BY CHRIS FARAONE, KENNETH LIPP & JONATHAN RILEY
Nobody at either day of last year’s debut Boston Calling partied with much expectation of privacy. With an army of media photographers, selfie takers, and videographers recording every angle of the massive concert on Government Center, it was inherently clear that music fans were in the middle of a massive photo opp.
What Boston Calling attendees (and promoters, for that matter) didn’t know, however, was that they were all unwitting test subjects for a sophisticated new event monitoring platform. Namely, the city’s software and equipment gave authorities a live and detailed birdseye view of concertgoers, pedestrians, and vehicles in the vicinity of City Hall on May 25 and 26 of 2013 (as well as during the two days of a subsequent Boston Calling in September). We’re not talking about old school black and white surveillance cameras. More like technology that analyzes every passerby for height, clothing, and skin color.
Along with a dashboard that displays real-time alert data from social media and other nodes of input, city agencies captured thousands of faces using more than 10 cameras capable of intelligent video analysis. Their objective? To detect traffic congestion and suspicious objects, screen people for possible forensic identification purposes, and conduct real-time video analytics. Nevertheless, more than 50 hours of recordings — samples of which are highlighted herein as examples — remain intact today.
Dig reporters picked up on a scent leading to correspondence detailing the Boston Calling campaign while searching the deep web for keywords related to surveillance in Boston. Shockingly, these sensitive documents have been left exposed online for more than a year. Among them are memos written by employees of IBM, the outside contractor involved, presenting plans to use “Face Capture” on “every person” at the 2013 concert. Another defines a party of interest “as anyone who walks through the door.”
The urban laboratory described herein details specifications of a so-called Intelligent Operations Center designed and licensed by IBM. As it turns out, this integration of the company’s branded Smart Surveillance System (SSS) and Intelligent Video Analytics (IVA) software was preceded by a beta phase piloted at the 2013 Boston Marathon less than two months before the expanded system was rolled out at Boston Calling.
It’s no secret that the Hub has contracted with IBM on an initiative called Smarter Cities, tooled to “gather better data leveraging cameras,” since at least 2010. The administration of former Mayor Tom Menino even bragged about a $400,000 grant the Hub received from IBM in 2012 that provided “top experts to work on ways Boston can engage its citizens and more efficiently deliver municipal services.” Additionally, a press release noted that “IBM will work with the city … to draft a plan in two key areas for our residents: “traffic management,” and to foster a “healthier environment.”
In addition to those quality of life improvements and constituent service-driven projects, there also seems to be a darker side of the relationship with IBM. Namely, the tech behemoth assists Boston with comprehensive resources designed to analyze body and facial patterns, to gauge panic levels and crowd sentiment, and to scan social media. It’s not all funded by grants either; in 2013 alone, the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology spent more than $3.5 million on IBM “information technology [hardware]” and “IT solutions.”
With even more state-of-the-art surveillance infrastructure in place than at the 2013 Boston Marathon, the first Boston Calling was intended as a “proof of concept.” The “city’s expectations and success criteria” were listed in an April 2013 document generated by IBM on behalf of municipal stakeholders. They included:
- “Transportation department [monitoring].”
- “Use of cameras for monitoring/viewing.”
- “Seeing [digital video surveillance] capabilities in action.”
- “[Counting] people entering.”
- “Analytics and insights on the event.”
- “Building a more robust platform for the city for future projects.”
Reached for comment about “Face Capture” and intelligent video analysis, a Boston Police Department spokesperson wrote in an email, “BPD was not part of this initiative. We do not and have not used or possess this type of technology.” To the contrary, the documents found by the Dig include internal photos of Boston cops observing the IBM dashboard during Boston Calling.
In response to detailed questions, Kate Norton, the press secretary for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, wrote in an email to the Dig: “The City of Boston engaged in a pilot program with IBM, testing situational awareness software for two events hosted on City Hall Plaza: Boston Calling in May 2013, and Boston Calling in September 2013. The purpose of the pilot was to evaluate software that could make it easier for the City to host large, public events, looking at challenges such as permitting, basic services, crowd and traffic management, public safety, and citizen engagement through social media and other channels. These were technology demonstrations utilizing pre-existing hardware (cameras) and data storage systems.”
Norton also explained that “The City of Boston did not pursue long-term use of this software or enter into a contract to utilize this software on a permanent basis.” The reason? According to Norton: “From the City’s perspective, we have not seen a clear use case for this software that held practical value for the City’s public safety needs.”
Moving forward, Norton wrote that Boston officials “are still exploring options for situational awareness software, but we lack a policy guiding use of this software because we do not have any in place at this time. There are a number of challenges presented by using this type of software, including, but not limited to, infrastructure support as well as legal and privacy concerns.”
As the city develops its comprehensive policy, technologists may want to consider the policies of the Commonwealth Fusion Center, a joint intelligence venture between state, local, and federal authorities that also works with IBM. That outfit, for example, prohibits its operatives from seeking or retaining “information about individual(s) … solely on the basis of their … activities; their participation in a … lawful event; or their race [or] ethnicity.”
Meanwhile, the “People Search” feature used at Boston Calling parses individuals by “baldness,” “head color,” “skin tone,” and clothing texture. All of which is of potential concern to privacy advocates like Alex Marthews, president of the constitutional rights group Digital Fourth. Briefed on the 2013 Boston Calling plan, he told the Dig, “The city seems to have it wrong on a basic level here.”
Marthews added: “The kind of surveillance they’re talking about is not constitutional or appropriate. The government can’t take attendance for a public meeting like a schoolteacher does for a first grade class. If they are using facial recognition to identify every person in the crowd, then they obviously don’t have individualized probable cause that someone in the crowd is actually about to commit or has committed a crime.”
Over the coming weeks, the Dig will further explore the history of the Smart Cities initiative and of IBM’s relationship with Hub authorities. We’re also seeking answers in regard to where and when comparable systems will be used in the future, and about how much money Boston wasted on these questionable operations.
“They’re asserting a general police power to capture anybody’s image and process it for law enforcement purposes just in case they later turn out to be guilty of something,” said Marthews. “That’s not OK.”
FURTHER READING (SECURITY & PRIVACY)
FURTHER READING (BOSTON CALLING 2013)
PREVIEW: BOSTON CALLING (May)
PREVIEW: BOSTON CALLING (September)
BOSTON CALLING: DAY ONE, SATURDAY (September)
BOSTON CALLING: DAY TWO, SUNDAY (September)