New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is asking the City Council to approve a $3.2 million contract with Entergy New Orleans to create a “Smart City Pilot” program in the Central Business District. The proposal includes the installation of 90 video cameras that may, at some point, be used by law enforcement through the city’s crime surveillance program.
The plan is to install two pieces of technology on street lamps along Poydras and Canal Streets — “Photo Nodes” to help collect data on streetlight outages and “Advanced Camera Sensor Devices,” or ACSDs.
The ACSDs will be purchased from GE City IQ, a joint venture between General Electric, Intel and AT&T. According to a brochure by Intel, the ACSDs include video recording, audio detection, weather monitoring and Wi-Fi local hotspots.
The proposed contract stipulates that the audio component of the devices won’t be turned on during the year-long pilot period. The contract does not reference the Wi-Fi capabilities, and Cantrell’s office didn’t answer questions about whether that function will be used.
The contract calls for the installation of 146 ACSDs and 138 photo nodes. But it will be amended to only add 90 ACSDs, according to a spokesperson for Councilman Jason Williams, who is sponsoring the contract ordinance on Cantrell’s behalf. The issue will be considered by the City Council’s Smart and Sustainable Cities Committee during its March 11 meeting.
The pilot program fits into a larger effort by the city government to introduce so-called “smart cities” technologies to New Orleans. “Smart cities” is an umbrella term with varying definitions, but implementing a smart cities program often includes ramping up the use of data-gathering technologies to inform and enhance the delivery of public services.
Similar programs have caused privacy concerns in other cities building up this type of technology, ranging from Wi-Fi kiosks in New York City that track user’s movements to “smart trash cans” in London that were scraping data from the phones of passing pedestrians. In New Orleans, the push for smart cities technology has mostly come from the City Council, but the pilot project now before the council was led by the Cantrell administration.
The money for the pilot project would come from Entergy New Orleans. Specifically, the funds are the result of the 2017 federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which lowered Entergy New Orleans’ federal corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, resulting in an estimated $50 million in savings.
Through an agreement approved by the City Council, the bulk of that money was earmarked for energy efficiency programing and bill credits for customers. But a small portion, $3.2 million, was reserved for the Smart Cities pilot.
“This is money that New Orleans ratepayers have spent already,” said Logan Burke, executive director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy, in an interview with The Lens. “That’s not a gift from shareholders or a gift from Entergy. That’s our money. And so those dollars should be spent doing one of two things: reducing bills or making the system more reliable. … I fail to see how surveillance cameras fall within Entergy’s franchise.”
Asked to respond, Williams pushed back on Burke’s statement, saying that the money does not represent a new charge to ratepayers, but rather a tax savings for Entergy.
“It’s incorrect that these are new ratepayer funds,” he said.
“I’m not saying it’s new ratepayer money,” Burke said. “Ratepayers pay every single expense Entergy has, including taxes. These dollars are dollars that ratepayers have already paid to Entergy. It’s false to say that it’s not ratepayer money.”
According to the draft contract, the ACSDs will allow the city to collect and analyze movement data to facilitate “traffic management solutions, street parking solutions, and pedestrian management solutions.” But the contract also stipulates that the city’s Real Time Crime Center may choose to access the new video footage.
The Real Time Crime Center, or RTCC, is the city’s video surveillance hub, created in 2017 under the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Last year, that office claimed to have access to live video feeds from 442 city-owned cameras, along with 331 private camera feeds through the city’s Safecam Platinum program, which allows citizens and businesses to link their private cameras to the city’s system.
In 2018, The Lens reported on how much of the surveillance power of the city’s system was derived from the software it uses to process and search through footage. One piece of software, Briefcam, claims that it “detects, tracks, extracts and identifies people and objects from video, including; men, women, children, clothing, bags, vehicles, animals, size, color, speed, path, direction, dwell time, and more,” according to a press release announcing that New Orleans had purchased the software.
According to Cantrell spokesperson Beau Tidwell, the new cameras would not feed live footage to the RTCC. But, he said, the RTCC would be able to access recorded video from the cameras.
“While the Real-Time Crime Center is a part of the conversation in the Smart Cities program, the initiative is being led by the City’s Chief Technology Officer,” Tidwell wrote in an emailed statement. “ACSDs are not designed to be surveillance cameras and using them for real-time video streaming is not their intended use. … The locally stored video can be accessed to view the raw footage if necessary (i.e. a significant event) but is not feasible to do on a large scale.”
Tidwell did not respond to a follow-up question about why such a use would not be feasible.
Similar cameras made by the same company do appear to be utilized for police investigations and prosecutions in other cities where they’re deployed. San Diego installed 3,200 of these “smart street lights” in 2016 “after the project was initially presented as a way to save energy and cut costs,” according to the San Diego Union Tribune. It wasn’t until 2018 that the San Diego Police started utilizing the footage in its investigations.
