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Smart Streetlight’ Backlash Sparks Move Toward San Diego Surveillance Law

A camera is seen on a streetlight in the city of San Diego, Sept. 17, 2019.

Photo by Matt Hoffman

Above: A camera is seen on a streetlight in the city of San Diego, Sept. 17, 2019.

Amid a backlash against the city's "smart streetlights" program, San Diego City Council members Wednesday took steps toward crafting a local ordinance to regulate surveillance technology.

The streetlights, which are equipped with sensors and cameras, are the result of a contract with GE that was approved by the council in late 2016. The city's original intent was to use them to measure traffic and weather patterns.

Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

But in 2018, the San Diego Police Department began using footage recorded by the streetlight cameras to investigate crimes. The police crafted their own policy that determined who could access the footage and under what circumstances. However, that policy never came up for public debate.

At its meeting Wednesday, the council's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee took up a proposed council policy that would have regulated the use of the data.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who chairs the committee, said there was no denying that the cameras have helped the police catch violent criminals.

"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.

The committee ultimately voted unanimously to reject the council policy and instead task Montgomery's office with crafting a city ordinance that would also regulate other kinds of surveillance technology, including drones and facial recognition software. Ordinances carry the weight of law, whereas council policies are often little more than guidance.

Montgomery, who pledged to work on the ordinance with city staffers and the City Attorney's Office, said surveillance technology is rapidly evolving and that her concern was not limited to the streetlights.

"We as a council need to have more knowledge around exactly what tools are being used in our city before we move on a policy on one specific type of technology," she said.

San Diego News Matters podcast branding

Authorities have announced the discovery of the longest smuggling tunnel ever found on the Southwest border. Plus, amid a backlash against the city's "smart streetlights" program, San Diego City Council members took steps toward crafting a local ordinance to regulate surveillance technology. And, immigrant advocates and lawyers gathered to mark the first anniversary of the controversial “Remain in Mexico” program. ...

Aired: January 30, 2020 | Transcript

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Photo of Andrew Bowen

Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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