Streetlight Spy Cameras Have Led to a Massive Privacy Backlash in San Diego

The city council unanimously voted to pass one of the strongest privacy regulations in the country after a campaign against 'smart streetlights'
Katy Stegall
Chula Vista, US
Streetlights equipped with surveillance cameras rise above the streets of San Diego during sunset.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

In 2017, the city of San Diego began installing around 3,000 sensors and hidden cameras into streetlights. The so-called "smart streetlights" were originally approved as an initiative to monitor and mitigate traffic, but quietly became a crime-solving tool for local police and faced public outcry from privacy-concerned residents. 

Now, what began with local opposition to the controversial technology is driving an effort that could give the city one of the strongest sets of local privacy regulations in the country.  


Last week, the San Diego city council unanimously passed two privacy ordinances aimed at providing transparency into the use of surveillance tech by police. The measures were created by members of the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego (TRUST SD) coalition, and were heavily inspired by surveillance ordinances passed in Oakland, CA last year. 

While both ordinances passed a first reading with the city council, the new regulations still have to be reviewed by several local interest groups, including the city's police union.  

“The vision is that this ordinance passes and allows for a community that’s engaged in social justice, criminal justice reform, freedom and the pursuit of liberty,” Dr. Lilly Irani, a University of California San Diego communications professor and co-author of the ordinance, told Motherboard. “This ordinance allows for those movements to hold the city accountable.”

San Diego is often overlooked in the national surveillance discussion, according to Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) researcher Dave Maass. He said the city’s wealth, proximity to the border and heavy military presence makes San Diego a “fruitful zone” for testing new surveillance technologies. The ordinance could not have happened, he said, without a leftwards political shift paired with community organizers acting against a long series of blunders with local surveillance technology. 


“We’ve had this eye on San Diego, watching it change politically, watching the leaders who have been elected start to pay attention to these issues, and that, combined with a series of boondoggles, has resulted in a strong ordinance,” Maass told Motherboard. “We’re supportive of the community groups who are trying to pass a strong ordinance.” (Maas noted that the EFF has not officially endorsed the ordinances at this time)

The two ordinances paired together will require officials submit an annual surveillance report to the Privacy Advisory Board. The report will include a breakdown of how the tech is used, along with its costs and funding sources. The report will also show what type and amount of data is collected, who has access, and the race of those impacted by the surveillance program. 

If city officials want to implement new surveillance technology, they would need to submit an impact report and a use policy detailing similar information.

The ordinance will also retroactively impact pre-existing surveillance technologies—including the smart streetlights initiative, which was approved in 2016 for a total cost of $30 million. Approximately 3,000 streetlights were equipped with “sensor nodes” to process data on parking, air quality and traffic. But these sensor nodes were also equipped with video and audio recording capabilities. 

San Diego police discovered the video recording capabilities nearly two years later, and it soon became a favored crime-solving tool. For months, neither the public nor the city council were aware the police had been using streetlight video footage as part of criminal investigations, or that they had written their own policies for accessing the devices.


A spokesperson for the San Diego Police Department  declined to comment when asked about the ordinance passing, citing the ongoing regulatory process.

According to local media coverage,  the devices never produced the environmental and transportation data as promised. Instead, the streetlights were used solely in 2020 by the police—including during the Black Lives Matter protests in June and July, to identify protestors and those accused of vandalism, assault, and other crimes, according to a Voice of San Diego investigation. 

Police no longer have access to the streetlight footage, but the cameras are still recording and the footage is retained for five days. In September, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer ordered his staff to shut down the program. Ubicquia, a Florida-based company that manages the smart streetlight program, severed the police department’s access to the devices, but declined to completely turn off the recording function until it gets paid for work it already did last year.

Faulconer ordering the shut down came as a surprise. He had supported police using the streetlights and ignored the city council when it called for a moratorium on the program until a comprehensive policy was adopted. When his office later returned with a proposed streetlight policy, the city’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee rejected it and called for an all-encompassing surveillance ordinance.


When TRUST SD formed last year, its sights were originally set on the smart streetlights. The coalition was formed from over 30 community advocacy groups involved in criminal justice, privacy and immigration, as well as tech workers, professors, and attorneys. Soon, the group's mission expanded beyond smart streetlights creating a policy that would oversee all surveillance technologies. 

“We were telling the police, don't look at the leaves —  don't look at just the street lights. You have to look at the full tree to be able to understand this,” Homayra Yusufi, Deputy Director of Partnership for Advancement of New Americans and TRUST SD member, was one of the authors of the proposed ordinance, told Motherboard. 

The San Diego privacy ordinance arrives at a time when cities across the US are voting to ban or strictly limit the use of surveillance technologies like facial recognition. In September, Portland, OR passed the most comprehensive facial recognition ban in the country, joining other major cities including San Francisco, CA and Cambridge, MA, which have passed resolutions to forbid use of the technology by police. 

As the ordinance in San Diego enters its next phase of consideration, privacy advocates there see their work as part of the same, bigger picture.

“The plan is that the movement will continue to remain engaged and will continue to try to improve this ordinance and improve actual safety, which does not come from surveillance, but which comes from taking care of each other,” said Irani.