented” a crime from taking place and San Diegans should never take solace that the SDPD is going to use cameras to solve any crime until AFTER the crime occurs, and that is not making you safe. The City Council is not making you safe. The Mayor is not making you safe. The City Attorney knows that none of this will withstand a constitutional legal challenge but they’re sucking up the data broker money as we speak!

Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither, but we don’t get to decide that but the city council will once again defy that majority of their constituents in lieu of their own self-serving interests.


Vern November 13, 2023 at 5:28 pm

“Automatic License Plate Readers: Legal Status and Policy Recommendations for Law Enforcement Use”


Vern November 13, 2023 at 5:33 pm

“… The police have access to not only license plate data collected by their own ALPRs but also data gathered by private companies. Firms like Flock Safety and Motorola Solutions have their own networks of ALPRs that are mounted to the vehicles of private companies and organizations they work with, such as car repossession outfits. Flock, for instance, claims it’s collecting license plate data in roughly 1,500 cities and can capture data from over a billion vehicles every month…”


Frank Gormlie November 15, 2023 at 4:35 pm

The San Diego City Council granted the police department final approval to use camera-equipped streetlights and automated license plate readers (ALPR) across the city.


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