San Diego police accessed smart streetlights camera footage to spy on Black Lives Matter protests

What started as a way to increase public safety in San Diego, has turned into a mass surveillance tool to gather evidence against Black Lives Matter protesters.

A report finds the local police department collected footage from smart streetlights across the city to look for evidence linked to vandalism and looting with the hopes of making arrests.

Records show law enforcement accessed the streetlights at least 35 times from late May to early June – a time period when thousands marched through the streets.

Using this technology to spy on civilians may come as a surprise to some, but Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that defends civil liberties, predicted the act back in 2017.

‘It invades privacy, chills free speech, and disparately burdens communities of color and poor people,’ the ground shared in a blog post.

‘Cameras installed for the benevolent purpose of traffic management might later be used to track individuals as they attend a protest, visit a doctor, or go to church.’

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What started as a way to increase public safety in San Diego, has turned into a mass surveillance tool to gather evidence against Black Lives Matter protesters

What started as a way to increase public safety in San Diego, has turned into a mass surveillance tool to gather evidence against Black Lives Matter protesters

What started as a way to increase public safety in San Diego, has turned into a mass surveillance tool to gather evidence against Black Lives Matter protesters

The report was shared by Voice of San Diego, which obtained public records showing law enforcement had accessed the streetlights that were installed throughout the city in 2017.

The San Diego City Council approved the installation of the smart streetlights in December 2016 – and now more than 4,000 are in place.

The main objective of the technology is to gather data to solve transportation problems and for weather predictions, but the streetlights also takes footage of the surrounding area.

And because the stream is stored on servers, it can be accessed by request -which is what the San Diego Police Department did from May through June.

Records show law enforcement accessed the streetlights at least 35 times from late May to early June – a time period when thousands marched through the streets. The San Diego City Council approved the installation of the smart streetlights in 2016 - and now more than 4,000 are in place

Records show law enforcement accessed the streetlights at least 35 times from late May to early June – a time period when thousands marched through the streets. The San Diego City Council approved the installation of the smart streetlights in 2016 - and now more than 4,000 are in place

Records show law enforcement accessed the streetlights at least 35 times from late May to early June – a time period when thousands marched through the streets. The San Diego City Council approved the installation of the smart streetlights in 2016 – and now more than 4,000 are in place

A report finds the local police department collected footage from smart streetlights across the city to look for evidence linked to vandalism and looting with the hopes of making arrests

A report finds the local police department collected footage from smart streetlights across the city to look for evidence linked to vandalism and looting with the hopes of making arrests

A report finds the local police department collected footage from smart streetlights across the city to look for evidence linked to vandalism and looting with the hopes of making arrests

Numerous arrests of protesters have been made and the footage might be shown in court to help convict the suspects.

The Voice of San Diego noted that the city’s council has provided the camera footage to other agencies, but it is not clear to why it was shared with federal authorities. 

The records also reveal officers collected footage from the streetlights that was connected to a controversial arrest on June 4 when a police officer in plainclothes put a woman in an unmarked van.

She was said to have thrown a cardboard sign at another officer riding a motorcycle through the protest.

The incident, which took place near San‌ ‌Diego‌ ‌High‌ ‌School‌ following a protest, was captured on the cell phone of another protester. 

The main objective of the technology is to gather data to solve transportation problems and for weather predictions, but the streetlights also takes footage of the surrounding area

The main objective of the technology is to gather data to solve transportation problems and for weather predictions, but the streetlights also takes footage of the surrounding area

The main objective of the technology is to gather data to solve transportation problems and for weather predictions, but the streetlights also takes footage of the surrounding area

In 2017, Electronic Frontier Foundation published a blog post titled ‘Smart Cities,’ Surveillance, and New Streetlights in San Diego,’

The post was shared shortly after the city received thousands of the smart streetlights.

‘Now is the time for San Jose to ensure that its smart streetlights do not become another tool of street-level surveillance,’ reads the page.

‘To do so, San Jose must adopt an ordinance ensuring democratic control of decisions about surveillance tools. It must also practice privacy by design.’

‘Otherwise, residents may find that the new ‘smart’ technologies designed to improve their lives have instead become tools of government spying.’

Some San Diego residents also opposed the installation in 2017, as they were not sold on the benefits but were concerned of the privacy risks.

Geneviéve Jones-Wright said in an interview with Fox 5: ‘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.’

‘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.’

WHAT CAN BE DONE TO PROTECT PRIVACY IN SMART CITIES? 

Andrew Clement is a Professor Emeritus and surveillance researcher in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, where he co-founded the Identity, Privacy and Security Institute.

He believes that plans to build the experimental Sidewalk Toronto neighborhood ‘from the internet up’ should raise red flags over privacy and democracy.

Speaking to the Toronto Star, he outlined a five-point plan to ensure that privacy and other rights are respected in the smart cities of the future:

1. Any data collected should be anonymous by default

2. Any data handled by smart city firms must comply with privacy laws

3. Software that accesses data gathered should be publicly available under an open source license

4. Basic digital services should be accessible and affordable for all

5. Data, software and physical infrastructure should be secure and any breaches should be reported immediately.

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