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Chula Vista City Council approves privacy policy

Years after the Chula Vista Police Department began using surveillance tools like drones and license plate readers, the Chula Vista City Council approved a policy Tuesday meant to safeguard residents' privacy.

Under the new policy, the city will create a commission to oversee the police department’s use of surveillance technology with an eye toward limiting what data is picked up by devices.

The policy will also govern how the department acquires technology and the storage and sale of personal data.


“I think all new technology has a potential to be misused,” said Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “We’re doing this to protect the privacy and civil liberties of residents. It’s not just a concern of residents but the city as well.”

Chula Vista has come under fire in recent years for both how the police department uses surveillance technology and its lack of transparency in its handling of the personal data of residents.

Privacy advocates have decried the city’s aggressive use of drones, and list that practice among the reasons for calling it one of the most surveilled cities in America. Media reports also revealed that the city was sharing data from its license plate readers with federal immigration authorities.

Earlier this year, a KPBS investigation revealed that a contract between Chula Vista and Motorola Solutions gave the company extensive control over data collected by the city’s surveillance technology.

A separate KPBS investigation found that several of the drones Chula Vista police deploy daily to 911 calls, made by Chinese manufacturer DJI Technology Company, were deemed a potential risk to national security by the Pentagon.


On Tuesday, Salas insisted the City Council was not “humiliated” into approving the new privacy protection policy.

But civic activist Pedro Rios, who was part of a working group that made recommendations to the city on what should be in the new policy, wants the city to memorialize that it shared license plate reader information with the federal government.

“The resolution should reflect that there was a struggle that ensued,” Rios said, who is director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program. “The resolution is part of trying to make corrections toward the responsibility that all of you have toward constituents.”

“The resolution should reflect that there was a struggle that ensued. The resolution is part of trying to make corrections toward the responsibility that all of you have toward constituents.”
Pedro Rios, activist

Council members agreed to do that, but they did not agree to a recommendation by the working group to hire a chief privacy officer.

The working group also pushed the city to create a privacy rights ordinance, which would have more teeth than the policy approved by council members Tuesday night.

“The language that we have provided, the recommendations that we put forward are based in part on existing ordinances from the city of San Diego, from the city of Oakland, from cities across the country that have been tried and tested,” Rios said.

City officials said an ordinance would be premature. However, Councilmember Steve Padilla expressed hope ”that a future council will consider codifying this in a more meaningful way, putting it in an ordinance, and putting it in a really smart framework that will protect the interests of our community.”

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.