The San Jose City Council is considering a proposal to install over 39,000 “smart streetlights.” A pilot program is already underway. These smart streetlights are not themselves a surveillance technology. But they have ports on top that, in the future, could accommodate surveillance technology, such as video cameras and microphones.
EFF and our allies sent a letter to the San Jose City Council urging them to adopt an ordinance to ensure democratic control of all of that community’s surveillance technology decisions—including whether to plug spy cameras into the ports of smart streetlights.
What Are Smart Cities?
Under “smart cities” programs like the one in San Jose, many municipalities across the country are building technology infrastructures in public places that collect data in order to save energy, reduce traffic congestion, and advance other governmental goals. Some of these programs may improve urban life, and EFF does not oppose smart cities per se.
But we have a word for government use of technology to document how identifiable people are living their lives in public spaces: surveillance. And we strongly oppose the web of street-level surveillance that is rapidly spreading across our urban landscapes. It invades privacy, chills free speech, and disparately burdens communities of color and poor people.
There is an inherent risk of mission creep from smart cities programs to surveillance. For example, cameras installed for the benevolent purpose of traffic management might later be used to track individuals as they attend a protest, visit a doctor, or go to church.
Democratic Control of Spy Tech
To prevent this mission creep, communities must adopt laws ensuring democratic decision-making and oversight of surveillance technology. All too often, police chiefs and other agency executives unilaterally decide to install new spying tools. Instead, these decisions must be made by elected city councils after robust public debate in which all members of the community have their voices heard. Communities will reject some proposed surveillance tools, and require strong privacy safeguards for others.
Our letter to the San Jose City Council urges them to adopt such an ordinance. Our allies on this letter are the ACLU (Santa Clara Valley Chapter), Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (San Francisco Bay Area Office), the Center for Employment Training, the Japanese American Citizens League (San Jose, Sequoia, and Silicon Valley Chapters), the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee, the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, and The Utility Reform Network.
Privacy By Design
“Privacy by design” is an equally necessary means to ensure that smart cities do not devolve into surveillance programs. Privacy by design means that technology manufacturers and municipal purchasers must work together at all stages of product development to build privacy safeguards into smart cities technologies. It is not enough to bolt privacy safeguards onto completed tools at the last minute.
Privacy by design has substantive and procedural components. Substantive protections include limits on initial collection of personal information; encryption and other security measures to control access to that information; and strong policies restraining use and disclosure of that information.
A critical procedural measure is for cities to employ their own privacy officers. With the great power of smart cities tools comes the great responsibility to competently manage them. A privacy officer must have expertise in the technological, legal, and policy issues presented by these powerful tools. Absent such in-house expertise, cities may inadvertently create privacy problems, or unduly defer to the privacy judgments of vendors, which will not always have the same privacy goals as cities.
Now is the time for San Jose to ensure that its smart streetlights do not become another tool of street-level surveillance. To do so, San Jose must adopt an ordinance ensuring democratic control of decisions about surveillance tools. It must also practice privacy by design. Otherwise, residents may find that the new "smart" technologies designed to improve their lives have instead become tools of government spying.