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San Diego Officials: Surveillance Oversight Law Needs Fixes

A hard-won ordinance that brought oversight to San Diego's many surveillance technologies needs critical fixes, officials say, or day-to-day operations the city relies on could come to a standstill.

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(TNS) — A hard-won ordinance that brought oversight to San Diego's many surveillance technologies needs critical fixes, officials say, or day-to-day operations the city relies on could come to a standstill.

The new law, unanimously approved by City Council last September, stemmed from public outcry over the city's mishandling of a network of thousands of smart streetlights.

Community members learned years after the high-tech lights were installed that police could access video and other data they captured.

Over the past year, putting the ordinance into practice has been hampered by delays and legal quandaries.

The Privacy Advisory Board, a volunteer oversight group created by the law, took months to set up and begin its work. Meanwhile, departments across the city struggled to identify which of their technologies fell under the new rules.

Once the review process did get underway, it was work-heavy and time consuming. So far, only one of the city's more than 300 technologies — the police department's smart streetlights proposal — has made it through the oversight system.

Since the ordinance requires all technologies to be reviewed before any contracts are renewed, officials say numerous city agreements could very well lapse in the near future.

Some grants also can't be applied for until a tool gets the city's final approval, meaning tech-savvy task forces like the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children — which is largely reliant on outside funding — may be in jeopardy.

City officials also worry that the ordinance's definition of surveillance is overly broad, including devices most people would not consider surveillance tools like GPS systems on trash trucks or even teleconferencing software like Zoom.

Policymakers plan to brief the city's Public Safety Committee on Wednesday about these challenges and more.

The item is informational, which means no action will be taken. Instead, officials hopes it will spark a dialogue about how to best move forward.

"We have to dig in and figure out how we narrow this down so we can still maintain the accountability and transparency here while also not threatening our city's ability to run efficiently," said Chloe Madison, the mayor's senior policy adviser for public safety.

Oversight alongside governance

San Diego's experience with its ordinance highlights a challenge for cities nationwide — how to provide meaningful oversight of sometimes invasive technologies while ensuring they meet their residents' needs.

Seth Hall, a member of the TRUST SD Coalition, a collection of community groups that helped craft and pass the law, stressed how important it is to include stakeholders early in any potential changes.

But that has not happened.

In July, the city failed to unveil proposed amendments until days before they were going to be considered.

Hall said revising contracting and grant obligations may win support from community groups, but narrowing the definition of surveillance, and in turn the scope of the law, would be a tougher sell.

He said City Council's oversight of the many technologies is meant to ensure surveillance is conducted in a manner that protects people's rights and liberties.

"If you're going to exempt certain technologies, then you're saying you don't want those protections in place for San Diegans, and there should be a really good reason for that," Hall said.

Under the existing ordinance, city departments are required to disclose their surveillance technologies — everything from drones to car trackers to fingerprint scanners. They also must report how those tools are used and how they impact communities.

That information would be provided to the Privacy Advisory Board and to the City Council.

The council would be responsible for deciding whether an individual tool should stay in use.

Many of the technologies now support basic functions across San Diego. The 911 dispatch system, body-worn cameras used by police and security access systems at city properties all fall under the purview of the ordinance, for example.

Revisions long needed

The city has long known that revisions would be needed to make the original ordinance workable for San Diego.

Back in July, when council members voted to give the city three more years to comply with the law's mandates, plenty of concerns arose. Some questioned whether the city would have enough time to fulfill the ordinance's mandates — even after the extension.

Others wanted more information about how the Privacy Advisory Board planned to rank the technologies in order of priority — a task that falls to the volunteers under the surveillance ordinance.

The rankings are especially important because some tools have contracts that will be expiring sooner than others.

Concerns over the language in the surveillance ordinance and the obligations it imposes were not unexpected.

Even before the law was passed, the City Attorney's Office in 2020 noted issues that could arise, including its broad definition of surveillance, the number of meetings the city would be required to hold and potential conflicts between the law and contracting obligations.

Madison said even though concerns were raised before the law was adopted, it has taken more than a year to digest the operational challenges and explore various revisions.

"As we dug into this, as we started implementing and getting the board seated and figuring out how to split the work, some of those concerns have truly come to fruition," she said. "Now that we're seeing how this is actually going to play out, we need to come back to the table and make some changes and address these things."

In interviews last week, police and fire officials described some of the pitfalls the current language presents.

Tops among their concerns is a provision that requires any technology that would be paid for with grants to make its way through the surveillance-law evaluation before the grant application is even filed, they said.

That can add months to the process and even cause them to miss application deadlines.

Capt. Jeff Jordon said the police department recently missed out on a slice of the Organized Retail Theft Grant, which provided nearly $270 million to agencies across the state so they could better respond to organized retail crime.

The grant application was scrapped because the department had less than three months to pass through the processes required by the existing surveillance law, Jordon said.

"So we're missing opportunities," Jordon said. "It's costing us a significant amount of money or at least opportunities to fund technologies."

San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Assistant Chief John Wood is also worried about losing state and federal grants due to time-consuming rules in the ordinance.

Every year, the city applies for funding under the Urban Area Security Initiative to fight or respond to terrorism. The fire department has relied on the funds for years to pay for everything from infrared camera systems for firefighting aircraft to bomb squad robots.

Even with a year of lead time, Wood said he is concerned that it would be difficult to get through the surveillance law's rules in time to qualify for the grants.

Considerable refinement

Although it's clear the city plans to seek amendments, it's much less clear what those changes may look like.

Madison said departments across the city have proposed recommendations to resolve issues posed by the law, but she would not disclose any of the suggestions or potential language.

"All of the ideas offered are preliminary and need input from stakeholders and considerable refinement before being included in a draft proposed package of amendments," she said in an email on Friday.

Stakeholders have long encouraged city officials to disclose potential changes as soon as possible so the community can weight in.

"Let's get the wording, the actual language out there," said Ike Anyanetu, the chair of the Privacy Advisory Board.

The chair said the board has submitted changes of its own.

In a memo to Council President Sean Elo-Rivera in July, the board laid out several possible amendments, including scrapping the requirement that departments receive city approval before pursuing grants or seeking requests for proposals.

That language prevented the board from learning which vendor was supplying automated license plate reader technology for the smart streetlights the police department plants to install this year.

Without access to the right information, the board said, the public will not be able to adequately evaluate any of the proposed technologies.

"It creates the misconception that a review has occurred and civil liberties have been protected, when, in fact, none of the proposed technologies have actually been provided for any review," the memo read.

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