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Smart Streetlight Data Collection Pauses in San Diego

The data collection has been on pause since June 30 while the city works on a new contract with Ubicquia, the latest company to own the technology platform behind the smart streetlights.

by Teri Figueroa, The San Diego Union-Tribune / July 21, 2020
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.1 TNS

(TNS) — San Diego's Smart Streetlights have stopped collecting data, at least for now. But the cameras attached to the streetlights are still rolling, and police still have some access to what those cameras capture.

The data collection has been on pause since June 30 while the city works on a new contract with Ubicquia, the latest company to own the technology platform behind the Smart Streetlights, which have been controversial since people realized they did more than light the roadways.

As the contract talks continue, the San Diego Police Department has not lost the ability to review some of the footage, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer said Friday in an email.

"Ubicquia has committed to continuing to provide the City with video footage of serious or violent incidents that result in serious bodily injury or death upon request by the Police Chief or Assistant Chief," said spokeswoman Christina Chadwick.

She said the service "is being made available to SDPD in good faith at no cost while the contract is being renegotiated." If police need access to footage, police officials are to notify the City Council within 24 hours.

Ubicquia did not immediately provide comment Monday.

According to Chadwick, the processing of mobility and environmental data captured by the cameras has been deactivated. Nothing has changed in how the camera footage is managed or stored.

Police do not monitor streetlight cameras in real time, but they can look at the images after certain types of incidents. The department has said the footage has been helpful in solving crimes, including homicide.

In late 2016, when the San Diego City Council first OK'd the contract to install the lights, the $30 million program was sold to city leaders as a cost- and energy-savings measure. The plan was to eventually install roughly 4,200 streetlights around the city with LED lighting and save as much as $125,000 a month.

It turned out that the streetlights also had high-tech sensors equipped with cameras, microphones and other technology.

The cameras and sensors capture a variety of information about pedestrian and vehicle movements, parking availability, temperature, humidity and more. Images are turned into data. That became metadata, which was made publicly accessible.

Police didn't learn about the cameras in 2018. And it wasn't until last year that the fact that the lights had cameras became widely known.

When people learned of thousands of overhead cameras in the city — more than 3,000 have been installed — it raised fears of the potential for civil rights abuses and over-policing in minority communities. Organized pushback followed.

That community concern eventually prompted two proposed ordinances to address not just the streetlight technology, but all surveillance in San Diego. The city's Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods committee unanimously backed the creation of those ordinances last week.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who chairs the committee, said Monday that she has been assured that the council will be notified if police need access to the cameras.

It's not clear how those proposed laws — one ordinance would create governing rules, the other an oversight commission — might inform the negotiations with Ubicquia.

City staff and attorneys are working on a draft contract amendment to present to the City Council. Christina Chadwick said a revised contract could go to the City Council in September.

Initially, GE owned Current, the startup that had been installing the sensors on a platform called CityIQ. In April 2019, GE sold Current to private equity firm, American Industrial Partners. In early May, Ubicquia bought the CityIQ platform.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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