San Diego's Smart Streetlight Contract Gives Third Party Right to Sell Data, Attorney Says

The city's contract grants General Electric full rights to use video and audio from smart streetlight cameras as it sees fit

The city of San Diego’s initiative to install cameras on approximately 3,000 streetlights citywide was presented to its city council as a way to save money on lighting costs, while also gathering data on traffic flow and pedestrian behavior.

But concerns are mounting about how data collected by the "Smart Streetlight” system will be used and who will have access to that information.

The City Council also gave the streetlight camera provider, General Electric, unrestricted rights to the data, according to a copy of the contract obtained by NBC 7.

And as reported by the Union Tribune, the council authorized San Diego police to review the video surveillance for help in several criminal investigations. 

Councilmembers Monica Montgomery, Chris Ward, and Georgette Gomez are pushing back on that questionable use of video and data gathered on San Diegans. The councilmembers want to stop the installation of more smart streetlights until they get more information about how GE will use and potentially sell that data.

The Anti-Surveillance Coalition, a public advocacy group led by former district attorney candidate Geneviéve Jones-Wright, has also called for a ban on the smart cameras.

"I understand that there may be benefits to crime prevention, but the point is, we have rights and until we talk about privacy rights and our concerns, then we can't have the rest of the conversation," Genevieve Jones-Wright told NBC 7 in a September interview


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While much of the criticism about the cameras has focused on their role in public surveillance, there are also concerns about GE’s collection and dissemination of the data from the smart streetlights.

According to the contract: “[The city grants GE] nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, sublicensable 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, in each case as permitted by applicable law.”

Smart Streetlights
Excerpt from December 16, 2016 contract with General Electric

Attorney Cory Briggs told NBC 7 that lawyers for the city who reviewed the contract should have warned councilmembers about the downside of the agreement. Briggs says the city lawyers and staff had a duty to fully inform elected leaders about the data potential for the sharing and sale of data on local citizens.

“This was presented as an energy efficiency update to street lights,” said Briggs, who’s a candidate for City Attorney. “It turns out that they're gathering the data. They've been giving it to the police, but they're also [potentially] giving it to Wall Street with no constraints whatsoever. Well, that's exactly what Facebook was doing when it was giving data to big tech, so that people could take it and use it for political purposes.”

Briggs said the fact that councilmembers are now want a moratorium on the project confirms that they were not provided with the information necessary to make their decision.

“Now we have council members coming out saying they weren't aware of the surveillance. Well, if they weren't aware of the surveillance, they sure as heck weren't aware that the data being gathered [can be] sold to Wall Street, with no constraints whatsoever," Briggs said.

Briggs blames current City Attorney Mara Elliott for failing to inform council members. Elliott’s spokesperson said the responsibility falls on Elliott’s predecessor, Jan Goldsmith.

“Mr. Briggs misled you...In fact, the Smart Streetlights contract was approved by the City Council on December 13, 2016, which was Mara Elliott’s first full day in office,” Elliott’s spokesperson told NBC 7. “All work on the matter was completed before she took office; her predecessor signed off on the contract.”

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