BY CHRIS FARAONE, KENNETH LIPP & JONATHAN RILEY
Last week the Dig alerted readers to a secret experiment carried out by the City of Boston during the Boston Calling concerts that took place in May and September of last year. Among the revelations therein: Outside contractors helped municipal authorities deploy resources designed to analyze body and facial patterns of “every person who approaches the door” in order to gauge panic levels and crowd sentiment. In this follow-up, again relying in part on privileged documents that were left exposed online, we examine the communications leading up to these surveillance trials in the days, months, and even decade prior to the first Boston Calling.
Big Brother has been ogling the Hub for years. As far back as 2004, records show the existence of a Massachusetts Interagency Video Information System (MIVIS) tooled “to enhance coordination of the various public transportation and safety agencies through sharing of each agency’s surveillance video.” In preparation for the Democratic National Convention held in Boston in July of that year, a vast network of government agencies — MassHighway, Massachusetts State Police, MBTA, MassPort, Boston Transportation Department, Boston Police Department, and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency — were plugged into angles from more than 100 cameras placed everywhere from subway platforms to a state police helicopter.
Following the Democratic convention, MIVIS architects promised to foster more “agency coordination for regional events.” They had plenty of hardware to work with. In spite of the BPD and other camera-happy agencies refusing to disclose precise numbers, several media outlets have since unearthed telling pieces of the puzzle that is Boston’s surveillance state:
- Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) show that as of 2007, the nine cities that comprise the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region had installed nearly 150 cameras using almost $6 million in federal funding.
- According to a WHDH report from 2011, the MBTA has more than 1,100 eyes in the sky.
- It’s unclear how much has been spent on cameras in total, but in 2012 the Globe reported that the MBTA would spend $6.5 million in Department of Homeland Security grants to add “thousands” more devices.
- MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo has confirmed to the press that as of 2013, “thousands” of cameras were installed and operational.
In their pursuit of new ways to track people, it’s no wonder officials teamed with the immortal tech giant IBM. They’ve been in the people-counting business for more than a century. Under its original name, Hollerith, the company’s machines were used to tally the first modern US census in 1890, while a German subsidiary of IBM sold systems during World War II that helped Hitler and the Third Reich identify their prey.
While the commonwealth is far from Nazi Germany, the use of surveillance tech in the Bay State has been for the most part done clandestinely, and seemingly in violation of constitutional protections. Furthermore, in regard to the sophisticated surveillance used at Boston Calling – a pilot program the city now claims to have since abandoned — it appears that IBM wooed Boston and its wallet at a particularly vulnerable moment, merely days after the 2013 marathon.
Since the early 2000s, IBM’s relationship with Boston and the Bay State has been increasingly metastatic, with the company leveraging various “technology partnerships.” Take, for example, its acquisition of the Canadian business management leader Cognos in 2007, and of their COPLINK crime data software that is used across the commonwealth and at two fusion centers intended to serve as conduits between federal and local crime-stoppers.
As noted in documents found by the Dig, IBM has provided key supporting hardware and software for Mass mainframes since the cloud was a pipe dream. That early ingratiation of IBM into the infrastructure powering the commonwealth and curating its information has made the company a shoo-in for lucrative contracts statewide. Between 2011 and 2014, the City of Boston alone spent more than $4 million on everything from IBM computers to licensing and maintenance contracts.
IBM has been incrementally installing itself here since John Kerry got the Democratic nomination. In 2004 the company donated $2 million to the DNC Host Committee in Boston, effectively seeding a private-public strategy in which they are a critical contracting pivot. It’s a common corporate practice: Nurture civic initiatives that place IBM delegates in city halls and capitals across the country, and establish prime position with municipal buyers.
In March 2012, Boston became one of 33 recipients of a “Smarter Cities Challenge” grant from IBM. Said to be worth $400,000, the incentive, according to a corporate press release, was “part of IBM’s citizenship efforts to build a Smarter Planet.” To that end the company dispatched “a team of six IBM experts” to “deliver recommendations … [to] help achieve Boston’s climate and traffic improvement goals by unlocking, sharing and analyzing transportation data.”
During a three-week analysis in which Boston made its vast trove of data available to contractors, the aforementioned media release claimed the IBM team developed an “initial prototype.” They then used that model to persuade the Menino administration to re-purpose surveillance hardware that was already in place. Namely, IBM warned that information “currently is not shared, and often is not recorded or analyzed.” “Therefore,” the experts determined, “camera data is not fully leveraged.”
Heading the IBM fan club at City Hall through this courtship was Bill Oates, who served as Boston’s Chief Information Officer from 2006 until this past January. During both the corporate consultation period and both weekends of the smart surveillance exercise at Boston Calling, Oates generously flanked his contracted collaborators, boasting to reporters in March 2013 about the Smarter Cities “partnership between the private sector, academia and cities.”
