San Diego Can’t Actually Turn Its Smart Streetlights Off

Public Safety

San Diego Can’t Actually Turn Its Smart Streetlights Off

After the City Council blocked funding for the controversial program this summer, Mayor Kevin Faulconer ordered his staff to cut off access to the network. It turns out, shutting the streetlight cameras off completely is a lot easier said than done.

Streetlight cameras in downtown San Diego / Photo by Megan Wood

The San Diego Police Department stopped using the city’s smart streetlights last month, but the cameras are still on — and still recording.

After the City Council blocked funding for the controversial program this summer, Mayor Kevin Faulconer ordered his staff to cut off access to the network. He was responding to criticism from both elected officials and activists who’ve been advocating for a surveillance ordinance and privacy advisory commission.

On Sept. 9, the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee was set to consider a four-year contract with Ubicquia, a Florida-based company that owns the underlying technology, but officials pulled the agreement at the last minute. The mayor’s directive went out the same day.

But turning off the cameras would have also forced hundreds of streetlights to go dark, because the two rely on the same power supply.

Emails show that staff in the Sustainability Department, which manages the streetlights program, followed through with the mayor’s order. They had AT&T deactivate the connection, so that none of the data on the devices could go to the cloud.

They also approached Ubicquia, but the company was hesitant to do any new work for San Diego until the city forked over the money it already owed. The proposed agreement with Ubicquia includes $771,480 for the company’s services in the last fiscal year.

In the end, Ubicquia removed the city’s credentials and cut the service layer to the devices. It was the closest the company could come to flipping an off switch without physically removing the devices around town.

“If you want us to create a software switch,” Ubicquia CEO Ian Aaron wrote to officials, “we can write custom code and deploy it. The units were not designed for this originally.”

Again, he reminded the city that they didn’t have an agreement in place.

His actions effectively ended the program. But because the cameras still have power, the footage is still being retained for five-day intervals before deleting itself.

On Sept. 14, a manager in the Sustainability Department circled back to Ubicquia and requested that the company reduce the retention time of the footage to zero.

Aaron declined.

“More [than] happy to help you out once we are paid for last fiscal year,” he replied.

Nicole Darling, a public information officer for the Sustainability Department, confirmed to Voice of San Diego this week that the company has yet to abide by the city’s request, meaning the cameras are still recording. But she noted the data on the devices “are encrypted and can only be decrypted by Ubicquia.”

Aaron did not respond to a request for comment.

His venture capital-fueled company is a relatively new player in San Diego. Officials pitched the smart streetlights to the City Council in 2016 as an energy-saving program with General Electric that could dim or brighten lights from afar, and count passing cars, bicycles and pedestrians through its sensors while also measuring air quality. It would, in other words, help the city meet its transit, mobility and environmental goals by learning which areas needed the most resources. No one talked publicly about the surveillance capabilities of the thousands of cameras being installed in public rights of way.

Since then, the technology has evolved into a tool for law enforcement and has sucked up resources, despite promises from officials that it would pay for itself and democratize public planning. Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe and a coalition of community groups have banded together to propose tougher rules around the use of surveillance gear citywide.

In the meantime, she and others, including Council President Georgette Gómez, have been calling for a moratorium on the use of the streetlights.

Ubicquia entered the picture in May after it bought the CityIQ platform from Massachusetts-based GE Current, around the same time that frustration over the program was mounting. Faulconer tweaked the size of the program’s budget and proposed paying for it with Community Parking District funds, but the City Council said no.

September wasn’t the first time the Sustainability Department tried to shut down the streetlights program. Without a new source of funding in place for the new fiscal year, officials requested in late June that Ubicquia turn everything off.

Aaron replied on July 1 that the devices capturing traffic and environmental data had been deactivated as requested. But he was keeping the cameras on and accessible to SDPD at no charge to the city, because, he said, most of his customers had been expressing the need for more streetlight video, not less.

“Clearly these are unprecedented times for law enforcement,” he wrote.

As part of his reasoning for keeping the program going for free, Aaron told officials that the streetlights had helped “SDPD and the San Diego court system solve more than 380 violent crimes over the past 24 months.” The company’s website repeats this claim.

Investigators have accessed the cameras at least 392 times since August 2018, but for a variety of suspected crimes, including vandalism and illegal dumping. And judging by SDPD’s publicly available access log, many of those crimes weren’t solved with the aid of the streetlights. Twenty-nine percent of the time the video pull was tagged as “not helpful” by investigators, and 16 percent of the time the footage didn’t lead to charges or prosecution, although some cases are still under investigation.

Aaron’s unilateral decision to keep the streetlights accessible to SDPD took the Sustainability Department by surprise, but Faulconer consented. He finally shut down the program in September after the City Council made clear it wasn’t bluffing: An agreement with Ubicquia could move forward only after a surveillance ordinance was in place.

The initial draft was heard in July at the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee. A new draft is expected to come up for wider discussion at the Nov. 10 City Council meeting.

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