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Lawsuit launched over San Diego’s streetlight data

San Diego’s smart streetlight programme has generated some concerns and criticism but the city insists that privacy is paramount.

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A watchdog group is suing the City of San Diego, claiming it failed to release data collected through its Smart Streetlights Program.

 

The suit from San Diegans for Open Government, through attorney and city attorney candidate Cory Briggs, alleges that the city “illegally failed to disclose” public records which were requested.

 

According to the San Diego Union Tribune, the group filed several requests under the Public Records Act asking the city to hand over all the source data collected by sensors on all its smart streetlights over a 24-hour period. The group also wanted all records related to processed data.

 

According to the latest reports, San Diego’s City Attorney’s Office had not yet received the lawsuit.

 

Sensor platform

 

With what began as a cost-savings effort to replace streetlights with more efficient LED lights, the City of San Diego is now deploying what it describes as “the world’s largest smart city sensor platform” through anonymous data collected by sensor nodes on streetlights.

 

The $30 million project was financed by GE Capital on a 13-year payback using the energy savings from the LED conversion, meaning no up-front outlay was required.

 

 

The $30 million project was financed by GE Capital on a 13-year payback using the energy savings from the LED conversion.

The 4,200 sensors generate metadata (static data on parking, vehicle counts, pedestrian counts, temperature, humidity, pressure, etc.). The nodes connect to technology partner Current by GE’s CityIQ cloud database.

 

“The open data platform possibilities range from pedestrian safety and directing drivers to open parking spaces to mobility planning and optimisation, to helping first responders during an emergency and urban and real estate development planning. Our hope is that new applications will be built using this technology to help improve city services and initiatives,” the City of San Diego’s website says.

 

For instance, the city envisions applications and benefits based on the data including improved parking and traffic flow, well-placed bicycle infrastructure, reduced crime and new app development.

 

San Diego estimates that energy-efficient lights save $2.8 million in annual energy costs, while the sensor nodes also minimise costs related to installing one-off point solutions.

 

San Diego estimates that energy-efficient lights save $2.8 million in annual energy costs, while the sensor nodes also minimise costs related to installing one-off point solutions such as in-ground parking sensors, pedestrian detection infrared, inductive loop surveillance at intersections, CCTV video cameras, and more.

 

Surveillance concerns

 

Some critics such as San Diegans for Open Government and Cory Briggs have raised concerns about the streetlight programme and alleged surveillance.

 

Both the City of San Diego and Current by GE have stressed that the city owns all the data collected by the nodes and that it will not be sold to third parties.

 

The system is not equipped with licence plate reader technology, facial recognition or pan-tilt-zoom capabilities. Private property information is not visible to any users, according to information on San Diego’s city website.

 

“While this project is a tremendous technological benefit to the city and our citizens, we recognise and value the importance of privacy,” the city’s website says, explaining: “Raw video and image data are not accessible to general city staff or any members of the public. These raw data are only retained by GE locally on the sensor (not in their cloud database) for five days then overwritten/deleted.

 

“The primary purpose of video and image information is to be used by a software programme to generate metadata such as vehicle counts. Special and limited access to video/image data exist exclusively for the San Diego Police Department (SDPD). Authorised personnel in SDPD may request access to specific video/images within the five-day period at the discretion of the Chief of Police for criminal investigations only.”

 

It adds: “As this is a new frontier in the technology world and in the city operations world, we expect to evolve this policy as we receive input from users of the metadata and citizens.”

 

Metadata can be accessed via the city’s publicly available API.

 

The City of Atlanta is also deploying Current’s CityIQ nodes on 200 streetlights through a partnership with utility company Georgia Power.

 

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