Image by Scott Murry
It’s a brutal dark December evening slightly after 6pm, and roughly 20 protesters are clamoring on the South Boston waterfront, braving tundra-like conditions outside of the ICA. As winds snap off the icy drifts, demonstrators hold their ground, a few in hats and scarves so thick that everything besides their scream machines is covered. They’re shouting, “No Justice! No Peace!” But this is not another rally against killer cops; they’re hollering about the bid to host the Summer Olympics in Boston 10 years from now.
As a chief complaint, naysayers have argued that Boston 2024, a private nonprofit run by powerful business interests, submitted its proposal to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) without soliciting substantial public input. Besides concerns that operators have been secretive though, there are worries that the rest of our privacy will be compromised in preparing for an international police state. Indeed, Eastern Mass already has a vast network of safeguards looming in the shadows; as an insider told International Olympic Committee (IOC) watchdog Dave Zirin in The Nation, “Boston has rocketed to the top of their consideration list because of how the city was able to shut itself down after the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.”
“Look to London, the most heavily surveilled city on earth.” Privacy activist Kade Crockford educates the crowd outside the ICA about the history of host city surveillance, then lambastes comparable rollouts here during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Crockford proceeds to rail against the “party for the international elite,” and to argue that Olympic sweeps will target vulnerable populations disproportionately. “This is a catastrophe for civil liberties!”
Earlier this year, DigBoston revealed that IBM, along with other companies, has pushed millions of dollars worth of advanced security utilities, including facial recognition software, on Massachusetts since the marathon bombing. Our investigation also showed that the effectiveness of such technologies was nil or unknown at the time of purchase. Nevertheless, authorities used state-of-the-art “smart surveillance” to indiscriminately target people at two separate Boston Calling music festivals in 2013.
While such sophisticated systems may violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches, and in some cases proved to have a “lack of practical value” by a city spokesperson’s own account, their intrusions are tame in comparison to more recent installations in Olympic cities. Mechanisms outlined in our “Boston Trolling” series operate by scraping and analyzing metadata—take, for example, vehicle location and time stamps hoarded by traffic cameras. The latest Olympic precedents set in Sochi, on the other hand, are far more advanced, and have included attempted analysis of all communications, and surveillance of everything from highways to the insides of showers.
Olympic planners in Boston have stressed that public funds will not be used if the Hub is selected by the USOC sometime between tomorrow and January (the final IOC decision won’t come until 2017). Development expenses aside though, the cost just to shield previous games has run in the billions. Supporters—including Mayor Marty Walsh, who has given Boston 2024 his blessing and at the time of this writing is en route to present their proposal to the USOC in-person—have stressed that the legacy of an Olympics will be long, with resources built to last. For civil liberties advocates and those concerned about an added blanket of excessive scrutiny, the idea that infrastructure will be left behind may be the biggest threat.
UNDER MITT’S THUMB
When it comes to protecting major events, from baseball games to the annual Fourth of July fireworks on the Charles River Esplanade, authorities in Massachusetts have spared no expenses. As the aforementioned Dig investigation reported, a vast alliance of government agencies, from the State Police to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, have pooled resources since the DNC a decade ago. That particular performance by Big Brother in Boston didn’t sit well with Bill of Rights sticklers, as the imposition of emergency precautions begat the corralling of protesters and crackdowns led by stormtroopers.
Though the DNC was an affair for the party of John Kerry, then-Republican Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney rolled out a secure red carpet. In his time leading Massachusetts, between 2003 and 2007, the future GOP nominee for President of the United States displayed a seemingly unparalleled mix of fear and disregard for both taxpayers’ privacy and their money. In a 2005 speech to the Heritage Foundation, Romney called for the government to spy on mosques, and asked a crowd of conservatives: “Are we monitoring? Are we wiretapping? Are we following what’s going on?”
If Romney was proactive in acquiring advanced protections at inflated costs, the habit may have come from his experience running the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. On the heels of the 9/11 attacks, the Utah Games were the first Olympics in America since a bombing of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta six years earlier resulted in one death and more than 100 injuries. As such, a reported $225 million—more than twice the security budget for the 1996 Games—was spent shielding Salt Lake City from evildoers.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney co-chaired homeland security task forces for both the White House and the National Governors Association, and ushered in a culture of intensive data sharing between intelligence agencies. Most significantly, he facilitated the opening of two Massachusetts fusion centers, then some of the first of their kind to synthesize interagency surveillance and counterterrorism initiatives. In constructing its web, the state awarded fusion center software contracts to Raytheon, a major campaign donor that went on to pump nearly $150,000 into Romney’s 2012 run for president.
After spending $40 million on homeland security between 9/11 and his entering office, Massachusetts under Romney used more than $500 million in grants from the Department of Homeland Security to beef up protection statewide. This earned the governor the affection of federal officials such as Joshua Filler, a former DHS director who later told Huffington Post, “Of all the governors that we worked with, [Romney] was by far one of the most proactive and engaged in the country.” All this as Romney cut more than $100 million in state aid to municipalities, and as the commonwealth lost more than 1,000 first responders due to budget cuts during his tenure.
Following the frigid protest on the waterfront last week, activists joined members of the media and Boston 2024 boosters for a conversation inside the ICA auditorium. Moderated by Joanna Weiss and Dante Ramos of the Boston Globe Op-Ed page, the event featured Chris Dempsey, a co-chair of the group No Boston Olympics, advocating in one corner, and Juliette Kayyem, a recent Democratic candidate for governor of Massachusetts, in the other.