This week, the student government at the University of California San Diego joined other local groups in a call for greater transparency and more community control over the program, according to the newspaper. San Diego has pumped the brakes on plans to buy 1,000 more ACSD’s, according to the paper, and the San Diego City Council is now working on an ordinance to govern how surveillance data in general is utilized by the city.
Some privacy advocates in New Orleans are worried about New Orleans walking a similar path as San Diego — adopting new technology with surveillance capabilities the public doesn’t fully understand. Two members of Eye on Surveillance, a coalition of groups concerned about New Orleans’ surveillance system, told The Lens that they were caught off-guard by the contract.
“We’ve reached out to the city and said we want to be part of all the different conversations around surveillance,” said Theo Thompson, an organizer with Eye on Surveillance. “A lot of this stuff is happening without the community knowing what’s going on. You wake up and there’s a new camera on your block.”
This isn’t the first time the Cantrell administration has funded a public camera expansion through a seemingly unrelated initiative. In 2018, Cantrell helped pull $100,000 from the Gentilly Development District, a state body intended to spur economic development in the neighborhood, to buy crime cameras. The next month, the administration used its CleanUp NOLA initiative — aimed at reducing litter and illegal dumping — to buy 10 new cameras for $70,000, which the city has used to catch people illegally dumping trash.
During budget hearings in October, the Department of Sanitation said they would be adding an additional 10 cameras in 2020, and that their efforts had already helped the District Attorney secure a three-year prison sentence for a man accused of dumping thousands of tires in eastern New Orleans and near the Superdome.
Eye on Surveillance organizer Marvin Arnold argued that it is unreasonable to expect residents to check every City Council agenda or utility regulatory docket for new surveillance initiatives.
“I guarantee that instead of saying they were having a meeting about smart cities, they said they were having a meeting about adding 146 more cameras, a lot more people would attend,” he said. “Overall, the onus has been on the community to find out the specifics rather than them being forthcoming.”
Burke argued that even if people were checking every council agenda, they still might not realize that there were surveillance components to the smart cities pilot.
“There was no reason to believe that these dollars would be spent on something that is totally and completely outside the job description of Entergy New Orleans,” she said.
‘All you need is one nefarious leader’
Williams — a defense attorney who has said he intends to run for Orleans Parish District Attorney later this year — said he shared some of the advocates’ concerns with adding new cameras. He said he will be introducing an accompanying resolution “mandating reporting on all the information and data at the end of this pilot.”
“Some of the folks you’ve been talking to are deeply concerned about how cameras could be used in our community,” he said. “All you need is one nefarious leader to use them for bad purposes, and so I’m concerned as well. But you also have a lot of other segments of the community that want cameras to control Jazz Fest traffic and national championship traffic so we can use our human being police officers to deal with human problems in other parts of the city.”
Williams said that the cameras would help the city manage the congestion that comes with large downtown events, potentially freeing up police officers who would otherwise have to coordinate traffic flows.
“The focus of these things will be largely on the force multiplying aspect for the police officers and traffic control,” he said. “I would much rather have those police officers in Central City, in New Orleans East, in Lakeview doing their regular work rather than working as traffic control.”
He also added that he was glad the new sensors were going up in a business corridor rather than in residential areas of the city.
“I feel good that this isn’t putting Big Brother in Central City or parts of the city where we have a lot of Latinx people living who have concerns about ICE and immigration,” he said.
Williams has been one of the loudest local proponents of smart cities technologies. With the help of long-time council utility adviser Clint Vince, the City Council established the Smart and Sustainable Cities Committee in May 2018. Williams is also a “Pillar Chair” of a “Smart Cities Think Tank” that Vince founded in 2018 through his law firm Dentons US.
In 2018, the advisers signed an “agreement in principle” that authorized Entergy to use $3.2 million out of more than $50 million in extra funds produced by the Trump tax cuts on a “Smart Cities Prototype.” But although the council approved the funding for the pilot, the contract now under consideration was primarily crafted by the Cantrell administration.
It appears that the administration began to take the lead on the initiative sometime around June 2019. In a filing to the City Council that month, Chief Technology Officer Jonathon Wisby argued that the Smart Cities initiative should be led by the city, rather than Vince and the other utility advisers.
“The City believes that [the Council Utilities Regulatory Office] and its advisors are best positioned to lead the assessment of our electrical grid, while the Administration is well positioned to assess other service sectors,” it said.
Williams said he was happy the mayor was getting involved in the smart cities conversation, but was clear that this specific initiative was designed by the Cantrell administration, not the council.
“When we talk about the smart cities pilot, it has the word smart cities in it, but it doesn’t mean it came from the smart cities committee,” Williams told The Lens. “[The administration is] entering into the fray. And I think it’s a positive thing.”
He said that the contract will still be up for public input at the Smart and Sustainable Cities Committee meeting and will face a vote by the full city council before it’s approved. Even then, he noted that this is only a pilot program.
“The good thing about doing a pilot is if you do it right, you’ve got some data you can share about whether or not this was worth the money spent and whether any new money should go in that direction and let the public weigh that,” he said.