September 22, 2023

Security Pix Your World

Redefining Vigilance

San Diego leaders want city to extend deadline for public review of surveillance technology

4 min read

San Diego city leaders are reconsidering a key transparency pledge they made to the public regarding how the police and other city departments use surveillance technology.

Last August, the City Council passed an ordinance that gave departments one year to identify existing surveillance technologies, solicit feedback from the public and secure Council approval for their continued use.

Now, Mayor Todd Gloria and Council President Sean Elo-Rivera are seeking to push that deadline back another three years, which means San Diego residents will have to wait longer to get a true sense of how their city is surveilling them. The proposal is being fast-tracked, skipping the standard City Council committee process and going straight to the full Council.

The move has caught the attention of community advocates, who in recent years pushed for more transparency and tighter regulation around the city’s surveillance equipment. Gloria initially requested the City Council eliminate the surveillance review deadline altogether.

However, his administration reversed course late last week after receiving a letter from the TRUST SD Coalition, a privacy advocacy group, and inquiries from KPBS. The letter criticized Gloria’s plan and his administration’s attempt to put it before the City Council without seeking sufficient community input. The letter also proposed a three-year extension of the review deadline.

Gloria declined an interview request from KPBS regarding the plan, but late Friday put forth an amendment that reflects TRUST SD Coalition’s proposal for a three-year deadline.

“This extension gives the city additional room to continue implementing the ordinance, while keeping the original foundations of the surveillance oversight process intact,” said Homayra Yusufi, interim executive director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA), in an emailed statement. PANA is a member of TRUST SD Coalition.

The city’s Privacy Advisory Board — a group of volunteers who advise the mayor and City Council on privacy matters — plans to propose its own amendments at Tuesday’s meeting that would extend the review deadline for three years, but only for the most controversial surveillance items. That list could include things like remote-operated drones, DNA databases and equipment that can access personal devices. Technologies not on the list would not have a deadline for City Council approval, said Ike Anyanetu, chair of the Privacy Advisory Board.

“We understand where the mayor’s office is coming from,” Anyanetu said. “At the end of the day, these are technologies that we really, really need to take a look at.”

In an emailed statement, city spokesperson Nicole Darling suggested there could be “potential contract expirations and a hindrance to operations” for the city without changes to the existing surveillance ordinance.

“This amendment would help ensure that existing City operations are not affected during the ordinance implementation process,” Darling said in the statement. “This is a new process for all City departments that takes a significant amount of time to allow for review.”

Elo-Rivera confirmed via text that his office worked with the offices of the city attorney and mayor to draft the current proposed amendments.

“We appreciate the community’s advocacy and the Mayor’s partnership,” Elo-Rivera said in a text message.

The City Council will meet at 10 a.m. on Tuesday to vote on the proposal. The meeting can be watched live here.

The San Diego Police Department has come under fire in recent years for its surveillance methods. Most notably, in 2016, the city approved the rollout of so-called “smart streetlights,” which included cameras, with the idea that they would help save energy, monitor traffic patterns and improve transportation planning.

In August 2018, the department began accessing footage from the cameras and using it in criminal investigations. SDPD crafted its own policy on when detectives could use the footage roughly six months later.

That sparked an outcry from privacy advocates, who said the city never had a public debate over the streetlights’ use by law enforcement and that police could not be trusted to self-regulate. In 2020, then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer ordered that the cameras be shut off.

Earlier this year, SDPD went public with plans to re-start the smart streetlight program.

Last year, Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe introduced the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology (TRUST) Ordinance, which created a multi-step process for reviewing existing surveillance technologies and greenlighting the adoption of new ones. City departments would have to identify surveillance technologies, produce reports explaining each one and solicit community feedback.

The Privacy Advisory Board would then review the individual technologies and provide recommendations to the City Council. Council members would have final say over whether the city could use them.

But the process got off to a slow start. The Privacy Advisory Board didn’t hold its first meeting until March of this year. Over time, city departments identified more than 300 technologies and software that met the ordinance’s definition. Some were administrative and ostensibly benign, like email newsletter software and computer programs to track constituent concerns. The proposed amendments before the City Council would exclude these kinds of items from the ordinance’s definition of surveillance technology.

Montgomery Steppe declined to comment through a spokesperson on the proposed changes before the City Council.

Another key aspect of the existing ordinance is a requirement that the city hold “one or more community meetings in each City Council district where the existing surveillance technology is deployed.” That proved a challenge with the one-year deadline approaching.

Last month, SDPD released reports on more than 70 of its surveillance technologies. Instead of holding in-person meetings in every district, SDPD discussed its use of body cameras and an online evidence archive via one in-person meeting that was simulcast to churches, libraries and community gathering places in each of the nine City Council districts.


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