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Group calls for moratorium on San Diego's smart streetlights program

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Posted at 11:58 AM, Sep 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-17 18:30:20-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A group of San Diego activists who call themselves the “Anti-Surveillance Coalition” gathered outside of City Hall Tuesday to call for a moratorium on the city's smart streetlights program.

In December 2016, the San Diego City Council approved the installation of 14,000 smart streetlights around the city. A few thousand have been installed in these areas since 2018, with more on the way.

"We have the right to say, 'We need more information,’ and until we get that information, we need to stop using these cameras," said Geneviéve Jones-Wright, legal director for the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA).

Jones-Wright said there's a large number of these lights in "economically depressed" areas of San Diego, as well as outside of religious places of worship.

"There's a high concentration of these cameras around mosques and worship centers," she said "That is very, very alarming."

She said the public wasn't fully notified about what the streetlights were for before they were approved for installation.

"The way that this conversation came to the City Council, it was couched in a conversation about environmental benefits," Jones-Wright said.

The streetlights are not only an energy efficient alternative to traditional lights, but, according to the city, "The nodes can use real-time anonymous sensor data to do things such as direct drivers to open parking spaces, help first responders during emergencies, track carbon emissions and identify intersections that can be improved for pedestrians and cyclists."

The San Diego Police Department has also used surveillance video from the cameras to solve crimes and get closer to tracking down suspects in serious cases.

In a statement to 10News, SDPD says the arguments against smart streetlights are "not accurate" and "micharacterized."

"The San Diego Police Department uses this technology retroactively. Video footage is gathered by detectives after a violent crime, serious injury or fatal collision has occurred. The footage is used as evidence to be able to conduct a thorough investigation. The department has been completely transparent and provided media organizations a detailed list of when, when and how the cameras are used. Additionally, the City of San Diego has made all of this information available to the public on its website," a SDPD statement said.

Earlier this month, prosecutors said a murder suspect was tracked down 12 blocks away from a crime scene using video from the smart streetlights.

"There's obviously a great benefit for the use of these cameras for crime prevention and for investigating and solving crimes that have happened. However, this cannot be pitted against our privacy interests and our rights under the constitution to be free of unnecessary surveillance," said Jones-Wright.

The group is sending a letter to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer requesting the following:

1. A moratorium on the use, installation, and acquisition of these Smart Streetlights
2. Public participation in the creation of legally enforceable policies and oversight over the use and operation of technology
3. Public records that identify how these Smart Streetlights have been used and accessed

Faulconer's office told 10News the mayor is a "strong" supporter of the technology.

“The Mayor is a strong support of using technology to improve the lives of San Diegans and the smart streetlight program is used to collect valuable information, such as traffic and pedestrian counts, that can be used for future planning. The San Diego Police Department uses the streetlight cameras only to investigate crimes that have already occurred and never for surveillance. The bottom line is you have nothing to worry about unless you decide to commit a violent crime on a street corner in full public view," the office said in a statement.