It’s telling that Kayyem, of all the sports and business honchos on the nonprofit’s executive team, was chosen to represent Boston 2024. A public safety and homeland security expert under Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, she also served as an assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the DHS, and is a lecturer on public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Kayyem has attended the Olympic Games five times, and has helped author security plans for previous bids. Five months before announcing her run for office last year, she gave a speech to the International Centre for Sport Securitytitled, “The Future of Sport Security and Technology.”
For her failed gubernatorial push, Kayyem raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from attorneys, and was noted in the media for also tapping Hollywood executives and honchos like Ted Danson. In light of her joining the security and innovation arm of Boston 2024 however, it’s worth noting how the safety establishment—and individuals within it who profit off of metastasized surveillance—cushioned her coffers as well. Among those who contributed:
- Executives from Booz Allen Hamilton, the former employer of whistleblower Edward Snowden, cut checks totaling $2,000, half of which came from the security contractor’s Vice President Thad Allen.
- Attorneys from WilmerHale, a law firm that handles, among other things, national security and government contracts, gave $18,000 to the Kayyem campaign. Among their generous attorneys: Jamie Gorelick, who chairs the WilmerHale Defense, National Security and Government Contracts Practice Group.
- Former national security colleagues of Kayyem’s, who, along with federal officials—including the assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the DHS—gave more than $2,000.
There’s also another $800 from the Virginia-based Council on Cybersecurity, $500 from an attorney at the USOC, and thousands of dollars more from other firms that do intelligence work. Even the head of the security team at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, one of the most secure small institutions on the planet due to the legendary heist there in 1990, gave Kayyem $350. She won’t get a chance to return the favors as governor, but in her role as an Olympic organizer, other opportunities may lie ahead.
In debating Dempsey of No Boston Olympics at the Globe forum, Kayyem conceded that she had not yet perused the entire 2024 proposal. Her primary familiarity, rather, is with facets related to “technology,” “sustainability,” and “innovation,” buzzwords she riffed on variantly in excess of a dozen times while describing a Boston Games designed “for the kids,” and driven by a “progressive agenda.” Kayyem wasn’t asked about safety expenses, but a comment furnished to the Dig by Boston 2024 reflects the nonprofit’s position.
“Security for the Olympics is overseen and funded by the federal government,” Boston 2024 Executive Vice-President Erin Murphy Rafferty wrote in an email. “Should Boston host the Olympics and Paralympics in 2024, we expect the Games to be designated a National Special Security Event, under which planning and operations would be handled by federal authorities and additional security costs like overtime would be paid for by the federal government.”
Organizers have assured the media and public that Boston 2024 won’t be like Beijing 2008, where roughly $6.5 billion went toward security and which Kayyem has called a failure. Boosters have also eschewed affiliation with unpopular Olympics like Sochi 2014, where the Russian government famously hemorrhaged an estimated $50 billion on their Winter Games. Sochi’s “total surveillance” blanket, described by Newsweek as “a giant vacuum cleaner which scoops all electronic communication,” was the first of its kind to exhaustively monitor calls, emails, and social media posts, and to cross-reference data from those sources with intake from cameras and drones.
Sochi was a civil liberties disaster; at one point, in defending the construction of accommodations, a Russian deputy prime minister noted, “We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turning on the shower, directing the nozzle at the wall, and then leaving the room for the whole day.” Naturally, backers of the Boston effort have attempted to distance themselves from that legacy, but at last week’s forum, Kayyem was quick to praise the London Games as a success. That despite security costs in the United Kingdom ballooning to in excess of $1.5 billion, more than four times the initial estimate, and a scene the local Guardian described thusly:
Armed officers from the Metropolitan police and the Royal Marines hammering along the Thames in speedboats and helicopters, ground-to-air missiles scanning the skies, hovering spy drones scanning the land, security services scanning the internet for nascent plots or cyber attacks—all being co-ordinated by a bevy of Olympic-themed security agencies.
Alex Marthews, a privacy rights advocate with the group Digital Fourth in Cambridge, has followed developments in Olympic tracking, especially in his native England. Noting the multiple “surveillance rings” circling London, which were markedly enhanced for the 2012 Games, Marthews says live-tracking in the UK works similar to new cash-free transponders on the Tobin Bridge, and to the$130 million all-electronic tolling (AET) system the state recently hired Raytheon to install on the Mass Pike and its adjoining tunnels.
“For years in advance of the Olympics coming to London, the event was used to justify the rollout of more and more advanced surveillance technologies,” Marthews says. “From 2003, the ‘congestion charging’ system tracked every license plate entering the capital. Facial recognition surveillance cameras were introduced, especially in the poorer boroughs where the Olympics would take place. The Boston Olympics could be used in the same way, and activists will have to watch out to make sure that security concerns do not undermine our freedom to move or associate.”
As Marthews and other skeptics explain it, the problem isn’t solely that London, the vision of gold medal success placed on a pedestal by Kayyem, packed 40,000 security workers, as well as more than 13,000 military reservists and 1,000 agents on loan from the US, into the city to enforce security at the Games. For Hub privacy advocates, a complementary concern is the Bay State’s history of being used as a surveillance laboratory. On numerous occasions, newfangled tactics—including legally untenable wireless device tapping and controversial methods of biometric analysis—have been deployed to probe the local population.
A spokesperson for the City of Boston did not reply to a request for comment on this story. Nevertheless, we assume all public officials want the best protection for constituents at all times. In that case, they may want to entertain the cries of detractors for whom the Olympics themselves, and not the threat of being blown to bits, are the most frightening prospect of Boston 2024. Mayor Walsh could even start with comments shared outside the ICA, where a demonstrator who lived in Atlanta during the Games there spoke of mass displacement, and of indigent unsightly people being rounded up and carted off.
“These things destroy communities,” she said. “Whole cultures are wiped off of the landscape … Frankly, I don’t want to go through that again.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.