BY CHRIS FARAONE, KENNETH LIPP & JONATHAN RILEY
For this third installment of our Boston Trolling series on information and surveillance, we’ve done some of our own data collection—of every available bellwether and indicator, positive and negative, that points forward. Some questions we considered: As the police state expands, are there adequate safeguards in place? Or for the sake of innovation and presumed security is our whole state, from every overzealous board of selectmen to the spineless bureaucrats on Beacon Hill, doomed to embrace elaborate tripwire systems that prowl for so-called “pre-crime?”
This past August should forever be recognized as a milestone moment in Hub history. Not only because the relatively new administration of Mayor Marty Walsh hosted an event touted as “Boston’s First Civic Minded Hackathon,” but because the brave creatives who attended the inaugural HubHacks pooled their talents toward tackling debilitating issues that should probably have been addressed when Kevin White was in office.
With more than 50 volunteer coders foregoing a spectacularly sunny weekend to work inside District Hall across from the enticing South Boston waterfront, the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) didn’t ask participants to fix low priority problems or build novelty apps. Instead, the DoIT’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) Jascha Franklin-Hodge challenged the group to solve fundamental operations nightmares that the city actually struggles with. Namely, Boston lacks a streamlined permitting process for new businesses and, unbelievable as it sounds, maintains a property database that’s so dysfunctional it neither correlates to post office addresses nor the designations used by utility companies.
To their credit, members of the mayor’s crew shared a harsh and deprecating video they produced with interviews of business owners hammering the system for its bureaucratic asininity. In his turn, the mayor praised the “new tone” city tech administrators are taking, while Franklin-Hodge extolled the real-time progress metrics that help Walsh steer the ship. The optimistic CIO gave only one caveat before officially commencing the data orgy: “Technology,” he said, “is never a solution in and of itself.”
Weeks later, in a statement to the Dig about upcoming developments in city surveillance, a mayoral spokesperson reiterated that sentiment in different terms: “We know that innovation isn’t just about putting shiny toys in our departments, but rather is about identifying a need and finding the right technology to fill the void responsibly … and to retain data securely for the people we serve.”
Prior revelations considered, that’s a new mantra for Boston, and it should come as a relief.
Even with so many positive advancements and public-private partnerships in stride, critics claim that hyperactive innovation hamlets can harbor a sinister side. Take Massachusetts. Though the Bay State rides the cutting edge of life-saving biotech, it’s also home to companies like the Pittsfield-based Lenco Industries, which manufactures the gargantuan urban street tanks that attracted so much ire in Missouri last month. The list of local players in high-tech security is long, from the South Boston-based BioCatch, a “global leader in behavioral biometric authentication and threat detection,” to the Google-owned Boston Dynamics, which spawns humanoid and predatory robots for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
As the Dig reported last month, in 2013 IBM supplied the Hub with state-of-the-art “smart surveillance” that targeted “anyone who [walked] through the door” at the Boston Calling music festivals that May and September (the company has claimed otherwise, though documents obtained by the Dig paint a different picture). But on a greater scale, sophisticated new spy instruments comprise but a piddling note in a statewide symphony of surveillance orchestrated over decades, and that looms everywhere from street corners to school yards. As such, in impugning certain innovations, bright and dark alike, we examined four years worth of technological expenditures at the state level. We may not have proprietary prying eyes in the sky, but you don’t need a camera to see which businesses are likely to partner with Mass and its municipalities in the near future.
People who attended the end-of-summer Boston Calling this past weekend may be relieved to know the city didn’t leverage the same “Face Capture” technology the Dig reported was used at the concert series last year. According to a mayoral spokesperson, the Hub “did not pursue long-term use of [the IBM] 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.”
At the same time, though IBM has a footprint stretching from the Berkshires to Barnstable, the company is only one of many angling for business as authorities across the state explore software that’s intended to detect bad behavior. Following the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, the MBTA licensed a new product called AISight (pronounced: “eyesight”), or Artificial Intelligence for Smart Cities. A flagship of the Texas-based BRS Labs, short for Behavioral Recognition Systems, AISight provides smart surveillance on the cheap. According to the tech industry trade site ITProPortal, the system “is extremely easy to implement even across huge, disparate networks of outdated camera equipment,” and autonomously culls “an ever-changing knowledge base of activity seen through every camera on your video network.”
Low price and accessibility have made BRS an economic success, with the company recently announcing plans to go public. Among the marquee accomplishments fueling such significant growth: deployment in Brazil during the last World Cup, and at this year’s Boston Marathon. State records show that in December 2013, the MBTA security department purchased $200,000 worth of “signal material and equipment” from BRS. Similar expenditures over the past two years include:
Nearly $300,000 in MBTA security spending to the Quincy-based FTG Technologies, which services video surveillance and IP solutions.
$22,725 to VidSys, which provides software “used to run operations centers for public sector agencies.” With a commonwealth branch in Marlborough, the Virginia-born company helps “instantly [correlate] vast amounts of data gathered from any number or virtually any type, brand or generation of physical security system or sensor.”
$1.6 million to Minuteman Security Technologies in Andover for police “equipment and supplies.” Their specialty: “providing real-time monitoring of a facility’s environment, people, and assets as well as by recording events for subsequent investigation, proof of compliance, and audit.”
You might be familiar with concepts like these, tooled to root out crime preemptively, from the short story and movie Minority Report, or the conspiratorial CBS drama “Person of Interest.” The phenomenon is no longer a mere science fiction fascination. State officials may be less than forthcoming about their use of surveillance tech, but BRS President John Frazzini, a former U.S. Secret Service agent, shares his business goals openly. “Catching these events before they happen,” he told the “Today Show” in 2013, “is the name of the game.”
