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Backlash to San Diego Streetlight Cameras Prompts Privacy Board

The backlash against secret surveillance of San Diego residents led to new legislation Tuesday when the City Council unanimously approved a new privacy advisory board that will evaluate all future surveillance proposals.

(TNS) — The backlash against secret surveillance of San Diego residents finally led to new legislation Tuesday when the City Council unanimously approved a new privacy advisory board that will evaluate all future surveillance proposals.

The new privacy board is a direct result of the city installing thousands of special streetlights five years ago that were secretly equipped with sophisticated surveillance tools including cameras and microphones.

In addition to creating the board, city officials say they plan to soon approve a new law creating rules for how and when the city can acquire and use surveillance equipment and technology.

Both efforts, which got initial approval from the council in late 2020, were delayed more than a year by required negotiations with city labor unions.

City officials agreed to turn off the surveillance streetlights while the new legislation remains in the approval pipeline.

The nine-member privacy board, which will include technical experts and community leaders, is tasked with reviewing whether any surveillance technology the city might buy fits with the new law and the city’s values.

The board will also review existing surveillance efforts in the city and look for potential civil rights violations. Another task will be analyzing whether the city’s use of technology is discriminatory.

“I want the public to know that oversight is a good thing,” said Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, who has been spearheading the new legislation since early 2020. “Technology is imperative in the way that we conduct city business, but that does not mean we get a blank check.”

Montgomery Steppe said the board will allow the city to explore many new surveillance systems and other technological efforts, including innovative crime-fighting strategies while being transparent with the public.

Because surveillance efforts typically focus on low-income areas or at least have a larger impact there, critics of previous city surveillance efforts said a privacy board was needed.

“This board is critical to ensuring we correct many of the privacy and civil liberty failings we have in our city,” Councilmember Vivian Moreno said.

Councilmember Raul Campillo said the board would help the city strike the proper balance between public safety and privacy.

“With this board up and running, I’m sure we’ll be able to have a strong voice for the residents of San Diego informing and working as a partner with this council to continue to advocate for the public’s safety and the public’s privacy, which go hand in hand,” Campillo said.

While the board won’t have the power to legislate, its advisory recommendations are expected to carry significant weight. City officials going against its recommendations would likely face intense scrutiny and possible criticism.

San Diego is setting an example for the region by approving the new board, said Janine Erikat, a policy advisor for the nonprofit Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans.

“You’re setting a precedent for the county,” she said.

Local efforts on transparency regarding surveillance have been led by a group of community leaders called TRUST — Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology.

TRUST member Frances Yasmeen Motiwalla hailed the new privacy advisory board before the council approved it 8-0 Tuesday.

“We just want a responsible, transparent system and this is a great move forward,” she said.

Members of the board will be appointed by Mayor Todd Gloria and confirmed by the City Council. There must be at least one attorney or legal scholar, one auditor or certified public accountant, one computer expert and one person from an organization that focuses on open government and transparency.

The legislation says there must also be at least four members from organizations focused on social equity and protecting the rights of communities historically subject to disproportionate surveillance, “including communities of color, immigrant communities, religious minorities, and groups concerned with privacy and protest.”

© 2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.