By Art Castañares
Last week, La Prensa San Diego filed a lawsuit against the City of San Diego for its failure to provide documents under the California Public Records Act, continuing its long tradition of encouraging transparency and accountability among government agencies.
The request asked for documents related to the San Diego Police Department’s recent $9.5 million budget request to renew its use of ARJIS, the Automated Regional Justice Information System.
ARJIS is a joint powers authority that provides data and support services to police agencies throughout San Diego and Imperial Counties.
La Prensa asked for all documents related to the Police Department’s use of ARJIS services, as well as the agreements involved in securing the use of the system. After more than two weeks, La Prensa did not receive any response from the SDPD or the City. We hope the court action will compel the release of the documents as provided by state and federal laws.
In recent years, privacy advocates have raised concerns that police agencies are gaining access to new and emerging technology that raise privacy concerns, without the agencies informing the public about their use of the new gadgets.
For example, ARJIS has deployed and maintains facial recognition technology, vehicle license plate readers, and a network of cameras throughout the county without much notice to the public.
The San Diego Police Department’s recent $9.5 million request for ARJIS funding sent to the City Council did not include any mention of the types of services and technology to be used under the system renewal.
In fact, the SDPD presentation on the City Council’s docket described the expenditure as “$9,500,000 over five years, related to continued access to and use of ARJIS computer applications.” That’s it.
When the SDPD’s request went for a hearing before the Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee on April 17th, the presentation took up only three presentation slides and, again, failed to mention any of the new and emerging technologies available through the system.
The presentation at the committee hearing, which usually is more in-depth than the final presentation at the full City Council, explained that the “Police Department has been utilizing law enforcement specific information and computer applications provided by ARJIS for over 30 years.”
While that’s true, the new technologies that raise privacy concerned clearly have not been around for 30 years, thereby leaving the public in the dark about the use of new technologies. Not one of the materials at the City Council made any reference to the technology available to the Police Department under this renewed access to ARJIS.
The City’s staff report on the ARJIS request also states that “there are no applicable community outreach efforts,” meaning that there were no actions taken to inform the community of the true impacts of this system.
What’s troubling about this request is that it’s not the first time the City of San Diego has kept the public in the dark about taxpayer dollars being spent on new and emerging technology that may compromise our privacy in the name of security.
In July 2017, La Prensa San Diego requested information about another large investment in technology that seemed to include potentially invasive technology without public input.
The item in 2017 was billed as the Intelligent Cities Outdoor Lighting Project to replace street lights throughout the City. The request was for more than $30 million, touting the new lights as more energy efficient, helping to achieve the City’s Climate Action Plan.
In that presentation before the City Council, the request detailed that the funds would “retrofit approximately 14,000 City-owned outdoor high pressure sodium lights to adaptive control LED systems and 3,200 sensor nodes.”
The request also stated that approximately “$9 [million] will be allocated to the sensor nodes, analytics platform, and one year license for operation.”
At that time, La Prensa requested information on what “sensor nodes” meant, and what exactly they did.
According to three City staff members, “sensor nodes” were “optical sensors” that could capture “digital images”, and a series of “digital images” in the future.
Translation. These are cameras that capture video.
When La Prensa asked how these videos would be used and by whom, a San Diego Police Department spokesperson said that no policies had been created to access or use the video, yet.
Now fast forward to last week when a KPBS news story outlined how the San Diego Police Department has used video from camera on street lights in 99 police investigations. What?
A police lieutenant that manages the smart streetlight program for the SDPD told KPBS that the SDPD began accessing the videos in August 2018.
In the past two years, the Police Department has moved forward with using the cameras, and even created a policy for how to use the cameras, but only now are they holding public meetings.
What started out as a street light replacement program has now turned into a 4,600 camera network throughout the City that is in the hands of the police, all without public input or disclosure before the system was deployed, only after.
Better to ask for forgiveness than permission?
That’s what makes the recent request to spend $9.5 million on renewing access to ARJIS suspicious.
When new technology is deployed using taxpayer dollars and it impacts or could impact our privacy, the public has a right to know, especially before it happens.
Facial recognition software can be useful in counter terrorism efforts and criminal investigations. License plate readers can help track down fugitives. And other emerging technology can surely be helpful to police in ways we can even imagine today.
But every one of those technologies chips away at our sense of privacy and freedom.
The freedoms we cherish in America are unique in the world. Most other counties, including some of our closest allies, deploy invasive technologies in the name of security.
And some other less democratic countries deploy such technologies to exert control and direction over their people.
We must continue to demand transparency from our government institutions, most importantly our law enforcement agencies, especially when their actions involve trade-offs between liberty and safety.
There is a balance to strike and the public should know up front, not after the fact, when we are taking steps down this path of more surveillance, more technology, and less privacy.
Our eyes should be wide open. Not blindfolded.