San Diego is poised to spend nearly $12 million on a network of police cameras over the next five years, a proposal the Public Safety Committee voted to advance to City Council on Friday.
The cameras, equipped with license plate reader technology, would be placed across San Diego, from Rancho Bernardo in the north to San Ysidro in the south.
Police officials — who have touted the technology as a crime-fighting tool and a force multiplier — say the cameras will be installed in public places where there is no expectation of privacy. They will not be monitored in real-time; instead, investigators will access the network after serious crimes or incidents occur, police have said.
The camera network has prompted fierce push back from some privacy and community advocates, who contend the cameras would be invasive, the policies governing the technology’s use don’t do enough to safeguard privacy and that funding for the project would be better spent on other public safety initiatives.
Despite concerns, the City Council approved the technology’s use in August, and the police department began work on a contract with Ubicquia, the company providing the cameras. A second company, Flock, will be providing the license plate reader technology and will be a sort of sub-contractor in the agreement, police officials said.
If councilmembers approve the contract, San Diego will spend about $3.5 million in fiscal 2024 on hardware, software and connectivity, $1.5 million for installation and maintenance over the life of the contract, and $100,000 to replace the LED lights. The network will cost about $2 million annually over the remaining fiscal years.
Three councilmembers voted Friday to move the contract forward. Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe was absent.
“I do understand the use for this technology and how important it can be as a force multiplier for a very strapped police force,” Public Safety Committee Chair Marni Von Wilpert said. “At the same time, we’re here because we want transparency. We want the public to know what the contract says. And we have to make sure it’s used professionally, responsibly.”
On Friday, familiar concerns surfaced.
Some people worried over the contract itself, saying it doesn’t do enough to safeguard the data collected. Others questioned why, after spending so much money, the city wouldn’t own the cameras outright, and would be forbidden from re-locating or making modifications to the technology. There were also renewed concerns over listening devices included in the cameras.
“San Diegans deserve better than vague and meaningless contracts that give our information up to profiting tech companies that fail to protect our rights,” said Homayra Yusufi, interim executive director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans. The nonprofit is a member of Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego Coalition, or TRUST SD. “If a contract cannot be offered that protects… the values of responsible use and transparency, then we really have to look at Ubicquia and Flock and ask, ‘Is this achieving our goals?’
“We’re here to tell you that it is not.”
Councilmembers also had questions about the technology and the contract, including about some of the artificial intelligence functions of the cameras, how Flock and Ubicquia will ensure city data is properly erased and whether data could be subpoenaed directly from those companies, circumventing protections San Diego has put in place.
Police officials and representatives from Ubiquia and Flock responded to many of those concerns.
San Diego police acting Capt. Charles Lara said the department chose not to own the devices — a decision that would have been more costly — to avoid being saddled with the cameras should the city decide at a later date to discontinue the program.
Regarding listening devices and the camera’s AI capabilities — a feature that can be used to analyze things like traffic flow and bicycle safety — Lara and company representatives stressed those functions are inoperable since that’s not how the department plans to use the network.
City and company officials said several times that the data collected is owned by San Diego and is purged regularly. All data collected by the cameras is overwritten every 13 days and license plate data every 30 days. Representatives with Flock and Ubicquia said because they don’t own the data, other agencies cannot subpoena them for what’s collected.
“That data does not belong to Flock and any entity that issued a subpoena to Flock we would direct them to the data owner, which would be the city of San Diego,” said Jesse Mund, a major account manager for the company.
Several of Friday’s speakers asked committee members to hold off on sending the agreement to City Council until the Privacy Advisory Board, a volunteer oversight group created by San Diego’s new surveillance law, had reviewed the specifics.
Von Wilpert asked Privacy Board members last week to review the contract at their Oct. 26 meeting so they could provide feedback and recommendations before City Council votes.
At the board’s meeting on Thursday, they passed a resolution that asked the city committee to delay its vote so members would have time to review the materials and advise. Committee members opted to vote anyway, but without making a recommendation to the full council about whether the contract should be approved.