Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
before D.C. Council Committee on Transportation & the Environment Public Roundtable on
PR24-110, the Office of Public-Private Partnerships DC Smart Street Lighting Project Request for Proposals Approval Resolution of 2021
Ahoefa Ananouko, Policy Associate
March 26, 2021
Hello Chairperson Cheh and members of the committee. My name is Ahoefa Ananouko and I am testifying today on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC) and our more than 15,000 members and supporters across the District.
The ACLU-DC is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization committed to working to reverse the tide of overincarceration, safeguard fundamental liberties, eliminate racial disparities, and advocate for sensible, evidence-based policies that protect the civil rights of District residents.
While we support the District in moving towards more energy efficiency, the ACLU-DC strongly opposes the creation of infrastructures for pervasive mass surveillance and we have concerns about the use of a public-private partnership to execute such a project. As appealing as the energy-efficient and cost-savings aspects of smart streetlights are, incorporating these into the District’s light grid poses potential threats to constitutional rights to privacy and association—rights residents and visitors of the District should not have to sacrifice.
Of significant concern to us is the surveillance capabilities of the “smart” streetlights the District plans to install. Marketed to the public for their energy efficiency, “smart” streetlights are often covert surveillance tools disguised as energy-efficient LED lights. Equipped with sensors of varying capabilities, cameras, and microphones, these lightbulbs have the potential to be deployed for widespread surveillance. If activated, “smart” streetlights can indiscriminately capture people’s conversations, their habits, their whereabouts, and people with whom the interact.
Marketed to the public for their energy efficiency, “smart” streetlights are often covert surveillance tools disguised as energy-efficient LED lights. Equipped with sensors of varying capabilities, cameras, and microphones, these lightbulbs have the potential to be deployed for widespread surveillance. If activated, “smart” streetlights can indiscriminately capture 24-hour recordings of people’s conversations, their habits, their whereabouts, and people with whom they interact.
These are not just hypothetical concerns to raise alarm. A tell-tale example is that of San Diego, where members of the City Council were unaware for months that the San Diego Police Department had been pulling video footage from the smart streetlights the city had installed. And they only found out after activists had raised concerns at community meetings. Both the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are reported to have contracted with companies specializing in concealment to hide undisclosed amounts of covert surveillance cameras inside smart streetlights across the country.
The surveillance capabilities of smart streetlights pose significant threats to communities; their use could further the biased policing we see across the District and around the country that targets Black and Brown people, people living in low-income neighborhoods, immigrants, Muslims, and certain political activist groups. These lights are more likely to be placed in areas considered “high crime.” In D.C. these are areas where the District has already invested millions of dollars to install closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras—Southwest, Columbia Heights, the U Street Corridor, Shaw, Saratoga, Greenway, Washington Highlands, and Congress Heights — making residents of these neighborhoods subject to greater scrutiny and monitoring. And when paired with faulty technologies like facial recognition software, the potential for racial profiling and criminalization increases—entrenching existing surveillance and over-policing of these communities.
The data potentially captured by these surveillance-equipped lights could be accessed and possibly misused by District agencies such as the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and shared with other government and law enforcement entities, such as the DEA and ICE. This would threaten the wellbeing of D.C.’s immigrant communities and directly contradicts the District’s commitment to being a Sanctuary City, solidified in the Sanctuary Values Amendment Act. The surveillance capabilities of smart streetlights do not make communities safer, but rather contribute to already strained community-law enforcement relations and exacerbate the continuing erosion of community trust in police.
The use of a public-private partnership (“P3”) to effectuate the procurement and maintenance of the District’s streetlight project adds additional transparency and accountability concerns, in addition to concerns about costs overtime. When discussions about the streetlight conversion project first surfaced in 2018, the ACLU-DC and community members asked questions about what it would mean to involve a private entity who would have control over these “smart” lights, especially given the technological capabilities of such lights. What measures would be in place to ensure that District residents are notified if/when the Mayor or some other entity like MPD decides to add or turn on surveillance capabilities? Would there be regular auditing of the functions and usage of these lights? What would be the data collection, retention, and sharing policies of any information gathered by “smart” streetlights, and who would have access to the data collected?
We also expressed concern about the opaqueness of the P3 process itself. Although the Office of Public-Private Partnerships (OP3) and the Department of Transportation (DDOT) held several community forums in 2018 and 2019, since then, there has largely been silence about the progress of the project. Neither the Mayor’s office, OP3, nor DDOT have made clear how concerns raised by the community during those forums have been addressed or incorporated into the process.
Finally, private financing tends to be more expensive than public debt. Which means a public-private partnership will cost the District more over time, because D.C. would end up paying far more than its initial investment, but these costs are often hidden up front. What would be the revenue source for paying off this debt over time? Do the costs outweigh the benefits? This is a discussion that should be had transparently and with public opportunity for input.
The fact is that the District currently has no adequate public process for approving the acquisition and use of surveillance technologies like “smart” streetlights.
The ACLU-DC is a member of Community Oversight of Surveillance-DC (COS-DC), a coalition of local and national organizations and individuals committed to bringing public oversight to how District agencies procure and use surveillance technologies. We urge the Council to introduce and pass legislation that requires Council approval anytime a District agency wants to purchase, acquire, or use surveillance technology.
The Community Oversight of Surveillance for Washington, D.C. (COS-DC) legislation provides a viable path for the D.C. Council and public to engage with decisions about proper use of modern surveillance technology. The legislation ensures that decisions about their use are made with thoughtful consideration and buy-in from the public and elected lawmakers, and that the operation of approved technologies will be subject to rules that safeguard residents’ rights and provide transparency.
The COS-DC legislation would empower the Council and the public by:
- Creating a transparent and public process for considering surveillance technology proposals, by requiring that all acquisition and use of such technologies by D.C. agencies be subject to Council approval following a public hearing.
- Requiring that agencies create written rules for use of surveillance technologies and submit the rules to the D.C. Council for approval. These include surveillance impact reports that explain how a technology works and will impact the community, and surveillance use policies that set out specific guidelines for the technology’s use by the agency.
- Creating a privacy advisory group to advise and help inform both D.C. agencies and the Council on civil rights and civil liberties risks of specific surveillance technologies and their use in the District.
- Requiring periodic assessments and annual evaluation of the District’s use of surveillance technology to ensure that costs—both to residents and to their rights–do not outweigh any potential benefits, and to assess whether D.C.’s use of surveillance technology furthers public safety goals.
To date, at least 17 jurisdictions, including Madison, WI, New York City, Nashville, TN, and even the Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority (BART), have passed similar legislations. D.C. should be next.
We support energy-efficiency and understand the desire to be on trend with other cities building “Smart City” infrastructures. But technologies like smart streetlights carry risks or costs that are not always obvious at the outset. It is the responsibility of this Council to safeguard District residents and prevent the unnecessary risks and harms these technologies can create. We urge the Council to demand a rigorous analysis of both the technology being deployed and the process being proposed for its deployment. We also encourage you to support and pass the COS-DC legislation.
The ACLU-DC stands ready to work with the Council and the community to bring transparency and accountability to the procurement and use of surveillance technologies in the District, and we welcome any questions you may have.