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Despite Privacy Concerns, SDPD Increasingly Using Streetlight Cameras

 August 7, 2019 at 10:32 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 San Diego city police have discovered that video cameras installed on streetlights around the city of San Diego three years ago are proving helpful in solving crimes, but privacy concerns about how that footage could be used have surfaced and the city is holding workshops to get public input. Joshua Emerson Smith with the San Diego Union Tribune joins us to talk about this new technology and what protections are in place to protect our privacy. Thanks for being with us, Joshua. Good to be here. So now this is known as the smart city program. Tell us a little bit about the, the initial purpose behind these cameras. Speaker 2: 00:35 Right. So they were installing led lights in the street lamps and the contractor General Electric suggested that they could do these smart street lamps, which included cameras, microphones, even, uh, nodes to record the temperature. And I think initially the idea was that this would help track traffic patterns and parking spots and help the city get a better handle on how it could kind of manage traffic in certain highly congested areas. Speaker 1: 01:14 How many of them are there, Joshua, and how obvious are they? Speaker 2: 01:17 They're fairly obvious. Like, if you look at the street lamp a, you could tell there's a camera there. If you look closely, there are more than 3000 and by next summer the city expects to have 4,200 throughout the city and they really are spread all throughout the city. Speaker 1: 01:33 So now the initial program then was not necessarily intended for use by the police, but uh, the police have now discovered that they are being quite useful. Tell us a little bit about how they're using the footage. Speaker 2: 01:44 Right. So last August they were investigating a shooting and the police officers on the scene, they were looking for cameras and then they realized, oh wait, the, the street lamp right above where the shooting happened, has a camera in it. And Law enforcement officials were kind of vaguely aware of the program at that point, but they had never used it. And then they took a look at the footage, they requested it from the city and they looked at the footage and they realized, wow, we could see the whole incident perfectly. And the guy who was arrested with a, with a handgun armed with a handgun was eventually the, the charges against him were dropped because the footage revealed that a, the person he shot was viciously attacking him. And so prosecutors, uh, decided that this was self defense. Speaker 1: 02:39 Do the police have unrestricted access to the footage going back over time? Speaker 2: 02:43 No. Right. So it deletes after five days. It overwrites itself after five days. So if there is an incident, law enforcement officials have to download that footage within that time frame or lose it forever. Now, once it's downloaded, it's of the evidence record and then it's kept into perpetuity. Speaker 1: 03:02 And can they use it whenever they like. Speaker 2: 03:04 So it is up to the discretion of the police department, although the police department is saying it has its own protocols for who's allowed to use this and they're restricting it to investigators of homicide, uh, robbery, sex crimes, internal affairs and traffic. But the police department stresses this is only supposed to be used for really serious violent crime or traffic incidents in which someone was hurt severely or killed. Speaker 1: 03:36 What sort of concerns have people been expressing about privacy now? Speaker 2: 03:40 Well, the ACL Q and a sin in the San Francisco Electronic Frontier Foundation have very similar concerns. They say, well, no one's watching the police department, elected officials. Uh, the city council should have some kind of rules in place that govern the use of this footage and that there should be annual audits to find out if there was any misuse of the cameras and how it was handled. And then they also raised the concern that a, there could be data breaches that, uh, and uh, criminals could hack into the system and use it for all kinds of nefarious purposes. San Diego Mayor Kevin Falkner, uh, declined an interview for this story, but one of his spokespeople send over a message that said, rules are quote under development. Speaker 1: 04:31 And I understand there's a meeting next Tuesday at the central library at five 30 for people to give their, their input on this. It would that be something that the city would consider while developing their regulations? Speaker 2: 04:42 Absolutely. And that's what they say. They say they're getting, getting all this public feedback before they draft rules or an ordinance around governing how the footage is used and how the, the use of the footage is monitored. Now, the police department has been very thoughtful, uh, when it comes to this because they are, uh, very excited about these cameras. They say it's really helped them in a number of cases. It's been, it's been crucial. And they were not shy about giving us access to investigators to talk about how they've used the cameras in the recent past. And so they're also at the meetings explaining to the public exactly what they're using the footage for, what they're not using it for, what the limitations of it are. So in one sense, these public meetings are about gathering input from the public to draft rules perhaps. We'll see. On the other hand, it's about the city law enforcement and city officials kind of trying to put people's concerns at ease. Speaker 1: 05:48 Well, Joshua, thanks so much for shedding some light on this. Happy to be here. That's a reporter, Joshua Emerson Smith with the San Diego Union Tribune. Speaker 3: 06:00 Uh.

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San Diego police have discovered that video cameras installed on streetlights around the city three years ago are proving helpful in solving crimes.
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