Overall, Americans are against the idea of statewide surveillance programs which is why there are no nationwide camera systems complete with facial recognition in place like there are in many other countries. But Americans, like most people, also want police to be able to solve crimes, especially serious and violent offenses. Balancing out the public’s desire for both privacy and protection can be difficult, which is why usually when a government agency installs surveillance systems, there is at least some level of public discussion before the plans are implemented. Such was not the case when San Diego installed cameras in streetlights across the city and now many people, including Del Mar criminal lawyer Peter M. Liss, are crying foul.
“Smart” Streetlights or Spy Cameras?
Back in 2016, the San Diego City council approved a smart streetlights program with GE, allowing the company to install $30 million worth of cameras and other equipment using taxpayer funds. The plan was never shared publicly despite the fact that around 4,000 cameras now sit on streets scattered across the city of San Diego, largely concentrated in downtown, Hillcrest, North Park, Ocean Beach, Normal Heights, Pacific Beach and La Jolla.
While not originally designed for police use, the San Diego Police Department started using the devices in August 2018, when they noticed a camera in the Gaslamp might be useful for investigating a shooting. Even then, the public wasn’t made aware of the police use of the cameras until the press slowly began discussing the issue in Februaray of 2019. Ask a typical resident in these areas and they probably still aren’t aware that their streetlights could be recording their every action.
Those supporting the use of cameras as a police investigation tool point out there are limits to the use of the cameras. They explain that the cameras do not have facial recognition or license plate reading capabilities. They point out that while they have the ability to record audio, this has never been turned on. But La Jolla criminal attorneys and other privacy rights advocates point out that these facts are of little comfort considering how easy it would be to incorporate license plate or facial recognition technologies to work with the cameras and audio recording just needs to be activated when the city determines it has a valid reason to do so. Meanwhile, the cameras constantly stream video footage of everyone who crosses paths with these streetlights.
Fighting Invasions of Privacy
Now that news about the smart camera plan has been publicized, groups such as the ACLU and Anti Surveillance Coalition (ASC) are organizing protest efforts against the devices, arguing that the lack of transparency in their approval, installation and use indicate clandestine purposes that should not be accepted in a democratic society. Carmel Valley defense lawyers largely agree. This is particularly worrisome given that the city has been slow to respond to public information requests on behalf of many press agencies.
The threat isn’t imagined either. San Diego Police Department Capt. Jeffrey Jordon says the agency has used footage 164 times in just the last 13 months. In fact, a recent study just found that San Diego is in the top five cities with the most surveillance in America and within the top 50 in the world.
Aside from general privacy concerns, there are also potential problems involving discrimination. As Chad Marlow from the ACLU points out, “the bulbs in communities of color or lower income communities or that happen to be on a corner where a Mosque is located—those are going to be the bulbs subject to maximum monitoring. Whereas those in the white upper-class segment of town aren’t going to be watched.” Proponents of the cameras claim that there is no active surveillance and instead the police must submit a request to view footage from only a set number of hours during which they believe a specific camera may have evidence of a serious crime, but while written requests are required to access footage, privacy advocates point out that police are still not required to obtain a warrant.
Just like police use of footage from Ring doorbells, Del Mar defense attorneys believe that evidence accessed this way is likely to violate the rights of suspects. If you are charged with a crime and believe your right to privacy or your right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure have been violated, please call (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 to schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss.
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