San Diego Can’t Quell its Smart Streetlights Controversy

The city’s 4,200 streetlights have video sensors that collect data on weather, vehicle and pedestrian counts. While city officials say they will not sell the data to third parties, many are still concerned about privacy.
by Katy Stegall, The San Diego Union-Tribune | November 12, 2019 AT 3:01 AM

(TNS) — Controversy over data generated from San Diego's 4,200 "smart street lights" continues to brew.

City attorney candidate Cory Briggs is alleging at campaign appearances and on his website that City Attorney Mara Elliott was negligent for approving the 2016 contract between the city and General Electric to provide thousands of the street lights, which have video and audio sensors.

Briggs is contending that the lights are a violation of people's privacy and that San Diego's data has likely been collected and sold off.

His claims have since been described as "wholly inaccurate," "insane lies" and "totally untrue" by some of the people involved, including some city and company officials.

City officials said in a recent statement that the data collected by the street lights is solely owned by the city of San Diego. They said no one is spying on the community, and the information gathered from the data-collecting machines in the lights will not be sold to third parties.

The $30 million smart street lights initiative was proposed to City Council in 2016 as a way to reduce energy. Their smart sensors record and collect data on parking, vehicle count, pedestrian count, temperature, humidity and air pressure.

Their audio capabilities are not activated.

A year after the program's implementation, San Diego's Police Department began to use the lights as a crime-fighting tool, drawing criticism from some who noted that law enforcement's use was not discussed in public nor approved by the city in advance.

GE Current, a spun-off business unit of GE, owns the "processed data," which is the technology that runs the smart lights, not the data the lights collect, city officials said.

"This is similar to when you buy a cell phone," the city's statement reads. "You own the photos and text you create with the cell phone, but you do not own the intellectual property rights of the software on the phone that enabled you to generate those things."

GE Current also said Briggs' claim was false.

"The data collected from those nodes is exclusively owned by the city, and any assertion otherwise is wholly inaccurate," GE Current's statement reads. "Unless explicitly instructed to do so by the city in accordance with all applicable law, (GE Current) does not provide that data to any third parties."

Ownership of GE Current was transferred from GE to a spin-off whose executives also vowed to safeguard people's privacy.

American Industrial Partners (AIP), a New York-based private equity firm, purchased GE Current in April and will continue using GE branding, per a licensing agreement.

Randall Swift, GE Current's interim president and CEO, was originally a partner at AIP and oversaw two other companies AIP invested in. AIP specializes in "corporate divestitures, management buyouts, recapitalizations, and going-private transactions of established businesses with revenues of $300 million to $1 billion+," according to its website.

In other words, AIP buys businesses already worth millions.

AIP would not disclose GE Current's purchase price and did not respond to requests for comment.

Briggs, who is the only candidate running against Elliott, said Elliott signed off on the GE contract without notifying city council that GE, who originally financed the $30 million initiative, would be allowed to sell the collected data.

"Because she failed to do her job on yet another big-ticket transaction, there's a good chance that years of data about you and your family have now been collected — and almost certainly sold off — by Wall Street," Briggs wrote in an opinion article in the Times of San Diego last month.

Briggs pointed to a paragraph in the contract which says GE Current has a "right and license to collect, use, reproduce, make available, aggregate, modify, display, perform, store (digitally or otherwise), transmit, make derivative works of and otherwise process the Source Data" from the sensors.

GE Current said Briggs' interpretation of their contract is wrong.

City and GE Current officials said the processed data is aggregated, which means it is stripped of personally identifiable information on individuals.

City officials added that the contract with GE has not changed, despite the change in ownership.

Briggs in an interview Thursday maintained his position and said Elliott's stamp of approval on the contract shows why he should be elected in 2020.

Elliott's campaign manager Dan Rottenstreich said Briggs' recent statements were "insane lies."

"It's total B.S. He is lying," Rottenstreich said. "There's not much I can do about the media reprinting lies all of the time, but it's fundamentally false and untrue." He also called it a "Trumpian misinformation campaign designed to scare San Diegans."

Even before Briggs' opinion piece, tension was building on city council to enact and implement privacy policies dealing with smart street light data.

Citizens and local tech privacy advocates protested the San Diego Police Department's involvement in the initiative. A coalition of community organizers stood outside City Hall in September, calling for suspension of the program until privacy concerns were addressed.

"There was never any conversation about surveillance issues and privacy interests," said Geneviéve Jones-Wright, legal director for the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, a San Diego based advocacy group that helps refugees. "We stand here today as community members on Constitution Day to say, 'Respect us and our right to privacy.'"

City council members Georgette Gomez, Monica Montgomery and Chris Ward have since called for a moratorium on new street lights until comprehensive policies are implemented to address citizen concerns.

"While we support the San Diego Police Department's mission to maintain public safety, we also need to ensure that policies exist to protect the public's right to privacy," the council members' statement reads. "As elected officials, we have a responsibility to ensure that the smart street lights' surveillance capabilities and data are properly accessed and used by the appropriate agencies. We must protect civil rights and liberties of the residents of the City of San Diego."

City attorney Elliott's office said the claims made in Briggs' op-ed were "misleading," attributing it to the political race.

"Mr. Briggs's attempt to make this issue about the incumbent city attorney is not surprising as he is a candidate against her," Elliott's office wrote in a statement.

The office noted that her predecessor, former city attorney Jan Goldsmith was "the one to sign off on the contract." The contract was approved on Elliott's first day as city attorney.

Goldsmith in an interview with the Union-Tribune denied that, saying at that time he was no longer in office and was not present at the two readings city council had before their January 2017 approval of the contract.

Elliott was present for both, Goldsmith said.

"I should not have been brought into this issue and false information should not have been distributed," he said.

The city council has not schedule a time to discuss the moratorium on new smart lights.

©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.