Council Approves Surveillance Oversight Ordinances

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Council Approves Surveillance Oversight Ordinances

The San Diego City Council unanimously approved two ordinances Tuesday, one to regulate the city’s use, acquisition and funding of surveillance technology, and the other to establish a privacy advisory board to oversee those practices.

Streetlight cameras in Downtown San Diego / Photo by Megan Wood

This post originally appeared in the Nov. 11 Morning Report. Get the Morning Report delivered to your inbox.

The San Diego City Council unanimously approved two ordinances Tuesday, one to regulate the city’s use, acquisition and funding of surveillance technology, and the other to establish a privacy advisory board to oversee those practices. But advocates from the Trust SD Coalition who helped write the ordinances with Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, say the city still has more privacy loopholes it needs to close.

The new surveillance ordinance provides a systematic oversight process for the city to develop solutions to privacy questions before they arise, rather than dealing with them after the fact, Lilly Irani, associate professor of communication and science studies at UC San Diego, argued to the City Council. She said the ordinance answered previously open questions about what kinds of data the city can collect, and who will have access to it.

The newly created Privacy Advisory Board — made up of experts, community members, transparency advocates and lawyers — meanwhile, would conduct annual reviews of any existing surveillance technology in San Diego, and set up a path for future analysis for any technologies that are introduced down the road.

Despite the ordinance’s unanimous approval, though, Trust San Diego has two outstanding issues with the versions of the ordinances that came out of the city attorney’s office. One city revision permits the unapproved use of surveillance technology for “exigent circumstances and large-scale events,” which Trust San Diego fears allow SDPD to continue surveilling protests, a practice it employed over the summer when SDPD used “smart streetlight” footage to investigate protestors calling for police reform.

The city attorney’s revisions also include language allowing the city to withhold information about the use of surveillance technology if releasing it would undermine the city’s “legitimate security interests.” Trust SD members argued the ambiguity of the language not only creates loopholes that government departments can exploit, but also feeds the distrust within the community over the use of surveillance technology.

The ordinances now need to undergo review by labor groups; after that, they’re expected to go back in front of the City Council for a second vote in the near future.

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