On Tuesday, the San Diego City Council created a Privacy Advisory Council to protect the privacy of residents and visitors when the city purchases and uses surveillance equipment and other technologies that collect or store individual data.
Board Chair Pro Tem Monica Montgomery Steppe led the board’s work to establish the nine-member board, which all board members approved except for one member who was absent.
Steppe described the creation of the council and an upcoming ordinance regarding new and existing surveillance technologies in the city — billed as Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology, or TRUST — as intended to “help to ensure that any use of surveillance technology to protect public health and safety is proportionate, effective and responsible.”
The campaign took place in 2019, following the revelation that the $30.3 million Smart Streetlights program – approved in late 2016 and touted as a way to gauge traffic patterns – actually installed more 3,000 cameras and microphones in San Diego streetlights. Some of these surveillance devices were used by the San Diego Police Department to solve violent crimes, but public backlash prompted then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer to shut down the program.
The board conducted a first reading of the Privacy Advisory Council’s Order on November 10, 2020. Tuesday’s action, after 18 months of staff developing language appropriate to the ordinance, formally established the council, set out its parameters, and allow it to be populated before the other ordinance is considered and potentially passed later this year.
Councilwoman Vivian Moreno said the council’s creation was “essential to correcting many privacy issues in the city.”
The council will consist of nine volunteer members, six of whom must be residents of the city. Members must be nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council.
There must be at least one privacy or civil rights lawyer or lawyer, a representative of an organization that specializes in privacy or civil rights, a certified auditor or public accountant, a computer hardware professional, software or encryption security and a member of an organization that focuses on open government and transparency or someone, such as an academic researcher, with experience working on open government and transparency.
Additionally, there must also be at least four members of “equity-oriented organizations serving or protecting the rights of communities and groups historically subject to disproportionate surveillance, including communities of color, immigrant communities , religious minorities and groups concerned about privacy and protest”. reads a staff report on the order.
Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert and Council Speaker Sean Elo-Rivera expressed concern about how certain communities may have been targeted for disproportionate surveillance in the past – or currently – both citing the Muslim community for example. They said they believed the advisory board would ensure fairness and responsible use of technology for surveillance purposes.
Each board member will serve a two-year term with a maximum of eight consecutive years. The terms will be staggered, so that the terms of no more than half of the members will end in a single year.
In terms of actual function, the council will provide advice and technical assistance to the city on best practices for protecting privacy rights, hold meetings and use other public forums to gather and receive public input, review the Surveillance Impact Report of All New and Existing Surveillance Technologies and Surveillance Usage Policy and submit annual reports and recommendations to the Board regarding surveillance technologies.
Councilor Raul Campillo said the advice was a major step towards ensuring the right to privacy and strengthening public safety, which “go hand in hand”.