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San Diego Won’t Sell Data from Smart Streetlights

A candidate for city attorney, technology privacy advocates and city council members have expressed concerns about ensuring information collected by the streetlights is properly collected, secured and managed.

Controversy over data generated from San Diego’s 4,200 “smart streetlights” 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 streetlights, 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 streetlights 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 streetlights 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.

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.

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,” adding: “There’s not much I can do about the media reprinting lies all of the time, but it’s fundamentally false and untrue.”

Pressure has built on the city council to enact and implement privacy policies dealing with smart streetlight 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.

City council members Georgette Gomez, Monica Montgomery and Chris Ward have since called for a moratorium on new streetlights 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.

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 contract was approved on Elliott’s first day as city attorney. The city council has not scheduled a time to discuss the moratorium on new smart lights.

(c)2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.