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Public Safety Committee Moves Surveillance Ordinances To Full Council

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In two separate motions, the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee approved a proposed ordinance establishing rules for the city's acquisition and use of surveillance equipment and technology and to establish a Privacy Advisory Commission.

Speaker 1: 00:00 How San Diego collects information from surveillance cameras around the city, and what officials do with it may soon be more tightly controlled. Last year. Many residents were surprised and concerned about news that more than 3000 smart streetlight cameras were recording their movements. Now a city council committee has passed new proposals aimed at making surveillance technology more transparent to the public. Joining me is Genevieve Jones, right of the trust San Diego coalition, the group that pushed for and worked with council members on the proposed surveillance ordinance. And Genevieve. Welcome.

Speaker 2: 00:38 Thank you so much for having me.

Speaker 1: 00:40 Can you remind us what the city says? The smart street lights were originally for and how they've been watching us?

Speaker 2: 00:47 So the smart street lights program was being billed as an energy saving program that would help us be energy efficient as a city. And it would also give us data as a relates to parking solutions, climate data, and other things regarding mobility around the city of San Diego. They also told us that the smart street lights program would help create businesses for entrepreneurs. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 01:23 What are the privacy and civil rights concerns about this kind of surveillance?

Speaker 2: 01:27 Well, the first thing is that there was no vetting of this program publicly, even before that, when it was pitched to city council as an energy saving project, they never talked about crime or public safety. Those terms were not a part of the conversation. And so when it was pitched to city council, all of the details of the program were not given to city council and therein lies. The biggest problem when city council voted for this particular program, there was no mechanism for transparency or even accountability or oversight. So what we started to see what the smart street lights program was that there was deployment of these smart street lights, which have sensors and nodes that gathered data all around the city of San Diego. They have the capability of interfacing with other surveillance technology like ShotSpotter for instance, which would detect gunshots. Well, one issue with that comes from these. ShotSpotter's only being in certain neighborhoods, black and Brown neighborhoods, primarily district four in Southeastern San Diego. And so we have this system where these surveillance technologies are being put into neighborhoods with no oversight, no public input. And there's absolutely no accountability and also no equity. So that's just one concern about what the smart street lights have done as it relates to violations of civil liberties, even, and other violations of privacy.

Speaker 1: 03:18 How would these new proposals change that change the way the streetlights and other surveillance technology is used?

Speaker 2: 03:25 I want to be very clear that this is a very comprehensive ordinance or two ordinances as they are now that has been brought forth in that the council will vote for in the coming weeks. It is important for us to understand that it is not enough to have a single use data ordinance or policy that only relates to smart streetlights because smart street lights, it's not the only surveillance that can be used and that has been used. And that is currently being used by our city, including our local police departments. So this idea of surveillance is very, very complex. And what these ordinances will do is they will ensure that there are mechanisms in place that San Diego ones will be reassured that when there is a surveillance technology that is being used by the city, that it has been thoroughly, that's it and scrutinize as to the financial and the social implications of that particular surveillance technology, which we can not say for any of the technology that has been used or it's being used now, San Diego will understand and be reassured that community members and subject matter experts will make their cases and bring reports to city council as to whether the city can acquire certain technologies and how those certain technologies will be used.

Speaker 2: 04:59 That is what these ordinances do together.

Speaker 1: 05:03 So the people of San Diego have a seat at the table when those decisions are made in the future,

Speaker 2: 05:08 Which is very important. And this is something that trust SD has been voicing concern about for a very long time. Now, the fact that they deployed these smart street lights, thousands of them all over the city of San Diego with absolutely no public input. By the time the public started to hear about these smart street lights being placed in their neighborhoods, it was already too late. They were already up and running.

Speaker 1: 05:35 However, uh, the law enforcement and prosecutors say now that the streetlight cameras have been extremely helpful in solving crimes, they've been used in homicide investigations, sexual assault cases, officer involved shootings, isn't that a valid reason enough to keep them operational.

Speaker 2: 05:55 It's not enough to keep them without oversight and without transparency. And so what the ordinances will do is prevent the city from acquiring technology that gets us into a money pit where the technology hurts civil liberties and also hurt our fiscal bottom line because the technology doesn't provide any of the benefits that were offered to the city at the time of, for example, signing a $30 million contract with GE. And we now know that we will owe more money on top of that contractual obligation of $30 million. This is not a question about whether the lights should continue to be operated. It has always been a question about how they should be operated in our neighborhoods. I think right now we are seeing and rightfully so meaningful conversation around policing and how the police should look and act in our communities. There is no reason under the sun that the police should operate with impunity and with no rules where there is no transparency, oversight or accountability, no matter what the benefits are.

Speaker 2: 07:18 We live in America. We live in a place where we have freedoms and our freedoms have to be respected. I don't know of one profession that doesn't have oversight or transparency embedded in some board that oversees the profession. And when we talk about technology, all technology is not bad, but all technology is not good. And while there could be a good use for technology, we also have to make sure that the use of that technology, it's not so broad that it hampers rights and civil liberties. And so we're just asking for a check on the use of all surveillance technology going forward. I have been speaking with Genevieve Jones right of the trust San Diego coalition. Genovia thank you very much. Thank you so much for having me.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.