Privacy board wants more public input on San Diego police bid for streetlight cameras, license plate readers

Smart Streetlight as seen August 2019 in North Park in San Diego
The City of San Diego has previously installed “Smart Streetlights,” likethe one seen here in August 2019 in North Park. The devices include cameras which police were able to access until 2020. Police are asking to install new cameras and get access again.
(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Privacy Advisory Board approved the creation of an ad hoc committee to receive more public input on a police bid to install hundreds of streetlight cameras and automatic license plate readers across San Diego


The city’s newly-established Privacy Advisory Board voted last week to create an ad hoc committee to gather more research and public comment on the San Diego Police Department’s proposal to install hundreds of smart street lights and automatic license plate readers across the city.

The purpose of the committee will be to ensure the board has more community input before its members decide whether to recommend the proposal to the City Council.

Thursday’s meeting — attended by approximately 50 members of the public in-person with an unknown number of people attending via Zoom — was the second since the board first met in March. The eight members of the advisory board were appointed by Mayor Todd Gloria in 2022.

During the meeting, representatives from the Police Department presented the Smart Streetlights Impact Report, which including information on the purpose of the technology, where it would be located, how much it would cost and how the data collected would be safeguarded.

San Diego has had cameras tucked into streetlights before, but once the public found out, an outcry led the city to shut down all access in 2020. The city later passed a surveillance ordinance and created the Privacy Advisory Board to evaluate surveillance tech the city has or wants to buy.

Police hailed the cameras as an investigative tool and want to use them again. They are asking to install or upgrade cameras and license plate readers at 500 locations throughout the city.

San Diego would be the biggest U.S. city to use cameras and plate readers as part of a single network. But the community will get to weigh in first.

San Diego police Lt. Adam Sharki told the board during the presentation that the new technology would allow police to capture license plate numbers in search of stolen or wanted vehicles.

The cameras would also constantly record, allowing police to use video evidence in violent crime investigations, Sharki said.

The data would be stored in a secure area with access restricted to authorized investigators, Sharki said.

Police presented the plan last month during nine community meetings — one for each council district — at various locations across the city. Attendees asked police questions about the program and a video of one of the meetings was posted online.

Some residents at the in-person meetings supported the idea, saying the high-tech streetlights could help police solve or prevent serious crimes. But many had concerns over privacy, over-policing in communities of color and how the information would be stored and collected.

The comments largely skewed against the program at two of the meetings held in Mission Valley and Mountain View on March 8 and March 9, respectively. Of the 394 comments left on the online recording of one of the meetings, 324 were opposed to the program.

After Sharki’s presentation at City Hall on Thursday, the board members asked questions about the program and some of them echoed the public speakers’ privacy concerns.

“We heard today that the police can use this technology for investigative purposes, so police get a lot of discretion,” said board member Cid Martinez, one of the advisory board members. “And, as a sociologist, I can tell you that discretion leads to discrimination.”

Board Chair Ike Anyanetu said the board should use the the coming months to make a decision and get more opinions on the program.

“I just feel like there’s not too many outstanding questions but the potential for what this can do hasn’t been explored enough,” Anyanetu said.

Other board members, whose specialties vary from technology to privacy to legal scholarship, questioned the constitutionality of such a program, how the data would be stored and what future plans might be in store for a technology that has these capabilities, such as facial recognition.

Many of the attendees at Thursday’s meeting said they did not trust police with the technology and that it was an invasion of privacy.

“The first and most effective way to secure data from leaks and hacks is not to generate excessive data in the first place,” said Jacob Van Dehy, a public speaker during the meeting.

Jay Goldberg, an attendee at the meeting who said he had experience working with automated license plate recognition technology, said he doubted if a government could be trusted to exercise reasonable judgment with such technology.

“I ask the board to create justification on its own about whether the cost of (automated license plate readers) and the privacy considerations are the best way to protect against the establishment of hundreds of network checkpoints, saving location and movements of millions of San Diego,” Goldberg said.

Sharki told the board that the technology would not be used for facial recognition, gunshot detection or traffic enforcement. If technological improvements or policies regarding the cameras change in the future, police will need to return to the community for comment.

The recordings and images would be secured with 256-bit, end-to-end encryption — methods used to keep data secure, said Capt. Jeff Jordon during one of the community meetings. A time limit would be set on how long the city can store data, unless it is being used in an active investigation, he added.

The city approved ordinances last year that set rules governing surveillance technology. If ultimately approved by the City Council, it would cost about $4 million to install 500 Smart Streetlights from Carmel Mountain Ranch to San Ysidro.

The controversy surrounding the Smart Streetlights began in 2019 when it was revealed that the cameras had been installed without public input. Police started accessing the camera footage in 2018 for investigations, which raised concerns from community members about potential civil rights violations and oversurveillance, particularly in communities of color.

Direct access was cut off in 2020 as a result of public outcry.

Because the Smart Streetlight cameras had not been well maintained over the years, the city would need to install new cameras if the Police Department’s latest proposal is approved. Adding the license plate reader technology would mark the first time the city of San Diego would have the readers in fixed locations.

According to the Smart Streetlights Impact Report, the surveillance program will be reviewed by the Privacy Advisory board and City Council annually.

The next meeting for the Privacy Advisory Board is scheduled for May 17.