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A San Diego street-lighting debacle illuminates two of the most contentious aspects of smart city technology: The potential for even more widespread surveillance and the related risk of 'function creep.'ISTOCK

John Lorinc’s latest book is Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology, and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias, from which this essay is adapted.

In 2016, San Diego City Council voted to approve a US$30-million investment in a new smart city street-lighting system that promised to not only reduce electricity consumption but also assist municipal officials in planning and managing street parking and new bike lanes using sophisticated digital sensors.

The deal, consummated the following year, involved the purchase of 4,200 of General Electric’s remote-controlled LED “nodes” as the first phase in the replacement of 14,000 of San Diego’s 60,000 street lights, all of which used inefficient sodium bulbs.

The giant conglomerate had been in the lighting business for well over a century. In recent years, its “intelligent environment” group began thinking about how street lighting, one of the most rudimentary forms of urban infrastructure, was an “underutilized asset” with vast potential. GE Current (now spun off) wanted to go further than just providing illumination by reinventing the street light altogether.

To that end, the company’s engineers designed CityIQ, which is essentially a weatherproof plastic box that sits at the top of a hydro pole next to the LED lamp fixture. This innocuous container houses all sorts of digital sensors, on-board computing power and WiFi connections to a city’s operations centre. As for the business model, GE Current told potential customers the CityIQ nodes could be financed using energy savings from the LED lights, so it’s essentially a wash for taxpayers. “It allows the city to do lots of things,” said Jim Benson, a senior marketing executive for GE Current.

The devices come with air quality monitors, fish-eye lens cameras that can monitor bike or vehicle volumes on side streets, unsafe driving and parking infractions. There’s even an audio device linked to a third-party software system called ShotSpotter, which detects gunfire, estimates the location and notifies 911. According to procurement reports cited in a San Diego Police Department document obtained by a local newspaper, the installation of the first 4,000 nodes would allow the city to transform the equipment “into a connected digital network to optimize parking and traffic, enhance public safety and track air quality.” (Other manufacturers include features such as parking-space occupancy detectors and automatic brightness adjustments.)

At the time the purchase was being considered, municipal officials had a lot to say in public about what these devices would do: reduce energy consumption and identify areas with lots of cyclists in order to expand the bike lane network. What they didn’t explain, however, is what they could do, especially in regards to public safety. As it turned out, these devices, perched inconspicuously at the tops of utility poles, were packed with surveillance technology – an unblinking eye, surveying the street below.

GE Current had sold its smart lighting systems in Portland, Atlanta and San Diego; indeed, the market for these devices is growing rapidly. Mr. Benson insisted the sensors had been fitted out with a range of data privacy protections – the gunshot detector, for example, couldn’t make out voices. But, Mr. Benson admitted, not all customers wanted the video capabilities. “There’s a lot of sensitivity around this.”

That would be putting it mildly. Revelations about the use of the video cameras by police set off a raucous local fight, pitting former mayor Kevin Faulconer and the police chief against racialized communities and civil liberties activists. San Diego council scrambled to contain the fallout. “The city has been trying to cover up what they knew about the technology,” charged Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a San Diego lawyer who speaks for TRUST SD Coalition, a coalition of groups that banded together to fight the use of cameras.

The San Diego street-lighting debacle illuminates two of the most contentious aspects of smart city technology: The potential for even more widespread surveillance and the related risk of “function creep,” particularly with complex digital systems purchased by local governments using public monies.

The world of the modern city is already intensely surveilled. CCTVs have become ubiquitous in public, commercial, office and industrial spaces. China has layered facial recognition software onto its CCTV networks, creating the world’s most extensive public surveillance system. Using a range of technologies and biometric devices, employers can monitor workers’ e-mails, the amount of time they spend on external websites, their movements within an office or the duration of their bathroom breaks.

Most of us consciously post all sorts of personal information to a range of social-media sites – data that can become fodder for investigators, reporters, competitors, prospective employers, neighbours, criminals and so on. Palantir, a surveillance software powerhouse created by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, has generated billions in revenue gathering, combining and analyzing this kind of information for law enforcement, intelligence and immigration agencies, the military and private investigators. It has been condemned by Amnesty International for failing to safeguard the human rights of people who are caught up in its surveillance web.

A great deal more digital watching takes place in the service of commerce. Websites set up cookies in your browser for digital ads. E-commerce sites track previous purchases and serve up suggestions for future ones. Google tracks and sells search information to advertisers. Social-media sites use monetization strategies that rely on monitoring user behaviour and transforming those patterns into a saleable product. Smartphones and apps are designed to track an individual’s movement patterns, purchase habits and other data that can be packaged up and marketed.

