Miami Could Let Company Put Surveillance Poles On Public Property For Free

Oct 9, 2019

Updated on  10/9/19 at 7:55pm: Miami Commissioner Manolo Reyes told WLRN that he has asked to pull this item from being voted on until November, at least in part due to data security and privacy issues

The city of Miami is considering granting a private company free access to public property to set up light poles equipped with surveillance equipment, in a potential deal activists call troubling for the right to privacy.

In the potential 30-year deal, dozens of light poles would be set up by the company Illumination Technologies around the Brickell and Little Havana/ Coral Way neighborhoods, on publicly owned property. The poles would also have video cameras, license plate readers and flood sensors, according to public documents. The data will be piped in to the City of Miami Data Center, where information is aggregated and reviewed by the police department.

A vote on the deal is scheduled to take place during the City of Miami Commission meeting on October 10.

“People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government,” wrote the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida in a tweet. “Automated mass surveillance systems, like one being considered by the @CityofMiami, threaten our freedom and pose a particular threat to communities already unjustly targeted.”

“The worst of all futures arrives when you aren't looking,” wrote prominent whistleblower Edward Snowden, in response to a tweet about the proposed deal.

A total of fifteen poles would be placed in the Little Havana/Coral Way neighborhood, all with at least one license plate reader attached. Only one light pole would not have a camera.

Screenshot from proposed agreement

In the Brickell neighborhood, eleven cameras are planned, all of which would have cameras and three with license plate readers.

Screenshot from proposed agreement

The agreement language between the City of Miami and Illumination Technologies doesn’t have any provisions limiting what Illumination Technologies might be able to do with the data it gathers from residents using the public right of way.

The city would retain the rights to audit some parts of Illumination Technologies’ activity, but this would be limited to “maintenance and inspection records, permits and approvals required therefor [sic] in connection with the performance of this Agreement,” reads public documents. Those records would have to be held by the company for three years.

As part of the potential deal, Illumination Technologies would help the city set up fiber optic networks in the areas where it would operate. All of this would be “at no cost to the city,” according to the language of the resolution.

Illumination Technologies has offices in both California and in Coral Gables. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some key terms on the proposed agreement that will be voted on are not defined, pointed out Mike Katz-Lacabe, the Director of Research at the Center of Human Rights and Privacy, a non-profit watchdog group. For instance, the term “tag readers” is defined as “devices to be installed by Illumination Technologies which provide …” and does not finish the definition.

"Lightpoles being installed and it doesn't cost the city any money? Sounds like the Facebook model. If the product is free, you are the product," said Katz-Lacabe. "That hasn't worked out so well with Facebook."

The planned vote comes amid an increased push from some parts of the city to blanket neighborhoods with surveillance technology. The Wynwood Business Improvement District has approved funding for almost 80 CCTV cameras to blanket the neighborhood, in addition to license plate readers, WLRN has previously reported. The information will also be piped directly to the police department, with the idea of being able to track every car that comes into the neighborhood in real time.

"It’s an off duty officer that doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat. He’s awake at all times," Manny Gonzalez, the executive director of the Wynwood Business Improvement District, or BID, a board of the city of Miami that is funded by local property owners, told WLRN. “We think that we’re setting a good example and we’re gonna set precedent for other neighborhoods."

“Our goal is to implement the first smart neighborhood within the city of Miami,” said Gonzalez.

The City of Miami commission is also slated to vote on technology that would give the City of Miami Police Department the ability to track cell phones in real time, including “live interception” capabilities that would allow them to listen into cell phone conversations.