First public meeting on San Diego's surveillance via streetlight

Move comes after months of inside turmoil, cop concerns

Police worry that the fruits of surveillance might be used against cops performing arrest.
  • Police worry that the fruits of surveillance might be used against cops performing arrest.
  • Image by Matthew Suárez

Following months of uncertainty regarding the low-profile rollout of San Diego's so-called smart streetlights, equipped with spy cams, shot-spotters, and related intelligence gathering gear, officials have called a community meeting in Southeastern San Diego to tell the public what they have wrought.

The session, to be held at 5:30 p.m. this Wednesday, March 13 at the Malcolm X Library Multipurpose Room, 5148 Market St, is intended to tamp down growing skepticism regarding costs, police policy, and expanded surveillance potential of the system, sources say, and comes amidst a late effort to ratify a draft policy governing use of the installation by police.

Work on the policy began last August, according to San Diego Police Lt. Jeff Jordon, but as of Monday, March 11 was still awaiting signoff by department officials, as well as by the San Diego Police Officers Association. Under its agreement with the city, the labor group holds so-called "meet and confer" review authority over the surveillance system and its potential uses, Jordon said.

Police union concerns are said to include whether the fruits of surveillance might be used against cops performing arrests and other duties. Jordon added that the POA board was scheduled to act on the policy by the end of Monday, March 11, and that a final document might be released to the public as early as Wednesday's community meeting. following signoffs by police brass.

Until the announcement of Wednesday's scheduled meeting, details of the police policy and other potential controversies have been kept under wraps. In addition to high-definition video cameras that provide extensive coverage of public streets and sidewalks, the Smart City Platform features so-called shot-spotter devices, controversial both for their privacy limiting implications as well as lack of reliability.

Jordon said Monday that the shot-spotters of Smart City, involving as many as 4000 so-called surveillance nodes, have not yet been activated, pending decisions regarding next year's budget.

Also in the works is a video management plan with security vendor Genetech, a Montreal-based firm noted for its license plate reading devices for use by the D.E.A. Jordon says San Diego's system employs neither license plate readers nor facial surveillance technology. and does not use "pan-tilt-zoom capabilities."

Since the streetlight nodes began initial operation last year, he added, between 30 and 40 videos have been provided for law-enforcement-related review to San Diego police by system vendor Current, Powered by GE.

The company was a subsidiary of General Electric until its sale was announced in November to American Industrial Partners, a Wall Street private equity firm.

Jordon said that Current-provided video from the system that he has reviewed, including some to be introduced at an April court hearing, has been electronically screened to block out inadvertent intrusions into private surroundings, a process referred to as curtilage.

However, another source familiar with San Diego's situation maintains that the system's curtilage technology hasn't always worked, potentially exposing non-public property to improper video surveillance.

Another concern involves what is said to be repeated failures of so-called public functions of the system, including links to "static data" that the city has posted online regarding parking, vehicle counts, pedestrian counts, temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.

Following the announcement of its sale by General Electric, Current revealed last month that it was switching the computer server hosting San Diego's system from GE-owned Predix to Amazon Web Services, run by the online retail giant, raising fresh questions about future reliability and transition costs for officials to address Wednesday.

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So not only did they covertly spend over $30 million of taxpayer money on this system, but the police don't want any accountability for how they use it or for how it may exonerate taxpayers improperly accused or abused by them.

That's the equivalent of "heads I win; tails you lose." And it's an unacceptable position of any public agency, but especially one given police powers and firearms.

Nobody better turn this thing on until there's a genuinely independent and nonpartisan standing commission (not appointed by Kev-boy or his successors) like a grand jury to review what is seen by whom and under what circumstances. That includes the police, so that they can't just screen footage fishing at random.

I don't understand the confusion over these technologies. The surveillance systems are used around the world; heavily in London and China. Similarly the rental scooters & bicycles, Lyft & Uber, and the airb&b type businesses. Citizens, businesses and governments have dealt with them- some with success, others without. Why isn't anyone gathering information from these sources?

SDPD Lt. Jordan said yesterday in this paper that American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation had been invited to the public meeting tomorrow at Malcolm X Library. Have ACLU and EFF representatives accepted? Will they show up? Hearing their perspective on all this surveillance matters.

Could SDPD use these cameras and figure out who keyed my car so I can move forward. That would be cool.

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