Smartphones, in turn, leave trails of digital bread crumbs that can be aggregated across millions of users’ accounts and put to work driving navigation apps such as Waze. Those apps and the companies behind them are interested in extracting huge amounts of data from the smartphones moving around a city at all times. Each device produces a signal plume, and these are aggregated by services including Google Maps to inform users about traffic delays, optimal routes and all sorts of other embedded location information derived from Street View 360 images, municipal databases, satellite photos and so on. It is a highly useful form of mass surveillance.

As Harvard’s Shoshana Zuboff put it in her 2019 treatise, surveillance capitalism is “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales.” She characterized this ever-expanding sphere as not only a threat to human rights, but a “rogue mutation of capitalism” that has produced unprecedented wealth, knowledge and power. It is, she stated in a message that resonated with the critics of smart city ventures such as Sidewalk Labs, “best understood as a coup from above.”

Concerns about smart city technologies have zeroed in on the risk of creating heavily surveilled cities in the name of urban quality-of-life benefits, such as improved mobility, reduced emissions or more efficient use of local services. “This futuristic wired urban world has a dark side,” warned Robert Muggah, a principal at Ottawa-based SecDev Group, in a 2021 essay in Foreign Policy titled ‘Smart’ Cities Are Surveilled Cities he wrote with Greg Walton. “Part of what supposedly makes cities smarter,” they continued, “is the deployment and integration of surveillance technologies such as sensors and biometric data collection systems. Electronic, infrared, thermal and lidar sensors form the basis of the smart grid, and they do everything from operating street lights to optimizing parking and traffic flow to detecting crime.”

The second but related source of controversy around San Diego’s smart lighting system was directly tied to the essential nature of digital devices, which is that they can do many things. The questions that fuelled the political fight over these devices had to do with intention: Did the city set out to buy devices that could covertly assist the police in investigating street crime or was that capability essentially latent, discovered once the devices were installed? Was it a case of “function creep?”

Initially, city officials insisted the video cameras embedded in the GE smart lighting nodes were never meant to be used as surveillance devices. They were even fitted out with software that obscures details such as faces and licence plates. “It really started as an energy project,” said the city’s deputy chief operating officer, Erik Caldwell.

At some point in 2018, however, San Diego police officials realized they could use the video footage, which is stored for five days, in crime scene investigations and began asking the city to release it. At the time, city council wasn’t informed about the police department’s interest in the tapes. “In our conversations with GE and council, we made it clear we didn’t want to use the system for law enforcement,” Mr. Caldwell insisted. “That was not our intention.” Still, he added, the city had “a legal and moral” obligation to hand over video footage when the police asked for it.

Ms. Jones-Wright offered a far more skeptical account of the city’s conduct. She said officials and the mayor’s office made little effort to explain the system’s capabilities to constituents early on, and mostly played up the environmental benefits. “There was never even a public discussion,” she said. “The city has been trying to cover up what they knew about the technology. No one had a chance to weigh in on this.”

As revelations about the police use of the nodes surfaced through documents obtained under access-to-information requests made by local investigative reporters, San Diego police responded by noting how the cameras had not only assisted with investigations but also disproved assault charges that had been laid against a bystander in one incident.

Police officials themselves have subsequently confirmed how useful the footage is. “We had no idea what the quality of video would be, or what it would capture,” Jeffrey Jordon, who leads special projects and legislative affairs for the San Diego Police Department, told Bloomberg CityLab. “The first time we saw it we were like, ‘Holy cow, that’s really good video.’”

It soon became obvious that the city was operating in a policy vacuum. There were unanswered questions about the ownership of the data and metadata generated by the nodes and whether the information could be mined or sold. There were no rules around how the police would access the video, and under what circumstances. Last, the city had done nothing in the way of community consultation around privacy issues. “They’re collecting data about how I move [around] in the city without acknowledging that we should have a say in that,” Ms. Jones-Wright said.

In 2019, San Diego police issued a procedure document outlining the use of video from the smart street lights, but critics pointed out that such policies were designed by and for law enforcement. Ms. Jones-Wright and the TRUST SD coalition called for a complete moratorium on further deployment until San Diego council had produced a legally enforceable privacy policy with public oversight.

After a year of bitter fighting, San Diego council in July, 2020, cut off funding for the street lights and in mid-November, 2020, approved an ordinance calling for stricter controls and better governance, including the establishment of a privacy advisory board that reports to council.

“Let us never underestimate the power of concerned community members coming together and making change,” Ms. Jones-Wright said after the ordinance passed. “The work started because our government and public officials failed us.”

A growing number of cities are buying or considering smart lighting systems, and some, including Oakland, have opted to disable video to head off concerns about civil liberties. Mr. Caldwell, for his part, pointed to the broader issue of unintended consequences. “It’s a kind of lesson for cities thinking about smart city technology.”

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