ALPHA BETA TESTING
Three months ago, a national network known as the Privacy Coalition penned a letter, co-signed by 32 organizations that advocate for civil liberties, to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. In it they urged the Department of Justice “to quickly complete an updated Privacy Impact Assessment for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Next Generation Identification System (NGI).” In short: They want to know what federal researchers are doing with the endless stream of data they collect through innumerable access points.
“There’s no evidence that these technologies will ever stop terrorism or, frankly, would have stopped the marathon bombing,” says Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project. She adds: “The focus on spending millions of dollars in secret to install these back-end camera analytics systems is all taking place not only without public debate, but without demonstrations by the vendors showing what they actually do. For all we know, these may be very good for helping the government control dissent, or for targeting people for things like low-level drug arrests in a crowd.”
With thousands of cameras and countless hours of archival footage, the ultimate goal for governments is seemingly to tap Big Data for the purpose of identifying targets through space and time. In Massachusetts, officials have already live-tested several such analysis products on an unknowing public. The deployment of surveillance linked to facial recognition and crowd monitoring is hugely different from, say, scanning raw footage of the Tsarnaev brothers and cross-referencing similarities against databases. IBM’s Smart Surveillance Engine (SSE) that was used at Boston Calling records skin, hair, body, and clothing colors, and helps compile and analyze that data over prolonged periods.
IBM has conceded that its software isn’t perfect; last year the company noted that hats, masks, and sunglasses can still cause facial recognition to fail. Yet despite shortcomings, Massachusetts state officials have propped these costly measures since before the marathon bombing. In 2010, then-BPD Deputy Superintendent William Casey lectured about artificial intelligence at the annual Biometric Consortium Conference, held that year in Tampa. His message: “Advances in biometric capabilities in the next decade will bring additional tools to law enforcement that promise improvements in crime solving and, more importantly, crime prevention.”
BIG BLUE BROTHER
IBM is a fixture in the commonwealth, if not a constant. In addition to servicing more than $65 million worth of state contracts since 2010, the company’s executives are intricately wired into the political establishment. According to the office of Secretary of State William Galvin, IBM’s most active lobbyist in Massachusetts was paid $30,000 in the first half of this year alone to flank “information technology or any other matter concerning IBM’s business” on Beacon Hill.
From Boston’s schools, to its police force, to the “Intelligent Operations Center” that kept tabs on oblivious concert-goers, the fingerprints of IBM are everywhere. None of which should be surprising since the company has worked tirelessly to nurture and maintain government relationships. In their efforts to ingratiate proprietary systems with the civic interest, IBM Corporate Community Relations Manager Maura Banta has had an especially enduring presence. A company woman since 1973, she has served on advisory boards for entities including the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Mass Taxpayers Foundation, and the Mass Business Alliance for Education.
On the electoral side, Banta is a backer of Deval Patrick, having personally donated $625 to the governor since 2010. Other IBM employees and executives did similarly, giving Patrick nearly $9,000 in total, plus thousands more to the Massachusetts Democratic Party State Committee. On the administrative side, IBM also has apparent inroads to Tony Parham, the commonwealth’s government innovation officer (GIO) since 2012. Parham worked as a program director of Software Group (SWG) at IBM from 2000 to 2005, is a founding co-chair of the company’s Massachusetts Diversity Council, and still operates a management consulting firm that lists IBM as a client.
In many cases, IBM’s aggressive sales and government relations efforts straddle several sectors—security and schools, management and monitoring, and so on. Tending to their education piece, in a 2012 post on a company blog, Banta boasted about work with Massachusetts school partners on “quality rating systems,” “infrastructure support,” and the implementation of a suite of classroom products. A few months later, a company report produced for the administration of Mayor Tom Menino noted that “departments, such as police, libraries and schools … have video cameras,” but that “information is not shared,” while “the data is intended for human consumption, not digital processing.”
You can never have too much intelligent surveillance. As IBM General Manager Michael Dixon said in a promotional video for their hallmark Smarter Cities initiative, it’s not like the old days when “those that needed to be watched were in a jail.” Makes sense. If you’re identifying perps before they even commit crimes, let alone get charged, convicted, and incarcerated, then nothing less than the entire public has profound penal potential.
It’s not necessarily a doomsday scenario. As showcased at the city’s aforementioned hackathon last month, Boston’s current tech squad—flanked by the award-winning Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics—is making a serious effort to innovate on a tight budget. At the District Hall event, one DoIT associate noted, “It’s really cheap to fail fast.”
Things move slower at the state level, where countless entrenched contractors are still feasting. It’s a tradition. In the case of the Canadian business intelligence company Cognos, the commonwealth extended annual contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars even after a lobbyist for their software was found to have violated open bidding rules. The headline case landed then-Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives Sal DiMasi in federal prison, but Cognos was spared after IBM acquired it as a subsidiary in 2007.
While the Big Blue Grey Lady remains dominant, and did nearly twice as much business with the commonwealth last fiscal year than in 2011, IBM can count on mounting competition—especially on smart surveillance. Smaller companies have boots on the ground too. In the case of the Andover-based Minuteman, last year the self-described “enterprise security leader” paid a Boston firm $48,000 for representation on Beacon Hill. The face of their lobbying: a former chief legal counsel to the state Senate Committee on Ways and Means, and a former state senator.
“The surveillance industry isn’t just burgeoning, it’s vibrant,” says Crockford of the ACLU. “And once these industries have enough money, they’re able to pay for lobbying to ensure that they get huge government contracts. It’s difficult to roll back the surveillance state that they profit off of when our political system is driven by campaign contributions and lobbyists who endorse this atmosphere.”
Crockford continues: “The people who really lose out here, time and again, are taxpayers who want to live and participate in a free society.”
BOSTON TROLLING SERIES
FURTHER READING ON SECURITY & PRIVACY