San Diego City Council extends deadline for approval of city's surveillance technology
San Diego residents will have to wait up to three more years to learn about how the city uses surveillance technology.
Last August, the City Council passed an ordinance aimed at creating more transparency around the city’s use of surveillance equipment. It gave the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) and other departments a one-year grace period to identify technologies, hold community meetings and get City Council approval for the equipment’s continued use. The ordinance requires a similar review process for new surveillance technologies that the SDPD and other city departments might adopt in the future.
But on Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to push the deadline for reviewing existing technologies to September of 2026. Over the last year, departments have identified hundreds of items needing review, but none have gone before the City Council for approval. The amendments passed Tuesday also narrows the definition of surveillance technology to help weed out seemingly benign items, such as administrative software to track constituent complaints.
Some council members expressed concern that essential city services could be disrupted if they stuck with the original one-year deadline, because technologies without approval could no longer be used.
“We want to make sure we’re promoting transparency and accountability, but also not stopping city operations we need to do every day,” said Councilmember Marni von Wilpert.
Privacy and surveillance advocates generally supported the three-year extension, but expressed concern at the Council meeting about the lack of public discussion around some of the technical aspects of Tuesday’s agenda item.
“We are concerned about these amendments that were put in really last minute,” said Homayra Yusufi, interim executive director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA). “We believe that processes can always be improved, but it needs to be done with community.”
PANA is a member of the TRUST SD Coalition, a privacy advocacy group that pushed for the surveillance ordinance last year.
The decision to move the deadline comes after a hectic back-and-forth between Mayor Todd Gloria, the City Council and community advocates in recent weeks. In early July, Gloria asked that the City Council fast track a proposal that would have eliminated the surveillance review deadline altogether. That got pushback from privacy and surveillance advocates, who wrote a letter proposing a 3-year extension to the deadline.
Then, late last Friday, Council President Sean Elo-Rivera proposed amendment language that included the three-year extension. That prompted Gloria to change his proposal to also include the three-year extension.
The push to bolster oversight of surveillance technology came after the SDPD faced scrutiny in recent years for its surveillance methods. In 2016, the city rolled out “smart streetlights” equipped with cameras in order to monitor traffic and improve transportation planning.
In 2018, the SDPD began utilizing footage from the streetlights to investigate crimes, which drew intense criticism from the community. The city turned off the cameras in 2020. But earlier this year, the SDPD proposed a renewed smart streetlight program to help solve crimes.