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San Diego advisory board says ‘no’ to streetlight camera plan

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

Cameras installed on San Diego streetlights haven’t been used since 2020. And the San Diego Privacy Advisory Board said that camera ban should continue — at least until police can give better assurances that they’ll be used in a way that protects citizens’ rights.

There are already streetlights around San Diego that are equipped with cameras that can record movements beneath and around them. San Diego police say they’re a valuable asset to detect and deter crime.

But members of the advisory board said the Police Department’s plan infringed on people's rights to privacy and there was too much missing information about how camera recordings would be used.


“Things like a meaningful explanation of who has access, a meaningful explanation of who the third parties are,” board member Pegah Parsi said. “We don’t know, for example, what the data-sharing mechanism is between the vendor and other law enforcement agencies. Or what on earth the vendor does with that information.”

The only known private vendor who would work with police on the camera program is Ubicquia.

The vote on Thursday was strictly advisory, so it can’t prevent the police camera plan from being considered by the City Council. Still, police who attended the meeting were disappointed.

“The San Diego Police Department takes a different position. We believe what we’re doing is lawful and in the public good and has a lot of beneficial things that are associated with it,” San Diego Police Lieutenant Charles Lara said.

Members of San Diego's Privacy Advisory Board meet in City Council chambers. June 22, 2023
Thomas Fudge
Members of San Diego's Privacy Advisory Board meet in City Council chambers on Thursday.

Dozens of members of the public testified at the meeting, and nearly all of them opposed the police plan to use the streetlight cameras.


A group of young people turned out to demonstrate, holding up a sign that read “WHO WATCHES WHO?” At one point three of them donned tinfoil jackets to symbolically show they were protecting themselves from surveillance signals.

Some of the people in the crowd didn’t seem to object to the letter of the police policy but clearly stated that they didn’t trust the police to use the footage in the public's interest. Some said they believed that they, not criminals, were the ones being watched.

“(The police) say ‘trust us’ when they tell you that they will not misuse this technology. What government agency has not misused the technology they were given?” San Diego resident Askari Abdul-Muntaqim said. “You have no ability to do your job on this board because they have told you up front that they don’t trust you to know what they are going to do with this technology. So I and my community — we don’t trust them.”

Girls with a PANA San Diego youth group wear tin foil at a City Hall meeting to protest a police plan to use streetlight cameras to look for crime. June 22, 2023.
Thomas Fudge
Girls with a PANA San Diego youth group wear tin foil at Thursday's City Hall meeting to protest a police plan to use streetlight cameras.

Lara said use of the cameras was no different from a police officer observing what happens on their beat. And the streetlight cameras are no different from the many other cameras in the community that already record movements on the street.

“Very often when we investigate a crime, we look to video evidence.” Lara said. “There was a gentleman shot at the Central Library not long ago, and there’s a video of a perpetrator running away that was shot by a coffee shop surveillance camera.”

But some members of the advisory board said they didn’t accept the argument that the cameras were simply observing activity in the same way as a cop on their beat.

“I think that analogy breaks down very quickly when we start talking about new, advanced technologies that are AI-enhanced, particularly when we’re talking about mass untargeted pervasive surveillance,” Parsi said.

At this point the San Diego Police Department is proposing 1,000 surveillance cameras in 500 locations. Cameras that were used in the past are still installed in many streetlights and continue to gather footage, even though police have no access to it.

The next stop for the Police Department's plan to use streetlight cameras is the Public Safety Committee. Ultimately the decision lies with the San Diego City Council.

Proposed police policy for street light surveillance cameras faces public review

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