The police want to install 500 cameras on the streets of the city, and San Diegans is skeptical.

Some residents called it mass surveillance technology that destroys privacy. Others said it would mark San Diego’s transition to communist China. And others said that this is not enough.

Throughout the past week, San Diego police officials have been holding public meetings in each of the city’s nine municipal districts to give residents the opportunity to evaluate the proposed surveillance technology.

The police department wants to do two things: get back to their controversial “smart street lampby attaching 500 video cameras to lampposts across the city, and adding technology to those cameras that allows the agency to collect driver location data.

San Diego Police Capt. Jeff Jordon, who led each of the nine public gatherings, recounted horrific cases of murder and kidnapping and said these and other crimes were solved thanks to smart streetlights and license plate reading technology. But he’s sensitive to community issues, he said, and stressed that the department wants to take it seriously.

“Any technology you adopt is only as good as the rules you build around it,” Jordon said. “The first is to use it in an ethical and legal way, making sure we keep people safe and not use it in an unethical way.”

Many members of the public present at the meeting were skeptical, wondering who would have access to the information, under what circumstances, and what the police department would do with the police themselves.

“There are numerous examples of police departments across the country, including California, violating each of these rules,” said Chris McCann, a software architect with experience in intelligence gathering and surveillance technologies. “Why should anyone take at face value any guarantee given here today?”

If approved, 500 new street lighting cameras will be equipped with automatic license plate reading technology. They grab any license plate that comes into view and extract the time, date, location, and sometimes a partial image of the car. They automatically store the license plate in a searchable database and compare it to the list of vehicles the police are looking for.


Vehicles move on Interstate 5 near downtown San Diego on January 4, 2022. License plate readers are used to track vehicles throughout San Diego County.

State law states that this information may not be released to any federal or law enforcement agency outside of the state. Who has access to this information is a matter of controversy, especially as state legislatures across the country are debating laws criminalizing pregnant women seeking an abortion or parents receiving gender-affirming care for their children.

An The source of information investigation Last year, it emerged that most police agencies in San Diego County spend thousands of dollars each year collecting driver location data using this technology, and found that half of them illegally shared that data with out-of-state agencies. All five divisions identified the investigation has since decided to stop sharing data outside of California.

License plate readers are a powerful tool that can help law enforcement identify people who have committed a crime. And police officers are often quick to recount all the times they have assisted investigators in committing serious crimes.

But the vast majority of information collected most often has nothing to do with solving crimes or protecting the population. In Escondido, for example, cameras scanned more than 8 million license plates, yielding 82,000 results—a hit rate of 0.9%.

Taken together, all the data it collects can provide the government with an unrestricted view of the daily lives of drivers in San Diego County—from where they drive to who they spend their time with.

Activists say this is indiscriminate data collection and point to nationwide examples of law-abiding citizens being victimized by police misconduct or a misunderstanding of technology.

However, this technology is not new to San Diego. The police department was already using street light cameras and license plate readers – the only difference now is that the city council passed a law last year requiring officials to set clear policies and hold public meetings in each of the city’s nine boroughs before deploying anything. which could be considered. observation.

And that’s where Jordan came in. His job was to explain the proposal at these public meetings, gather feedback, and present it to a new privacy advisory board and eventually city council to decide if it was right for San Diegan.

The source of information reporters attended two of the nine meetings last week and witnessed overwhelming opposition tinged with anti-communist rhetoric and a dash of conspiracy theories.

Residents also felt that the police department was acting too quickly to deploy this and criticized officials for holding meetings in the middle of the day when most people are at work.

Ramla Sahid, organizer Partnership to Advance New Americans, attended the meeting in City Heights. She said it was like a slap in the face.

“The vast majority of young people who are concerned about this, people of color who have been affected by this, imams whose mosques you put the cameras right in front ofcan’t access it,” she said, “because who the hell is available at 1:00 pm but our lovely elders?”


Cody Dulaney


The source of information

San Diego Police Captain Jeff Jordon discusses with the residents of La Jolla a proposal to add surveillance technology throughout the city, March 10, 2023.

Jordon said the department tried to space out meetings at different times and locations so that it would be easy for people to attend, but it would be impossible to please everyone. Especially with the plan to add surveillance technology.

“I know that many of you in this room will never agree to this proposal,” Jordon said. “You are afraid of privacy rights and I understand that. I’m not here to convince everyone that this is for them.”

Jordon emphasized that only officers investigating violent crimes would have access to this information. He added that San Diego Police will only retain data for 30 days, and any videos or photos not accessed for 15 days will be overwritten – a policy much stricter than other county agencies.

He also argued that the agency did not intend to violate privacy. The equipment includes digital masking, he said, that blocks any view where people would reasonably expect privacy, such as schools or homes.

Jordan also assured residents that his department would comply with state laws that prevent location data from being shared with federal and other agencies.

“Obviously, some law enforcement didn’t read this law either, which is why the license plate data of some locations in California ended up in my home state of New Jersey,” Jordon said. “We won’t lose in this one either.”

And, in an attempt to assuage concerns and counter the slippery slope concerns raised by many, Jordon has repeatedly insisted that any changes to the proposal would trigger a public hearing process again. This means that even if the police wanted to add facial recognition, gunshot detection, or other forms of surveillance, the community would have known about it beforehand.

But for some it didn’t work.

Suggested locations for street lights and automatic license plate readers.

Click here to view an interactive map.

“One of the problems is that the policy is changing,” said one person who attended the meeting in La Jolla. “People on the council now can be really good people, but rulings change, even at the level of the US Supreme Court, things change.”

At least two visitors to La Jolla thought surveillance was not enough. One of them asked why so little is dedicated to the predominantly white, wealthy community.

Jordon said officials were looking at where the technology would have the most immediate impact, especially on communities suffering from gun violence.

“There is violence here, but not the kind of gun violence that we see in other communities,” Jordon said.

At the end of the day, it comes down to using technology to help the police department, which is facing a shortage of 200 officers and 100 detectives, Jordon said. San Diego is fully funded to fill these vacancies, but they can’t find applicants.

“Any information that we can (get) to help them investigate and contact those responsible for the crime, at least with this basic information, is very valuable to us,” he added.

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