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San Diego City Council to consider sweeping changes to surveillance technology ordinance

San Diego’s City Council will consider a proposal from Mayor Todd Gloria that would substantially change how the city regulates surveillance technology. KPBS’s Scott Rodd says privacy rights advocates aren’t happy.

San Diego’s City Council will consider a proposal on Tuesday put forward by Mayor Todd Gloria that would substantially change how the city regulates surveillance technology. Privacy rights advocates warn that the changes would water down hard-fought protections passed in 2022.

Why it matters

The City Council passed the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology Ordinance in August 2022. The TRUST Ordinance requires the review and approval of all surveillance technology used by San Diego police and other city departments.

The ordinance came after years of controversy tied to the use of surveillance devices, including so-called smart streetlights equipped with cameras. After the streetlights first rolled out in 2016, San Diego police began accessing the cameras for investigations — unbeknownst to the public.


The TRUST Ordinance originally set a one-year deadline for the review process. But so far only a handful of items — out of hundreds identified by the city — have been fully approved. That includes a second rollout of smart streetlights, with promises of new guardrails for police use of camera footage.

Last summer, Gloria successfully pushed back the review deadline by three years. Now, he wants to see sweeping changes to how technologies are evaluated and exempt certain ones from scrutiny.

What people are saying

“There [are] significant reductions in transparency and accountability in the changes the mayor's office and the city attorney have introduced," said Lilly Irani, a privacy rights advocate and associate professor of communication and computer science at UC San Diego.

“The fact is, we cannot allow this to grind our city operations to a halt and we cannot allow it to jeopardize public safety," Gloria said at a press conference late last year.

Closer look

The city has identified more than 300 items that meet the TRUST Ordinance’s broad definition of surveillance technology. That includes police equipment, such as aerial drones and cellphone-encryption busters. It also includes seemingly benign items, such as internet search engines and email newsletter software.


Gloria has argued that the ordinance is too broad and would tie up departments with intensive review of ordinary technologies. His proposal would exempt many of these quotidian items. But it would also nix the review of police databases and fixed security cameras, which has alarmed privacy rights advocates.

The proposed changes would also affect the city’s Privacy Advisory Board, which is a panel of experts and community members established by the TRUST Ordinance to serve as a watchdog over the city’s review and approval process.

The proposal would reduce the amount of time the board has to review technologies from 90 days to 60 days. And, instead of requiring city departments to produce annual reports that review each surveillance item, the proposal would require one large annual report that touches on technologies citywide.

Privacy rights advocates argue that these changes would hamstring the Privacy Advisory Board and limit public understanding of the city’s surveillance tech.

The City Council will consider the proposed changes at its regular 2 p.m. meeting on Tuesday.

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