More than a year after San Diego launched a video and audio surveillance network incorporated into 3200 streetlights, the police department has finally released new rules spelling out how the system is used by law enforcement.
Since its inception in early 2017, officials have not been eager to acknowledge the eavesdropping potential of the multi-million-dollar surveillance set-up, dubbed the Intelligent Streetlight project.
Mayoral spokeswoman Jen LeBron went so far as to insist in a February 23, 2017, Reuters account that information gathered by the system's cameras would consist of "anonymous data with no personal identifiers.” Video amassed by the system "is not as detailed as security camera footage," she went on to assert, per the report.
But the facts were different, as revealed in a December 2017 white paper by Lorie Cosio Azar, a former program manager, first reported here this February.
“Video data from digital smart city infrastructure will make it easier to identify, and, therefore, arrest criminals,” according to the document, which touted the potential marketability of data produced by the system to third parties and commercial vendors.
The new police surveillance video policies made public on March 13 acknowledge for the first time the wide-ranging impact of the technology on the public's right to privacy.
"Video from Intelligent Streetlights is recorded on a 24-hour basis. Access to the video may be achieved by Department members utilizing specialized software programs and will be limited to individuals authorized by the Chief of Police who have been trained in the proper operation of the system, legal issues associated with it, and requirements to respect the privacy of members of the public."
"The Department shall use this technology to safeguard and protect citizens’ constitutional rights, especially those related to freedom of speech," according to the seven-page document, which adds, "Video from public areas must be acquired and used in a legal and ethical manner, recognizing constitutional standards of privacy."
But not all the privacy questions raised by those familiar with the system's recent operation have been answered.
The new policy says that "wherever possible, this technology will identify private property and obscure it from viewing by law enforcement officers, and criminal activity potentially recorded on private property by Intelligent Streetlights will only be viewed with the consent of property owners or by court order in matters involving felony crimes."
The city has previously argued that its surveillance system is equipped with built-in electronic screening mechanisms to obscure video of private property automatically. The "wherever possible" term used by the new policy is likely to heighten concerns first voiced by a source familiar with the project that the screening has not always worked.
On the other hand, the document appears to dispel fears that so-called shot-spotter audio sensors, installed in all 3000-plus devices per city records, are currently operational and picking up random conversations of unwitting citizens.
"While Intelligent Streetlights continuously record video, they do not record audio conversations," the policy says.
But that may not last forever.
"The Department may elect to integrate Intelligent Streetlights with other technology to enhance available information. Systems such as gunshot detection, incident mapping, crime analysis, and other video-based analytical systems may be considered based upon availability, nature of department strategy and seriousness of the crime investigated."
"To safeguard privacy, Intelligent Streetlights shall not be equipped with the following technology: Pan-Tilt-Zoom, video magnification, facial recognition, and/or automatic license-plate readers."
The policy also addresses criticism that the mayor and city council was less than forthcoming when they installed the mass surveillance network without public notice.
"Future expansion of Intelligent Streetlights and their capabilities into areas recommended by the Department should be preceded by community outreach and input into potential locations and their impact."
Those entitled to access the surveillance video, the policy says, include not only police officials, but "members of the City Attorney's Office or Risk Management in connection with pending litigation," raising fresh questions about possibly inappropriate use of the spy data for non-police purposes.
Officers and other police workers who face internal review and related disciplinary actions are a special case, per the policy. "Internal Affairs shall provide subject employees the opportunity to view recordings relating to an Internal Affairs investigation prior to the administrative interview," according to the policy.
There are possible exceptions to officer access, left to the discretion of the police chief. "An officer involved in the intentional discharge of a firearm, an incident where any party sustains great bodily injury, or an in-custody death shall not review recorded footage from this technology unless approved by the Chief of Police or the Executive Assistant Chief of Police."
Additionally, "the Chief of Police or the Executive Assistant Chief of Police has the discretion to prohibit the review of any recordings by Department employees if it is determined it is in the best interest of the Department or the City of San Diego."
In other cases, the chief is given "discretion to allow viewing or release of recorded files if he/she determines it is in the best interest of the Department. When appropriate, every effort will be made to notify involved employees prior to release."
Video logs are also to be become more transparent, per the policy. "The logs will, at a minimum, record general information about the incident that was investigated, along with the name of the person that was provided recorded images.
"A log entry that would reveal an on-going investigation, or jeopardize public safety, would be withheld until this information could be safely released at the direction of the Chief of Police."
As for compliance, "A program manager, determined by the Chief of Police, will ensure evidence requests are appropriate and weighed against costs that may inhibit continued evidence collection from Intelligent Streetlights."
The policy adds that the sensors in intelligent streetlights "shall also not be used in a discriminatory manner and shall not target protected individual characteristics including, age, skin color, race, ethnicity, national origin, pregnancy, citizenship, immigration status, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation. This equipment shall not be used to harass, intimidate, or discriminate against any individual or group."