Once billed as a way to capture traffic data, parking availability and air quality, privacy concerns are brewing over the city of San Diego’s Smart Street Light cameras now that the cameras are functioning exclusively for the San Diego Police Department.
Genevieve Jones-Wright, a former public defender who now works as a facilitator with the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology in San Diego Coalition, or TRUST SD, has likened the Smart Streetlights to spying.
Her organization is concerned how the cameras are used, especially by police.
“We know that these Smart Street Light footage was only supposed to be accessed for certain serious crimes and we saw that they were being accessed for very minor crimes like vandalism," Jones-Wright said.
According to city data obtained by NBC 7 Investigates, SDPD used footage from Smart Street Lights a total of 175 times from August 11, 2018, through October 28, 2019.
Data shows the cameras were used by SDPD to investigate a wide variety of crime so including homicides, violent assaults, vandalism, illegal dumping, evading arrest, destruction of city property, and drunk driving.
During the protests for racial injustice last month, NBC 7’s news partners at the Voice of San Diego found SDPD investigators accessed the cameras 35 times in five days looking into incidents of vandalism and looting.
Since June 30, data collection has been turned off while the City of San Diego undergoes negotiations with Ubicquia, the company that bought the streetlight technology in May, according to a spokesperson for Mayor Kevin Faulconer.'s office.
“Ubicquia is committed to providing 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...with notice to city council within 24 hours,” a statement read.
Just last week the San Diego City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhood Committee agreed to support two ordinances to address streetlight technology and surveillance. Council member Monica Montgomery chairs the committee and issued a statement that reads in part:
"From day one, public safety has remained a top priority for my office. We are in a crucial time for our city. We have allowed surveillance technology to show up in our neighborhoods unannounced and uncontrolled, which further eroded trust between our communities, our city officials and our law enforcement agencies. The Surveillance Ordinance and the Privacy Commission are steps in the right direction to address oversight of these surveillance technologies, as we continue to re-imagine policing and public safety."
Jones-Wright said the police department's use of the camera footage brings up issues of transparency.
"We live in a world with rules. Why do we get to give a blank check to law enforcement for them to just circumvent the rules with impunity? Everyone needs a check on their powers," she said.
Funding for the streetlight program will be part of an agenda item at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. A revised contract is expected to be brought before city council in September.