“This type of extremely significant surveillance program should not be going through the executive process without debate.”
For more than a year, Boston city councilors—including now-Mayor Kim Janey—have been pushing for a new law that would give the body more oversight and approval of surveillance technology.
But while that fight plays out in council chambers, city officials are quietly looking to hire consultants to maintain a linked network of more than 1,000 video cameras across the Metro Boston area, with remote access shared across nine cities.
Privacy advocates and a city councilor challenging Janey for mayor are demanding she stop the plan from going into effect before the council sets new standards.
“There are impacts when you wait on legislation, you can see the costs of delay,” said At-Large Councilor Michelle Wu, who is running for mayor and said Janey should pull back the request for proposal.
“The mayor absolutely needs to stop this RFP, there should not be a vendor selected, they should not go through with this process,” said Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League.
“It is deeply frustrating and frankly infuriating to read the RFP, it reads like the city is trying to get this done before the ordinance goes into effect,” said Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Program ACLU Massachusetts.
Last year, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and other police killings, councilors and activists called for numerous law enforcement reforms. Janey, Wu, and Hyde Park Councilor Ricardo Arroyo proposed new oversight on how the city acquires and uses surveillance technology, and the council has held hearings on the plan since then.
Under the proposal, the mayor’s office would have to get the council to sign off on acquiring and using new technology or data for surveillance. Any request would require officials to describe how the technology works, its purpose and who has access, and how it can impact privacy and civil rights.
Ahmad is skeptical that more oversight is enough, as opposed to dismantling surveillance in general. “I think that this idea of pushing for transparency should’ve happened decades ago. It’s not transparency we need, we need to stop doing these things,” the Muslim Justice League executive director said.
“DHS uses fear of Muslims to justify surveilling our people,” Ahmad added. “I’m glad organizing has brought these issues to the forefront and shifted the narrative on this, but it’s horrifying to know there are still 1,000 cameras out there.”
Crockford said it is important to get more information on how officials are acquiring and using surveillance technology, with the current setup allowing the city’s executives to operate without publicizing plans—like with the new RFP.
“This type of extremely significant surveillance program should not be going through the executive process without debate, that’s exactly what the ordinance is meant to [stop],” Crockford said.
Linked and mobile
The city’s Office of Emergency Management put out the proposal in April, looking for a vendor to handle network monitoring and maintenance of more than 1,000 cameras in a linked wireless network capable of sharing video and controlling the cameras themselves. While the Boston agency was making the request, it serves as the agent overseeing federal Urban Area Security Initiative grants for the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region, and the camera plan would cover the other eight cities in that area as well.
When asked if Janey would withdraw the RFP, a spokesperson responded that the mayor is committed to transparency, and said the city’s office is essentially a proxy for MBHSR.
“Mayor Janey remains committed to strengthening public safety transparency and accountability for the City of Boston,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “This RFP was issued on behalf of the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region which comprises nine municipalities (Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Quincy, Revere, Chelsea, Brookline, Winthrop, and Everett). The City of Boston’s Office of Emergency Management serves as the fiduciary and administrative support to this regional entity. Administrative responsibilities include processing regional requests for proposals.”
According to the RFP, the vendor needs to maintain a linked network allowing remote users to view live and recorded video and control the cameras in the network, from desktops or tablets and smartphones. Depending on their level of access, users can view cameras from other jurisdictions as well as their own. And while the focus is on the existing network, the vendor may be asked to install quick-deploy cameras and increase monitoring during major activities like the Boston Marathon and Fourth of July, as well as “unplanned events.”
“It really seems like the city’s goal is to create a network that allows any user with access to get live and stored videos throughout the area. That is terrifying for a number of reasons and frightening from a security perspective,” Crockford said, explaining that expanding access to more people and to more cameras means more opportunities for users to be hacked. “Every extra cop with access is one more person who could be subjected to a successful phishing attack.”
Beyond security, Crockford said the plan is ripe for “abuse and misuse.” While the Boston City Council and then-Mayor Marty Walsh banned the use of facial recognition technology last year, other technology already in use lets users search footage for specific characteristics like color of clothing.
“They’re highly interactive and useful in conducting invasive surveillance … and could be abused and used to track politicians, journalists, activists, people looking to hold the police accountable,” Crockford said, adding that an increased number of users make it harder to track who is using the cameras and for what purpose. “Any audit is most likely going to be spot checked and not looked at every time if there was a documented reason or if the user was checking out attractive women leaving the nightclub Friday night.”
‘Undermining the council’s work’
The RFP is looking to sign a vendor to a one-year contract with two options to renew, and the schedule for procurement says officials will make a selection in early June. The timing of the proposal being approved while the council has yet to approve guidelines that would stop it is frustrating, Crockford said.
“The council has been [having] conversations about an ordinance that would take surveillance issues from the executive branch to the council. Any plans like this would have to be vetted by the council publicly and the council would approve before the RFP goes out,” Crockford said. “It’s frankly extremely problematic, they’re undermining the council’s work on this in a really troubling way.”
“We need to understand with this and with surveillance tech in general who would have access and what are the uses of this footage,” Wu said. “There is potential to open up a multi-city network with a very large access point; folks in different municipalities could access footage of Boston residents without their knowledge or consent.
“We need to have a conversation about these details.”