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San Diego Bumps Back Surveillance Network Review Deadline

San Diego officials on Tuesday gave themselves another three years to review the city’s many surveillance technologies, an extension that should prevent the tools from being put on pause.

San Diego
(TNS) — San Diego on Tuesday gave itself another three years to review its many surveillance technologies, an extension that should prevent the city's tools — some of which serve vital, day-to-day functions, city officials say — from being put on pause.

At least for now.

At a morning City Council meeting, some members questioned whether the extra time would be enough to get through the city's vast inventory. More than 300 surveillance tools need to be evaluated.

The review process was established last year when the council unanimously approved a new surveillance ordinance. The law stemmed from public outcry over San Diego's handling of a network of thousands of smart streetlights. The public learned years after the high-tech lights were installed that police could access video and other data they captured.

Under the ordinance, city departments were required to disclose their surveillance technologies — everything from drones to car trackers to fingerprint scanners — and put together reports outlining how those tools are used and how they impact communities. That information would then make its way to the newly created Privacy Advisory Board — a volunteer panel tasked with vetting the city's technologies — and then to the City Council, which would decide whether a tool should stay in use.

Some of those technologies support daily functions across San Diego. The emergency dispatch systems that first responders rely on, body-worn cameras worn by police officers and the GPS devices trash collectors use all fall under the purview of the ordinance. City officials said Tuesday that every city department has identified technologies that fall under the ordinance.

San Diego initially gave itself a year to do the work, but that deadline was set to expire in September and not a single tool has made it through the process.

On Tuesday, the council unanimously approved extending that deadline.

Council members also approved an amendment excluding from the surveillance requirements any city databases and software systems used for managing internal administrative activities. Those systems include software used to track and manage job applicants and communications between elected officials and their constituents, according to a city staff report.

Of about 300 technologies that have been identified, it is unclear how many fall into this category.

The deadline extension, first posted to the city's website Friday, was an abrupt departure from a set of changes posted a day earlier that suggested scrapping the deadline altogether — a revision that was immediately opposed by TRUST SD, a consortium of community groups that helped craft the surveillance ordinance.

The organization suggested the three-year extension as a counterproposal.

Although the changes were unanimously approved, some council members voiced concerns.

Councilmember Kent Lee and others said they worried that even an additional three years wouldn't be long enough to get the job done. Lee said continually pushing back the deadline could erode the public's trust in the process.

"I know we need the additional time so I'm not opposed to that as an idea, but I'm just concerned that we're only going to be seeking more time when this three-year extension concludes," Lee said during Tuesday's meeting. "The deadline feels somewhat artificial."

Others wanted to know more about how the city would be conducting its meetings to gather community input. Currently, the ordinance requires city officials to hold meetings in each of the nine council districts for every technology. If that was done separately for each tool, that would total about 2,700 meetings. On Tuesday, many city officials and community members said they supported the idea of bundling similar technologies to lessen the load.

Councilmember Marni von Wilpert said she wanted more information about how the Privacy Board planned to rank the technologies in order of importance — a task that falls to them under the surveillance ordinance — particularly because some tools have contracts that will be expiring sooner than others.

Other changes will likely be pursued, city officials said Tuesday.

The board said it wants to see changes that would allow city departments to solicit proposals from possible vendors. Currently, departments need to get City Council approval before engaging with vendors, which can stymie turning over information about tools that are being considered.

This was recently an issue while the San Diego Police Department's new streetlights proposal was being reviewed.

Despite the changes and lingering concerns, all council members reiterated their support for the ordinance on Tuesday. Council President Sean Elo-Rivera also stressed that it's imperative that the spirit of the ordinance be maintained.

"For many, and for very good reasons, privacy and safety go hand-in-hand," Elo-Rivera said. "They're not mutually exclusive. Without knowing that there's a certain level of of privacy and transparency about the technologies being used, whole communities cannot feel safe."

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.