The promo tour continued. That same month Oates spoke at an IBM conference in Las Vegas, where he extolled Boston’s deep engagement with emerging tech. The CIO also gushed in an online ad for Smarter Cities in which he echoes language from the IBM sales pitch. “Our starting point was to identify the important data and unlock it,” Oates says in the video, “How Software is Making Boston Smarter.” “Every project that we work on, we’re really thinking about the impact it’s going to have on the constituent.”
At symposiums and in press releases, Oates toasted universally appreciated innovations like “improving traffic and greening our city.” But as documents found by the Dig reveal, in the first few months of 2013, Boston was also piloting a new smart surveillance program with IBM. Though the Menino administration had offered few clues to the public up to that point about the video forensic aspects of Smarter Cities, on the morning of the 2013 Boston Marathon Oates told the trade publication Information Week that the annual foot race would help officials “get a sense of what the [Smarter Cities] system is going to show us, so we can look at leveraging how to improve our coordination of events.” The CIO additionally plugged the program on an IBM blog. In a post from early Marathon Monday that vanished after two bombs detonated near the finish line, Oates wrote, “It’s the city’s job to make sure all goes according to plan.”
Though surveillance footage was used in part to identify two suspects in the aftermath of the April 15 bombing, IBM’s smart video analysis bore no fruit in the investigation. It had only been a beta test, and the advanced facial recognition resources had not been made available to first responders by the finish line.
Whereas some may have interpreted it a failure of the real-time video tech in trial, IBM saw opportunity. Records found by the Dig show that an employee of the company met with city officials on the day after the marathon, and at least two additional times over the following two weeks.
In the months prior, Boston had already been developing what IBM calls an Intelligent Operations Center (IOC), basically a centralized surveillance hub for “crowd management,” among other purposes, many of which are notably less concerning.
Post-bombing correspondence between IBM employees and municipal officials shows ambitious contractors suggesting the city incorporate “more data feeds” in an IOC “on steroids.” Docs also show the tactics they used to “monitor panic” through social media. The stated objective for the city’s Department of Innovation & Technology: “show other departments … this is what [they] can do,” and build “a more robust platform … for future projects.”
In helping Boston smarten up, IBM has bedded-down with several partners, augmenting significant deals of its own. In the six months following the 2013 marathon, public records show that Oates’s department spent nearly $500,000 on IBM contracts, plus fattened other collaborators. In one instance, on June 23 of that year the city cut a $158,400 check to an Andover, Massachusetts company that teams with IBM and Boston on intelligent surveillance.
TALE OF THE TAPE
When the Smarter Cities initiative first arrived in Boston, there was talk of privacy considerations. A January 2013 report generated by IBM experts noted the importance of ensuring “that reasonable security and privacy policies, procedures and controls are incorporated in data sharing, especially for personally identifiable information.”
Good intentions aside, in the media blitz between Boston Calling events, IBM and Oates seemingly steered clear of any talk about civil liberties. In a September 2013 press release applauding the success of Smart Cities, the CIO mentioned functions such as “reducing traffic congestion or avoiding conflicts such as roadway maintenance near a busy event.” As for all the data collected, Oates told the Boston Globe, “We have no intention of turning these things over to a company.”
As the Dig discovered and initially reported last week, IBM contractors did in fact store surveillance footage and metadata. At the time of this writing, much of it still remains vulnerable in an obscure corner of the internet. Like security around the secret project, the implementation itself also appears to have been lackluster. A spokesperson for the current mayoral administration of Marty Walsh wrote in an email to the Dig: “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” due to a lack of “practical value for the City’s public safety needs.”
Meanwhile, with Oates spreading the Smart Cities gospel at conferences from Philadelphia to Vegas — and now, presumably, as the CIO of the entire commonwealth, where he took charge in January — IBM is using Boston as a model in its pitch to other cities. At an August 2013 talk to municipal leaders in Florida, Cate Richards, IBM’s North America Smarter Cities Leader, explained how “the decision to expand deployment [and] testing continued immediately” after the marathon bombing. In a presentation that could have passed for the plan outlined for Boston in 2012, the strategist proposed to enhance “the success and safety of public events,” to “leverage cross-agency data,” and to “anticipate problems and provide actionable intelligence.”
In their response to the Dig’s questions, as well as to WBUR in follow-up coverage, the city confirmed that Boston is still exploring options to develop “situational awareness software.” That and all of the above considered, in the coming weeks we will be working to identify what technological direction the commonwealth and its metropolitan regions are heading in, and to ascertain if civil liberties are being violated in the process. Like Oates said at an IBM-sponsored forum at Boston University the month before the bombing, “We’ve only scratched the surface here in Boston.”
BOSTON TROLLING SERIES
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)