With surveillance issues such as police body cameras in the news of late and other related topics like the use of facial recognition not in the news nearly enough, I recently interviewed civil liberties advocate Alex Marthews, a Belmont resident and the national chair of the digital Fourth Amendment rights group Restore the Fourth, for an episode of the TV show Beyond Boston that I host for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Some of the things that Marthews says, the trends that he identifies—these things can sound scary at times. Because they are scary. That doesn’t mean they should be written off though, which is sadly how such news is handled by most mainstream outlets. While major publications pitch surveillance as a tool of mass convenience—take, for example, the highway toll gantries that capture the equivalent of a digital footprint from every vehicle that passes beneath them—without always acknowledging the full extent of such an innovation’s far more sinister applications, it is important that experts like Marthews are heard. As you’ll see, their knowledge runs much deeper than that of the law enforcement entities which are tasked with deploying newfangled technologies which pose obvious threats to our privacy.
I saw that you have been doing a lot of research into police body cameras. In your world, nothing is black and white. What do people need to know about body cameras? Where do you fall on this issue?
In many ways I fall in between on this. If you look at what the research says, body cams offer significant potential for improving encounters with police on the street. When you are stopped, are your rights going to be respected? Are you going to come out of it in one piece? This is important stuff, and in the pilot studies they have done around the country body cams can reduce use of force, and reduce complaints about the police in ways that we think are significant and are important.
On the other hand, if body cams are not done properly, if they’re not done well, then they can be introduced as a tool for additional surveillance by police without having additional accountability for police built into it. So it is possible to introduce them without really regulating who uses them, what really happens to the footage, when the camera is on and off, whether there should be exotic new technologies incorporated into them like facial recognition. These sorts of questions are delicate, and they involve your privacy when you are out on the street. They are important issues that have to be carefully dealt with.
You work at the federal, state, and local levels, but there are hundreds of municipalities in Massachusetts alone. Are these battles that need to be fought in every city and town across the state? What kind of guidance does your organization give people?
In Boston, there is an organization that’s been doing great work on this called the Boston Police Camera Action Team, and they developed an ordinance for how all body cams could be controlled and introduced. They’ve gone to meetings, they’ve been at the City Council, they’ve really done great work over there, and it’s a model for how other groups might go to work on it. At the state level what we’ve been trying to do is get passed statewide guidance for police departments—that may want to acquire body-worn cameras—that sets high-quality policies for when that may happen. That bill is H.2504. It’s a great piece of legislation sponsored by Denise Provost of Somerville.
When we’re talking about equipment that police don’t really know how to use, the first thing that comes to mind is Automatic License Plate Recognition technology. Some cities and towns have these devices but literally have no policies at all regarding how to use them and store data. Who is putting the pressure on departments to have policies in place which ensure that they know how to use these things before they take them out on the street?
It’s a historic issue. There isn’t really a culture of democratic accountability for the police, and when it comes to elected towns and officials, in many towns and cities across Massachusetts, sometimes they may not have the power to oversee the police department properly. Sometimes they just aren’t use to doing it, so when the department or a new chief wants to secure new surveillance equipment, new military-style equipment, then often elected officials feel shy about having a say. What we want to do is to pass ordinances in different municipalities in Massachusetts that would affirmatively say that police have to come to the elected officials, have to hold a public hearing, and have to get the permission of public officials and let them know ahead of time before they deploy surveillance technology. How is this going to work?
Can you tell us a little bit more about facial recognition technology being used on people without their realizing it? It’s tough to tell people about this stuff—they just kind of look at you like you’re talking about the movie Minority Report and making it all up. How do you as an advocate try to work past that?
It’s interesting that you mention Minority Report, because what civil liberties folks like me regard as something that is unnerving is Taser, which is the lead maker of police body cams, views it as kind of a model for this kind of surveillance to be very helpful to law enforcement. They are making offers to law enforcement for essentially free equipment for the first year and making money on the back end with data management. And with a plan to incorporate facial recognition very broadly in body cameras to help police, as they say, manage the threat environment, and let them know if anybody has a warrant by recognizing their face. This is real, this is coming. Part of serious and well-funded corporate efforts.
If people want to get involved with the fight for civil liberties, where should they start?
When it comes to Massachusetts, the most straightforward way would be to shoot an email to email@example.com. Let us know what municipality you’re in, and we will have someone contact you and orient you to local activism.
UPCOMING PRIVACY EVENTS IN GREATER BOSTON
THU 5.25 (2-3pm)
MuckRock open pitch meeting to workshop ideas for FOIA/public records projects
- Old Cambridge Baptist Church, 1151 Mass Ave, Cambridge
WED 5.31 (6-9pm)
Mass Pirates: Digital Security 101 cryptoparty
- sprout, 339R Summer St, Somerville
MON 6.5 (2-5PM)
Mass Action Against Police Brutality: Pack the courthouse for trial of Officer Jennifer Amyot Garvey
- Suffolk Superior Court House, Boston
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.