Cops Tap Smart Streetlights Sparking Controversy and Legislation

San Diego’s sensor-laden streetlights were supposed to save money and inspire entrepreneurs. Then the police started using their cameras and the pushback began

9 min read

Cops Tap Smart Streetlights Sparking Controversy and Legislation
This sensor-laden streetlight near San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter stores video data for five days
Photo: Tekla S. Perry

When San Diego started installing its smart streetlights in 2017, city managers envisioned that the data they gathered would help improve city operations—like selecting streets for bicycle lanes, identifying dangerous intersections for special attention, and figuring out where the city needed more parking. They thought they might spark some tech startups to develop apps that would guide the visually impaired, point drivers to parking places, and send joggers down the quietest routes. And they also envisioned cost savings from reduced energy thanks to the vastly higher efficiencies of the LED lights in comparison with the sodium-vapor lights they replaced.

Instead a $30 million project that had looked like it would put San Diego on the map as one of the “smartest” cities in the U.S. has mired it in battles over the way these systems are being used by law enforcement. Meanwhile, the independent apps that had seemed so promising two years ago have failed to materialize, and even the idea that the technology would pay for itself as energy costs came down didn’t work out as hoped.

San Diego got its smart “CityIQ” streetlights from GE Current, a company originally started as a subsidiary of General Electric but acquired last year by private-equity firm American Industrial Partners. Some 3300 of them have been installed to date and 1000 more have been received but not installed. As part of the deal, the city contracted with Current to run the cloud-based analytics of sensor data on its CityIQ platform. As part of that contract, the cloud operator, rather than the city, owns any algorithms derived from the data. In an additional shuffle, American Industrial Partners sold off the CityIQ platform in May to Ubicuia, a Florida manufacturer of streetlight sensors and software, but kept the LED-lighting side of the operation.

San Diego was the first city to fully embrace the CityIQ technology, though Atlanta and Portland did run pilot tests of the technology. San Diego financed the smart lights—and 14,000 other basic LED lights—with a plan that spread the payments out over 13 years, in such a way that the energy savings from replacing incandescent lighting would cover the cost and then some.

“One could have argued that we should have thought this through from the beginning.”

The CityIQ streetlights are packed with technology. Inside is an Intel Atom processor, half a terabyte of storage, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios, two 1080p video cameras, two acoustical sensors, and environmental sensors that monitor temperature, pressure, humidity, vibration, and magnetic fields. Much of the data is processed on the node—a textbook example of “edge processing.” That typically includes the processing of the digital video: machine-vision algorithms running on the streetlight itself count cars or bicycles, say, or extract the average speed of vehicles, and then transmit that information to the cloud. This data is managed under contract, initially by GE Current, and the data manager owns any analytics or algorithms derived from processed data.

Initially, at least, the data was expected to be used exclusively for civic analysis and planning and public convenience.

There was an expectation when we launched this that it was not a law-enforcement system, Says Erik Caldwell, deputy chief operating officer for the City of San Diego. “That’s true; that’s not the primary purpose,” he adds. “The primary purpose is to gather data to better run the city.”

But in August 2018, everything changed. That’s when, while investigating a murder in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, a police officer looked up and saw one of the new smart streetlights. He realized the streetlight’s video cameras had a perfect view of the crime scene—one unavailable from the various security cameras in the area.

old street lampThis street lamp may be old in style, but it contains video cameras, microphones, and environmental monitoring sensors.Photo: Tekla S. Perry

“We had never seen a video from any of these cameras before,” says Jeffrey Jordon, a captain with the San Diego Police Department. “But we realized the camera was exactly where the crime scene was.”

The police department reached out to San Diego’s environmental services department, the organization responsible for the lights, and asked if video were available. It turned out that the video was still stored on the light—it is deleted after five days—and Current was able to pull it up from the light to its cloud servers, and then forward it to the police department. 

“It was clear at that point that some of the video could help solve crimes, so we had an obligation to turn that over when there was a major crime,” Caldwell says.

“The data sits at the sensors unless we have a specific request, when a violent crime or fatal accident occurs. It is very surgical. We only use it in a reactive way,” Jordon states, not as surveillance.

In this case, it turned out, the video exonerated the person who had been arrested for the murder.

At this point, Caldwell admits that he and his colleagues in the city administration made a mistake.

“We could have done a better job of communicating with the public that there had been a change in the use of the data,” he concedes. “One could have argued that we should have thought this through from the beginning.”

Informal discussions between city managers and police department officials started a month or two later, Caldwell recalls. A lot of things had to be sorted out. There needed to be policies and procedures around when streetlight data would be used by the police. And the process of getting the data to the police had to be streamlined. As it was, it was very cumbersome, involving looking up a streetlight number on a map, contacting the environmental services department with that number, which would in turn contact Current, who would then extract and forward the video. It was an essentially manual process with so many people in the loop that it insufficiently safeguarded the chain of custody required for any evidence to hold up in court.

Come October, the police department had a draft policy in place, limiting the use of the data to serious crimes, though what that set of crimes encompassed wasn’t fully defined.

By mid-February of 2019, the data retrieval and chain-of-custody issues were resolved. The police department had started using Genetec Clearance, a digital-evidence management system, Jordon explains. San Diego Police now have a direct visual interface to the smart-streetlight network, showing where the lights are and if they are operational at any time. When a crime occurs, police officers can use that tool to directly extract the video from a particular streetlight. Data not extracted is still erased after five days.

It’s hard to say exactly when the use of the streetlight video started bubbling up into the public consciousness. Between March and September 2019 the city and the police department held more than a dozen community meetings, explaining the capabilities of the streetlights and collecting feedback on current and proposed future uses for the data. In June 2019 the police department released information on its use of video data to solve crimes—99 at that point, over the 10-month period beginning in August 2018.

