Whose Streets? Our Streets!

Report by Rebecca Williams: “The extent to which “smart city” technology is altering our sense of freedom in public spaces deserves more attention if we want a democratic future. Democracy–the rule of the people–constitutes our collective self-determination and protects us against domination and abuse. Democracy requires safe spaces, or commons, for people to organically and spontaneously convene regardless of their background or position to campaign for their causes, discuss politics, and protest. In these commons, where anyone can take a stand and be noticed is where a notion of collective good can be developed and communicated. Public spaces, like our streets, parks, and squares, have historically played a significant role in the development of democracy. We should fight to preserve the freedoms intrinsic to our public spaces because they make democracy possible.

Last summer, approximately 15 to 26 million people participated in Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd making it the largest mass movement in U.S. history. In June, the San Diego Police Department obtained footage of Black Lives Matter protesters from “smart streetlight” cameras, sparking shock and outrage from San Diego community members. These “smart streetlights” were promoted as part of citywide efforts to become a “smart city” to help with traffic control and air quality monitoring. Despite discoverable documentation about the streetlight’s capabilities and data policies on their website, including a data-sharing agreement about how they would share data with the police, the community had no expectation that the streetlights would be surveilling protestors. After media coverage and ongoing advocacy from the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego (TRUSTSD) coalition, the City Council, set aside the funding for the streetlights4 until a surveillance technology ordinance was considered and the Mayor ordered the 3,000+ streetlight cameras off. Due to the way power was supplied to the cameras, they remained on, but the city reported it no longer had access to the data it collected. In November, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of a surveillance ordinance and to establish a Privacy Advisory Board.In May, it was revealed that the San Diego Police Department had previously (in 2017) held back materials to Congress’ House Committee on Oversight and Reform about their use facial recognition technology. This story, with its mission creep and mishaps, is representative of a broader set of “smart city” cautionary trends that took place in the last year. These cautionary trends call us to question if our public spaces become places where one fears punishment, how will that affect collective action and political movements?

This report is an urgent warning of where we are headed if we maintain our current trajectory of augmenting our public space with trackers of all kinds. In this report, I outline how current “smart city” technologies can watch you. I argue that all “smart city” technology trends toward corporate and state surveillance and that if we don’t stop and blunt these trends now that totalitarianism, panopticonism, discrimination, privatization, and solutionism will challenge our democratic possibilities. This report examines these harms through cautionary trends supported by examples from this last year and provides 10 calls to action for advocates, legislatures, and technology companies to prevent these harms. If we act now, we can ensure the technology in our public spaces protect and promote democracy and that we do not continue down this path of an elite few tracking the many….(More)”