A Bait and Switch on the Use of Smart Streetlights in San Diego

Street furniture, such as the lowly streetlight, has recently seen an upgrade to a higher status. No longer just an illumination device, streetlights have now been drafted to gather street data and even police surveillance.

Since 2018, San Diego police have used streetlight footage nearly 400 times to help in criminal investigations such as sexual assault, murder, and vandalism.  Police also requested video 35 times over two weeks in the recent civil unrest in May and June of this year.

Giving footage to the police department was never the original intention of San Diego’s smart streetlights data-gathering operation. As part of the smart city landscape, lamp posts feature traffic monitoring systems, micro weather information, and, of course, street illumination.

San Diego’s smart streetlight program began as a pilot in 2016. GE Current partnered with the city so that the city could save money with the new LED lights, which use less energy, and place sensors to collect air quality and mobility data. In 2018, the pilot was made into a full-fledged program. With a $30 million contract, GE replaced 14,000 of the 60,000 streetlights, and 3,200 of the retrofits had small node sensors placed on them. The nodes were supposed to gather almost real-time data of the vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic across the city.

Cost overruns and maintenance issues have plagued the system. In May 2020, Ubicquia bought GE Current’s Streetlight platform called CityIQ. At that time, the city of San Diego defunded the program to renegotiate the contract. The nodes have been turned off, but the video component has been kept on free of charge by the company due to street safety concerns.

Shelia: So, Joe, how did the drift from a data-gathering smart city component to an out-and-out police surveillance tool occur in San Diego, and is this common with these kinds of devices?

Joe: Smart streetlights are almost always billed as cost-saving/public safety measures. But time and again, we have seen smart devices used to collect vast amounts of data on the public.

Smart streetlights are designed to monitor things like Bluetooth devices, a phone’s MAC address, and in some cases, record public conversations. Some smart streetlights also use facial recognition and track license plates.

Shelia: Several cities in California and Massachusetts have already been working on local surveillance issues. Local coalitions have worked together with local authorities and police on building community standards and transparency for street surveillance. Currently, a San Diego coalition has been working for over a year on these issues—what is the status of their work?

Joe: The Trust SD Coalition, has been actively fighting against streetlight surveillance with limited success. They recently released the “transparent and responsible use of surveillance technology ordinance,” which goes into greater detail about the types of information smart streetlights are collecting.

Every community needs a privacy coalition like the Trust SD Coalition to fight against mass surveillance disguised as public safety.

Shelia: Using street furniture for police surveillance is one thing, but do cities need all this granular information at their fingertips 24/7?  It seems like these sensor nodes are expensive toys for many cities that do not have enough money to fix potholes in streets and maintain and build sidewalks.

Joe: The trouble with covering an entire city with 24/7 surveillance devices is twofold. Surveillance devices do not deter crime, but they are highly effective at tracking activists and protesters.

When the police tell the public that tracking everyone’s movements is not protected by the Bill of Rights, what they are really saying is, everyone should accept that police can surveil anyone regardless of their guilt or innocence. Stepping outside one’s door should not mean that you and your family will be instantly identified and tracked 24/7.

With most of America gripped with job losses and financial uncertainty due to COVID-19, it makes absolutely no sense to use public funds to increase government surveillance. Nationally violent crime rates are at historic lows, making it even harder to justify 24/7 smart streetlight surveillance devices.

Shelia: How can everyday residents stop this intrusion into public spaces?

Joe: To stop or delay smart city surveillance, people should join a privacy group or start their own coalition. Many government meetings are now being held via webcam, so people should look at their city/town hall webpage for meetings involving smart streetlights, CCTV cameras, etc. The best way to fight Big Brother’s desire to surveil everyone is to become more involved in what is happening in their communities.

If you would like to keep track of the many issues currently involved in street surveillance, check out Joe’s blog called MassPrivatel. Every Monday, Joe includes on his blog a vast list of headlines from around the world on surveillance in general. Here are posts he has written on street furniture used for surveillance:

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