Miss a day, miss a lot. Subscribe to The Defender's Top News of the Day. It's free.
Children’s Health Defense (CHD) on Monday sued the City of Los Angeles (LA) for failing to respond to CHD’s request for documents related to LA’s smart city initiatives.
According to the complaint, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, key departments in city government violated the California Public Records Act (CPRA) by failing to promptly respond to CHD’s request to produce electronic records from 2019-2023 for communications, programs, committees and technologies related to smart city planning.
Most of the city’s 20 departments involved in smart city planning provided the documents CHD requested in April.
But the Information Technology Agency, Bureau of Street Lighting, LA World Airports, Bureau of Street Services, Bureau of Engineering and the LA Police Department, which likely have the most sensitive information regarding the smart city rollout, have not produced the requested documents.
CHD alleges those departments violated the legal time guidelines for responding to the records requests.
“What the City of Los Angeles wants to do is [build] a full-scale smart city, and all of this is laid out in the strategy documents,” attorney Gregory Glaser, who filed the complaint, told The Defender.
But very little information about how the city is implementing that strategy is being shared publicly, Glaser said.
CHD, along with two LA residents concerned about how the smart city technologies may be violating their rights and those of their children, are seeking documents detailing the city’s current projects and future plans.
Glaser said the petitioners have waited patiently for months for the city to produce the records. “But the city has not done so,” he said, “so we are forced to sue them.”
The departments all acknowledged receipt of the request and most departments indicated they would fulfill the requests.
The Bureau of Street Services informed CHD that the request was not under its jurisdiction. CHD contested this claim, given that key existing and planned smart city projects are directly implemented by that bureau.
Glaser said he expects the documents to include communications between the city and its contractors, such as Amazon, on the technology rollouts. This includes contracts and accounting records that will show the exact nature of those relationships.
Based on the documents already recovered from other city agencies, Glaser anticipates the information “will surprise and even shock Los Angeles residents as to how much data the city of Los Angeles is collecting and the ways artificial intelligence (AI) is used to process people’s data.”
CHD asked the court to direct the respondents to make the requested information available within 14-60 days, depending on the documents requested.
‘Reinforcing police power and squelching political dissent’
In 2020, LA launched its SmartLA 2028 initiative, promising to solve a host of “urban challenges” — from racial injustice to natural disasters to climate change — using smart technologies to create “a highly digital and connected city” by 2028.
2028 is set as the target year because LA will host the 2028 Summer Olympics and plans to provide tourists with a “digital Olympic experience,” according to the SmartLA 2028 strategy document.
The document outlines in broad strokes a vision for the city that Olympics consumers will visit — a smart city built for LA to compete in the digital economy.
The plan includes a panoply of digital infrastructure, including a surveillance camera network that can capture individual face and voice signatures, and can be used for law enforcement or could be marketed to third parties.
It also includes technologies like Amazon Sidewalk — which connects private wireless signals — digital payment platforms for city services, the use of AI for city contracting and more.
LA’s use of the Olympics as justification for expanding digital surveillance powers is part of a global trend.
“Local and national security officials over the past several decades have used the Olympics to generate huge sums of cash and secure special tools and laws that would be difficult to acquire during normal political times,” political science professor Jules Boykoff wrote in The Washington Post.
“These new laws can stay on the books and technologies remain in the hands of the state after the Games, reinforcing police power and squelching political dissent,” he wrote.
Politico reported Monday that the 2024 Paris Olympics will be “a golden opportunity” for the video surveillance industry to test its products and services and showcase what it can do in terms of AI-powered surveillance.
‘Children are living in a dystopia where they’re constantly monitored’
Taking advantage of this “golden opportunity” is also on the minds of LA city officials.
According to meeting minutes — which CHD obtained through its records request — from LA’s Information Technology Agency in 2020, the city may open the data it collects to third-party applications, allow for private 5G and other telecom infrastructure to be installed on city property, and monetize data collected through the city’s smart street lamps.
The Bureau of Street Lighting already issued a directive that allows telecom companies to use the light poles as mounting sites for their private infrastructure.
Glaser said the data collection that this makes possible violates LA residents’ Fourth Amendment rights to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures of property and other surveillance by the government, and raises particular concerns about what the city’s partners — Big Tech companies — are doing with data that directly affects children and children’s health.
In these data collection “dragnets” he said, “the city is collecting information on the children, selling children’s data, and children are living in a dystopia where they’re constantly monitored.”
“We know that that adversely affects children’s health and removes children’s privacy,” Glaser said. “And this is a deep concern to Children’s Health Defense,” and the reason behind CHD’s records requests.
Smart infrastructure ‘dragnet’: LA’s Smart Lighting Network
Documents obtained so far by CHD show the “Smart Lighting Network” is a key smart city program already being implemented.
This program turns the city’s streetlights into “smart nodes” by attaching remote monitoring units to every streetlight across the city, creating an interconnected network with Internet of Things (IoT) technology.
The city’s LA Lights website indicates that of the city’s 223,000 streetlights, 37,000 already have operational smart nodes.
The Bureau of Street Lighting, which is the agency overseeing this program, requested a $125 million budget increase in fiscal year 2022-2023 for a total of $168 million. The FY 2021-2022 budget had only been roughly $43 million.
The city is currently beta testing capabilities on these nodes that include a wide range of functions, from surveillance cameras to deter crime, to small cell 5G, to digital banners that provide real-time public information.
The city has also reported attaching gunshot sensors to streetlights to “wirelessly detect gunshots and other noises.”
Glaser said he found this deeply concerning because, “First, ‘other noises’ includes conversations. Second, ‘streetlights’ use the word ‘street’ to imply they are limited to public streets, but in reality the streetlights can monitor a radius that includes people’s private homes.”
“The word for this is dragnet,” Glaser said. “And our CHD CPRA litigation is specifically tailored to catch the city engaged in many dragnets in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”