By Alberto Garcia
The San Diego City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee this week began the process to create a city ordinance to establish guidelines for the use of audio and video from thousands of surveillance cameras already deployed throughout the City after concerns have been raised by the public and privacy advocates.
Under a program approved by the City Council in July 2017 called the Intelligent Cities Lighting Master Lease, the City purchased over $30.2 million of equipment and services from General Electric that was billed as an important component of the City’s Climate Action Plan because it would conserve energy through more efficient lighting.
A July 28, 2017, La Prensa San Diego article first raised the issue that the program was approved by the City Council without any discussion about one important component of the project; the installation of over 3,200 cameras within the new street lights.
At the time of the program’s approval, no mention of the cameras was included in either the Infrastructure Committee meeting or during discussion and passage of the multi-million-dollar program before the City Council.
Lorie Cosio-Azar, Program Manager of the Energy and Sustainability Division, Environmental Services Department, at the time told La Prensa San Diego that the street lights had a “type of camera” that “collects data and images” and stressed that the cameras did not capture video. In a follow-up interview that same week, Public Information Officer Jose Ysea, referred to the cameras as “optical sensors” that took “digital images”, but finally clarified that the units did, in fact, provide video streams. Cosio-Azar did not respond for further comment on why the cameras and microphone sensors were not explicitly mentioned during the City Council meeting or the presentation to the City’s Infrastructure Committee.
In July 2017, four of the nine council offices told La Prensa San Diego that they were not informed that the program included thousands of surveillance cameras that could be used by police.
After the program was approved, the San Diego Police Department established its own internal policy on the use of the video streams, but no public discussions were held. There were no discussions at City Council about the cameras since the program was put into use. City policies, like the SDPD one on the cameras, are not laws but instead guidelines.
This week’s committee meeting rejected a proposed city policy on the use of technology, and instead set out to draft an ordinance that will create local laws dictating the use of not only cameras, but also drones and facial recognition technology already in use by the City.
The committee Chairwoman, Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, seemed to support the use of new technology but cautioned that the deployment of such technologies in the communities without proper public input could cause problems.
“However allowing surveillance technology to show up in our neighborhoods unannounced and uncontrolled further erodes trust between our communities, our city officials and our law enforcement agencies,” she said.
Councilwoman Montgomery committed to work with staff and the Mayor’s office to draft an ordinance to deal with the new emerging technologies.