San Diego extends its deadline to review more than 300 surveillance technologies
The city had given itself a year to get through the work, but now it will have three more. Some doubt even that will be enough time.
The city of San Diego is giving itself an additional three years to review its many surveillance technologies, an extension that should prevent the city’s tools — some of which city officials say serve vital day-to-day functions — from being put on pause. At least for now.
The City Council on July 18 unanimously approved extending the September deadline, though some members questioned whether the extra time would be enough to get through the city’s vast inventory. More than 300 surveillance tools need to be evaluated.
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The review process was established last year when the council unanimously approved a new surveillance ordinance. The law stemmed from public outcry over San Diego’s handling of a network of thousands of smart streetlights with cameras that police could access for video and other data they captured. That access was cut off in 2020.
The ordinance required city departments to disclose their surveillance technologies — everything from drones to car trackers to fingerprint scanners — and put together reports outlining how those tools are used and how they affect communities. That information then would make its way to the newly created Privacy Advisory Board — a volunteer panel tasked with vetting the city’s technologies — and then to the City Council, which would decide whether a tool should stay in use.
San Diego initially gave itself a year to do the work, but with the deadline approaching in September, not a single tool has made it through the entire process.
On June 22, the Privacy Advisory Board voted to recommend that the city not move forward with the San Diego Police Department’s request to spend millions of dollars to use 500 smart streetlights with cameras and license plate readers as crime-fighting tools.
The department wants to use cameras equipped with license plate readers on 500 streetlights across the city. The board’s recommendation on the proposal will go to the City Council.
Some of the technologies support daily functions across San Diego. The emergency dispatch systems that first responders rely on, body-worn cameras worn by police officers and the GPS devices that trash collectors use all fall under the ordinance. City officials said every city department has identified technologies that fall under it.
Council members on July 18 approved an amendment excluding from the surveillance requirements any city databases and software systems used for managing internal administrative activities. Those systems include software used to track and manage job applicants and communications between elected officials and their constituents, according to a city staff report. It is unclear how many technologies fall into that category.
The extension of the September deadline was an abrupt departure from a set of earlier changes that suggested scrapping the deadline altogether — a revision that was immediately opposed by TRUST SD, a consortium of community groups that helped craft the surveillance ordinance.
The organization suggested the three-year extension as a counterproposal.
Though the changes were approved unanimously, Councilman Kent Lee and other members said they worried that even an additional three years wouldn’t be long enough to get the job done. Lee said continually pushing back the deadline could erode the public’s trust in the process.
“I know we need the additional time, so I’m not opposed to that as an idea, but I’m just concerned that we’re only going to be seeking more time when this three-year extension concludes,” Lee said. “The deadline feels somewhat artificial.”
Others wanted to know more about how the city would be conducting its meetings to gather community input. Currently, the ordinance requires city officials to hold meetings in each of the nine council districts for every technology. If that were done separately for each tool, that would total about 2,700 meetings. On July 18, many city officials and community members said they supported the idea of bundling similar technologies to lessen the load.
Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert said she wanted more information about how the privacy board planned to rank the technologies in order of importance — a task that falls to it under the surveillance ordinance — particularly because some tools have contracts that will be expiring sooner than others.
The board said it wants to see changes that would allow city departments to solicit proposals from possible vendors. Currently, departments need to get City Council approval before engaging with vendors, which can stymie turning over information about tools that are being considered.
That was an issue while the Police Department’s streetlights proposal was being reviewed.
Despite the changes and lingering concerns, all council members reiterated their support for the ordinance. Council President Sean Elo-Rivera emphasized that it’s imperative to maintain the spirit of the law.
“For many, and for very good reasons, privacy and safety go hand in hand,” Elo-Rivera said. “They’re not mutually exclusive. Without knowing that there’s a certain level of of privacy and transparency about the technologies being used, whole communities cannot feel safe.” ◆