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Gloria pushes for substantial changes to San Diego’s surveillance technology rules

Sand Diego Fire & Rescue test new drone. August 10, 2018
Matthew Bowler
Sand Diego Fire & Rescue test new drone. August 10,2018

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria is pushing for substantial changes to how the city regulates the use of surveillance technology by the police department and other city agencies.

KPBS obtained a draft copy of the proposed amendments, which Gloria’s office sent to City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera earlier this week.

Last year, the city passed a sweeping ordinance that gave departments one year to identify existing surveillance technologies, solicit feedback from the public and secure City Council approval for each item. A similar process was required for adopting new surveillance tech.


But earlier this year, the city pushed back the approval deadline by three years. So far, only a handful of items — out of the hundreds identified by the city — have been fully approved. Gloria’s office argues the list of technologies contains many benign items, such as internet search engines and email newsletter software, that don’t demand intensive vetting.

Now, Gloria is proposing a number of amendments to how the ordinance works, as few city departments have advanced technology through the process.

The mayor’s suggested amendments would exempt certain software and equipment from review, including fixed security cameras and police databases. It would also shorten the amount of time available to the city’s Privacy Advisory Board to evaluate surveillance equipment. The board, which is made up of community members, provides recommendations to the City Council.

Privacy rights advocates say the proposed changes would water down the ordinance they fought hard for and undermine transparency.

“It's an entirely rewritten ordinance,” said Lilly Irani, a member of the TRUST SD Coalition and associate professor of communication and computer science at UC San Diego.


The TRUST SD Coalition helped draft the city’s surveillance ordinance.

Mayor Gloria declined to comment through a spokesperson.

Elo-Rivera said he expects the City Council will take up the proposal in late January. Input from privacy rights advocates and the public could change what ultimately goes before the council for a vote.

“We want to take the time to not just read it ourselves, but to have conversations with Privacy Advisory Board members and other members of the community,” he said.

Little progress

Last August, the City Council passed the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology (TRUST) Ordinance following outcry over the unchecked use of surveillance cameras by the San Diego Police Department (SDPD).

In 2016, the city rolled out so-called “smart streetlights” that included cameras and data sensors. The streetlights were supposed to save on energy costs and track traffic patterns. Instead, unbeknownst to the public, they became an investigative tool for SDPD.

The TRUST Ordinance lays out a multi-step process for analyzing and approving existing and new surveillance tech. Departments must identify equipment and software that meets the ordinance’s surveillance definition; release a report detailing the use and impact of each technology; hold community meetings in each council district to solicit feedback; submit the item to the Privacy Advisory Board to review; and, finally, obtain approval from the City Council.

A smart streetlight in the University Heights neighborhood of San Diego photographed on a sunny day, Oct. 15, 2023.
Brenden Tuccinardi
A smart streetlight in the University Heights neighborhood of San Diego photographed on a sunny day, Oct. 15, 2023.

So far, only a few items have made it through the process and received City Council approval. That includes a redux of the smart streetlights initiative, with promises of new safeguards for police use of camera footage.

SDPD has advanced a couple dozen additional technologies to the advisory board, including drones and a device that extracts cell phone data during investigations.

Most other departments are significantly behind SDPD.

“Departments are working to prepare impact reports and documentation that will eventually be routed through the process for community meetings and presentations to the Privacy Advisory Board,” city spokesperson Nicole Darling wrote in an email.

Darling did not specify the number of departments that have taken these steps or the number of technologies advancing through the process.

In recent months, the city released a list of more than 300 technologies that would likely be subject to review under the TRUST Ordinance, including basic tools and software that most people would not associate with surveillance, including social media management platforms and Google Maps.

Gloria’s wishlist

Gloria’s proposed amendments aim to whittle down that long list of technologies, but privacy rights advocates say the changes would go too far.

“One of the most alarming changes in the mayor's proposal is to massively expand the list of technologies that are just completely exempt from any transparency (and) any oversight,” Irani said.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria at the San Ysidro pedestrian border crossing. San Ysidro. Nov. 8, 2021.
Matthew Bowler
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria at the San Ysidro pedestrian border crossing. San Ysidro. Nov. 8, 2021.

The Mayor’s proposal includes exemptions for police databases such as ARJIS, a data-sharing network used by dozens of law enforcement agencies in the San Diego region that provides access to information on warrants, arrests, photos and field interviews. It would also exempt items that fall under the broad umbrellas of “city operational business applications” and “physical access control systems.”

Irani said other proposed changes would “hamstring” the advisory board.

The TRUST Ordinance currently gives the board 90 days to review technologies submitted by city departments before they go to the City Council for approval. Gloria wants to cut that to 60 days.

The existing ordinance also requires city departments to provide an annual update for each approved technology in order to assess its ongoing use. The mayor instead wants to submit all approved technologies in one massive report for the board to review — again, in 60 days.

Ike Anyanetu, chair of the advisory board, said approving all of these amendments “would undermine the spirit of the ordinance.”

“The amendments indicate the city wants more of a rubber stamp committee, and not a board that can actually do its job and review technologies that impact privacy,” he said.

Anyanetu added that the board is open to making adjustments to the ordinance as long as they don’t undermine the overarching goal of advancing transparency and accountability around surveillance.

This is not the first time Gloria has tried to push significant changes to the ordinance. This summer, the Mayor wanted to completely eliminate the deadline for approving surveillance items. Ultimately, a compromise was reached between Gloria, the City Council and privacy advocates to push back the deadline by three years.

Some privacy advocates expressed concern that the Mayor’s latest proposal would leave wiggle room for city departments to dodge that extended deadline.

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