Mayor Kevin Faulconer

City Is Hiding Data From Smart Street Lights, Lawsuit Claims

An open government group claims the city of San Diego refused to turn over data collected by Smart Street Light cameras

A Smart Streetlight in San Diego, California.

A government advocacy group is suing the city of San Diego for refusing to turn over surveillance footage and data from almost 4,000 cameras installed on city street lights.

In its lawsuit, San Diegans for Open Government claims the city violated state open records laws by failing to disclose in a public records request the surveillance footage and any data from the cameras. In addition, the group said the city would not provide detailed information about the so-called "Smart Streetlight Program."

Mayor Kevin Faulconer sold the program as a way the city could save money through the use of energy efficient light bulbs, and at the same time collect data from the cameras that could improve pedestrian and traffic safety. 

Others, however, have criticized the smart streetlights for what they believed was an attempt by the city to spy on the public. Earlier this year, three city councilmembers called on Mayor Faulconer to stop using the cameras until they were provided additional information on how and where the data would be used. Social advocacy groups have also called on the city to suspend the program.

According to the complaint, San Diegans for Open Government submitted multiple public records requests last month for the data and footage collected by the streetlight cameras. On Dec. 6, the city responded to the request by stating there “were no responsive documents.”

By denying the request, San Diegans for Open Government alleges the city is trying to keep the data taken on public streets out of the hands of the public.

“City officials cannot deny the existence of the data when there are nearly 4,000 surveillance devices all across the city that are operating around the clock,” said the group’s attorney, Cory Briggs. "If the sale of our data were lawful, the city would not be hiding it from the public.”

Briggs, who is currently running for city attorney, has criticized the program and the potential use of that data by a third party.

“My clients are deeply disturbed, as all San Diegans should be, by the fact that the city is gathering data about everyone’s comings and goings, but then the only people that can see the data are mega-corporations making millions by selling that very same data," Briggs said.

The city and General Electric, the parent group of the company that owns the cameras, denied that data was shared with any third parties.

“The data collected from those nodes is exclusively owned by the city, and any assertion otherwise is wholly inaccurate,” read a statement from General Electric.

“Unless explicitly instructed to do so by the city in accordance with all applicable law, current does not provide that data to any third parties," a General Electric's Corporate Team spokesperson said.

Cody Hooven, San Diego’s Chief Sustainability Officer, also refuted any allegations that the public’s data was at risk of getting shared with outside parties.

“Any intellectual property referred to as process data, belongs to GE. This is similar to when you buy a cell phone - you own the photos and text you create with the cell phone but you do not own the intellectual property rights of the software on the phone that enabled you to generate those things.”

The city declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

To find out more on the smart streetlight program, listen to NBC 7 Investigates' podcast here.

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