“When you have a system with no oversight, we can’t tell if you are operating in confines of rules you created for yourself.”

In August of 2019, Genevieve Jones-Wright, then legal director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, said she and other leaders of community organizations heard about a tour the city was offering as part of this outreach effort. Representatives of several organizations made a plan to take the tour and attend future community meetings, soon forming a coalition called Trust SD, for Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego. The group, with Jones-Wright as its spokesperson, pushes for clear and transparent policies around the program.

In late September 2018, TrustSD had some 20 community organizations on board (the group now encompasses 30 organizations). That month, Jones-Wright wrote to the City Council on behalf of the group, asking for an immediate moratorium on the use, installation, and acquisition of smart streetlights until safeguards were put in place to mitigate impacts on civil liberties, a city ordinance that protects privacy and ensures oversight, and public records identifying how streetlight data had been, and was being, used.

In March 2019, the police department adopted a formal policy around the use of streetlight data. It stated that video and audio may be accessed exclusively for law-enforcement purposes with the police department as custodian of the records; the city’s sustainability department (home of the streetlight program) does not have access to that crime-related data. The policy also pledges that streetlight data will not be used to discriminate against any group or to invade the privacy of individuals.

Jones-Wright and her coalition argued that the lack of specific penalties for misuse of the data was unacceptable. Since September 2019 they have been pushing for a change to the city’s municipal code, that is, to codify the policy into a law enforceable by fines and other measures if violated.

But the streetlight controversy didn’t really explode until early in 2020, when another release of data from the police department indicated that the number of times video from the street lights had been used was up to 175 in the first year and a half of police department use, all in investigations of “serious” crimes. The list included murders, sexual assaults, and kidnappings—but it also included vandalism and illegal dumping, which caused activists to question the city’s definition of “serious.”

Says Jones-Wright, “When you have a system with no oversight, we can’t tell if you are operating in confines of rules you created for yourself. When you see vandalism and illegal dumping on the list—these are not serious crimes—so you have to ask why they tapped into the surveillance footage for that, and could the reason be the class of the victim. “We are concerned with the hierarchy of justice here and creating tiers of victimhood.”

The police department’s Jordon points out that the dumping incident involved a truckload of concrete that blocked vehicles from entering and exiting a parking garage used by FBI employees, and therefore qualified as a serious situation.

Local media outlets reported extensively on the controversy. The city attorney submitted a policy to the council, and the council held a vote on whether to ratify the proposed policy in January. It was rejected, not because of any specific objections to its content, but because some lawmakers feared that a policy would no longer be enough to satisfy the public’s concerns. What was needed, they said, was an actual ordinance, with penalties for those who violated it, one that would go beyond streetlights to cover all use of surveillance technology by the city.

San Diegans may yet get their ordinance. In mid-July, 2020, a committee of the City Council approved two proposed ordinances related to streetlight data. One would set  up a process to govern all surveillance technologies in the city, including oversight, auditing, and reporting; data collection and sharing; and access, protection, and retention of data. The other would create a privacy advisory commission of technical experts and community members to review proposals for surveillance technology use. These ordinances still need to go to the full City Council for a vote.

The police department, Jordon said, would welcome clarity. “People are of course concerned right now about things taking place in Hong Kong and China [with the use of cameras] that give them pause. From our standpoint, we have tried to be great stewards of the technology,” he says.

There is no reason under the sun that the City of San Diego and our law enforcement agencies should continue to operate without rules that govern the use of surveillance technology—where there is no transparency, oversight or accountability—no matter what the benefits are,” says Jones-Wright. “So, I am very happy that we are one step closer to having the ordinances that TRUST SD helped to write on the books in San Diego.”

While  the city and community organizations figure out how to regulate the streetlights, their use continues. To date, San Diego police have tapped streetlight video data nearly 400 times, including this past June, during investigations of incidents of felony vandalism and looting during Black Lives Matter protests.

Meanwhile, some of the promised upside of the technology hasn’t worked out as expected.

Software developers who had initially expressed interest in using streetlight data to create consumer-oriented tools for ordinary citizens have yet to get an app on the market.

“The policies and laws should have been in place before the street lamps were in the ground, instead of legislation catching up to technological capacity.”

Says Caldwell, “When we initially launched the program, there was the hope that San Diego’s innovation economy community would find all sorts of interesting use cases for the data, and develop applications, and create a technology ecosystem around mobility and other solutions. That hasn’t born out yet, we have had a lot of conversations with companies looking at it, but it hasn’t turned into a smashing success yet.”

And the planned energy savings, intended to generate cash to pay for the expensive fixtures, were chewed up by increases in electric rates.

For better or worse, San Diego did pave the way for other municipalities looking into smart city technology. Take Carlsbad, a smaller city just north of San Diego. It is in the process of acquiring its own sensor-laden streetlights; these, however will not incorporate cameras. David Graham, who managed the streetlight acquisition program as deputy chief operating officer for San Diego and is now chief innovation officer for the City of Carlsbad, did not respond to Spectrum’s requests for comment but indicated in an interview with the Voice of San Diego that the cameras are not necessary to count cars and pedestrians and other methods will be used for that function. And Carlsbad’s City Council has indicated that it intends to be proactive in establishing clear policies around the use of streetlight data.

“The policies and laws should have been in place before the street lamps were in the ground, instead of legislation catching up to technological capacity,” says Morgan Currie, a lecturer in data and society at the University of Edinburgh.

“It is a clear case of function creep. The lights weren’t designed as surveillance tools, rather, it’s a classic example of how data collection systems are easily retooled as surveillance systems, of how the capacities of the smart city to do good things can also increase state and police control.”

Correction made 10 August 2020

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