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San Diego Council Votes to Change Surveillance Tech Rules

The controversial surveillance camera technology on public streetlights has raised calls for oversight from privacy and civil rights advocates. A City Council vote could change the rules around how the tech is governed.

The City of San Diego has already installed thousands of "Smart Street Lamps" that include an array of sensors including video and audio that is used by law enforcement and other city entities. On Friday August 2, 2019, these camera arrays, mounted on the "cobra head" style street lamps were photographed in North Park at the corner of Illinois and El Cajon Blvd. The street lamp style lights are downtown.
John Gibbins/TNS
(TNS) — The push for oversight of surveillance technologies in the city of San Diego hit a speed bump Monday when the City Council agreed to change parts of a proposed ordinance that would govern how the technology is used.

The most notable change carves out an exemption for police on federal task forces — meaning they would not have to disclose surveillance information. Because of that and other changes, it will likely be weeks before the ordinance gets back to the council for a vote.

The ordinance was proposed after San Diego elected officials and residents learned in 2019 that the city had quietly installed cameras on 3,000 smart streetlights three years earlier. The idea was to create better transparency and protect civil liberties.

There are two proposed ordinances, which together are dubbed Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology — or TRUST. One would set rules governing technology use; the other would create a privacy advisory board.

Among the requirements would be an annual look at each technology through a civil rights lens, a disclosure of data breaches, and a look at whether gear is worth the money. The public will be able to debate surveillance technology proposals before the city moves forward with them.

Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe championed the proposed ordinances, and in November 2020, the City Council unanimously approved them.

After those initial approvals, several employee unions invoked their right to review them before final City Council approval. That process took 18 months. No significant changes were made.

The council approved the privacy board earlier this year. Monday's vote was for the council to take a second vote on the ordinance governing surveillance tech. Two votes are required before an ordinance can go into effect.

Montgomery Steppe urged her colleagues to move forward with the ordinance, which was crafted with advocates who were concerned about the technology impinging on civil rights and civil liberties. "There is a lot of distrust in the community about this process," the councilmember said.

Councilmember Raul Campillo asked for a couple of changes, including an exemption for San Diego police officers on federal task forces from being required to disclose the tech they use as part of their federal work.

Police Chief David Nisleit asked for the exemption because agreements with federal agencies bar taskforce members from disclosing that sort of information. Requiring them to do so, effectively would mean police could no longer work on the federal task forces, Nisleit said.

"You are asking us to disclose the technology, and I don't have the right to do that," Nisleit told the council.

Councilmember Joe LaCava said he wanted to approve the ordinance Monday, noting it had not changed significantly since its initial approval 18 months ago. "If we delay this, we can't get on with the business of the ordinance and the board," he said.

The council voted 5-4 to add that exemption and to cap attorney fees should there be any lawsuits arising from the ordinances. The council is hoping to get it back for a vote by July 19, because the changes are not likely to trigger the same sort of lengthy review seen the first time around.

Dozens of public speakers asked the council to approve the ordinance. Many balked at Nisleit's argument that he'd have to pull the department out of federal task forces.

Initially sold to the public in 2016 as cost- and energy-saving lights, the smart streetlights included high-tech sensors equipped with cameras and microphones so they could gather data on traffic movements, weather and more.

The existence of cameras was not widely known initially. San Diego police said they did not know about them until 2018, when they tapped into the footage to investigate serious or violent crimes.

Many members of the public were shocked to learn the cameras existed, and several said they feared civil liberties could be abused or that communities of color or marginalized communities might be targeted for surveillance.

The cameras have since been turned off.

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