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Privacy Concerns Over San Diego Smart Streetlights

San Diego, California is proud to be the world’s largest smart city platform but advocates say the drive toward computer-driven interconnectedness is going too far as the city unveils its new streetlight equipped with face recognition software.

Claiming energy savings and “new technological opportunities,” the San Diego leaders are “transforming the City’s existing street lighting infrastructure into a connected digital infrastructure.”

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The city website says that data collected by the streetlight-mounted data collection sensor nodes “can be used to develop applications and systems that benefit the City and the community,” and will gather only metadata such as static data on parking, vehicle counts, pedestrian counts, temperature, humidity, and air pressure.

San Diego has partnered with General Electric (GE) to provide its proprietary CityIQ cloud database services to make the metadata collected by the sensors available for exploitation. Stated uses include “pedestrian safety and directing drivers to open parking spaces to mobility planning and optimization, to helping first responders during an emergency and urban and real estate development planning.”

Some 4,200 sensors, called CityIQ nodes, are being installed within the city limits that “can see, hear and feel the heartbeat of a city.” Soon, city officials and employees will be able to view real-time data, “allowing for endless applications.”

Among those unlimited uses are:

  • Easier parking and decreased traffic congestion
  • Enhanced public safety and environmental monitoring
  • Enhanced bicycle route planning
  • Enhanced urban and real estate development planning
  • Improve the quality of life
  • Boost economic growth

Click on this interactive map of San Diego to see where the thousands of CityIQ nodes will be placed.

GE and San Diego city leaders project a 60 percent reduction of energy costs under the new high-tech system which is being touted as the “largest city-based deployment of an ‘Internet of Things'” in the world.

The CityIQ nodes will perform marvels of sustainability, according to GE’s civic customer:

  • Direct drivers to open parking spaces
  • Help first responders during emergencies
  • Track carbon emissions
  • Identify intersections that can be improved for pedestrians and cyclists

Allegedly, replacing 14,000 streetlights with more energy-efficient models will lower energy expenses by $2.4 million each year.

In San Diego, more than 40 residents voiced their concerns, not over the projected energy savings of installing dimmable LED lights but because “the cameras [on the CityIQ sensor nodes] record data saved for five days and can be used by law enforcement during investigations.”

Lindsey Hawes, municipal energy program manager, made excuses for not involving the community in the Big Brother initiative when it first began in 2016:

“With any new technology, there are lessons learned. We are constantly learning about operational and procedural issues and generating metadata we can make available to the public. We learned a lesson on public engagement. It probably would have been better if you were contacted a year ago, to voice concerns before phase one.”

It probably would have been better but San Diego leaders became excited when GE told them the system could perform 24/7 face recognition surveillance – and save money on lighting, by the way.

According to Hawes, who has held her position for three months, exulted:

“It is a great opportunity…to collect data and understand how people are moving around the city.”

San Diego Police Captain Jeff Jordan said his department was kept in the dark about the new citizen spy program until last year. Since then, he has been working with the City Council and rights organizations such as the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) to ensure that policies are put in place to limit what streetlight-captured data can – and can’t – be used for.

Supposedly, the system won’t record private property, only areas within the public right-of-way, and has limited functionality:

“If at installation any is within camera range, the area is obscured and nothing within the obstruction recorded. The camera also cannot pan, tilt or zoom.”

Capt. Jordan said the GE smart traffic system doesn’t include face recognition technology, has no license plate reader, and is only capable of recording audible ambient noise. But not everyone is convinced that this new traffic surveillance program is legitimate.

San Diego resident Geneviéve Jones-Wright did the math and pointed out that there’s a lot of data collection being planned with no rules or regulations governing the questionable practice:

“For every 1,000th person in San Diego, there are almost two and a half cameras watching. What is very concerning and troubling is that these cameras were installed and are being used all over this city without any oversight.”

The privacy advocate continued:

“With these cameras having facial recognition capabilities and audio, we don’t expect that our conversations are going to be recorded walking down a public street.”

On the other side of the debate, Uche Chiemeka, who lives in San Diego, approved of the traffic spy network:

“It makes me feel safe knowing that we’re being watched like that. If anything was to happen it would be recorded.”

Police Capt. Jordan promised San Diego citizens that the CityIQ system won’t be used “to harass, intimidate or discriminate against any individuals or groups.”

How that will be achieved with legal policies in place is hard to fathom. Several community organizations are demanding that rolling out smart streetlights is dumb unless or until legal oversight is included in Big Brother’s plan.

  1. Post Author

    The book was called 1984,

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