Image by Kent Buckley
Not long ago, at one of the innumerable media conferences I’ve attended in the past few years, the topic turned to mass surveillance, a subject over which I happen to obsess. Among dozens of other blog posts and features I have written about troubling technologies like Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), last year I led a team at DigBoston in impugning facial recognition software that the city used in secret.
“Boston Trolling,” the aforementioned series co-written by Kenneth Lipp and Jonathan Riley about local uses of biometrics and other newfangled incarnations of Big Brother, wound up running in four parts and being aggregated by dozens of outlets. The New York Times recently noted our discovery, though they failed to cite us, and furthermore, they allowed the Boston Police Department to rhetorically erase their ugly record and evade criticism. This is how history gets whitewashed:
The authorities in Boston tested facial recognition technology but decided in 2013 not to adopt it, saying it crossed an ethical line. The software had been linked to surveillance cameras to secretly scan the faces of thousands of people at outdoor concerts in the city center. The images had then been fed into software capable of analyzing them.
“I don’t want people to think we’re always spying on them,” said William B. Evans, Boston’s police commissioner.
Though Times reporters have no clue what’s happening around here, in staying on the case for so long, the Dig has effectively unearthed several thousand damning documents about the metastasized police state in the Commonwealth. We write about these issues nearly every week, to the point of nausea, and will continue to do so until more people listen and pitch in to reverse the curse. What we haven’t been able to find yet, however, is a definitive list of surveillance devices used by all participating government agencies. That’s where you come in.
But back to that journalism conference for a second … I was complaining about the difficulty I have had obtaining a compendium of cameras, reference codes and all, when one of the other attendees said, “You’ll just have to go and count them yourself.” She was joking, and certainly no single reporter could inventory the presumably tens of thousands of prying eyes belonging to the MBTA, the Commonwealth, and the City of Boston. At the same time, she was on to something, and I think it’s this …
As my research and that of others has shown, the police apparatus tasked with operating so-called smart surveillance has routinely failed to store data safely, to stay organized, and to share everything they should with the public. That bureaucratic mess considered, my teammates at DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism are convinced that there is only one way to efficiently map the police state — we have to do it ourselves, together! You. Me. Everyone. We’re on Instagram all day anyway, so we might as well combine that muscle to protect the common good.
We’ll comb through the countless tweets and posts and parse all of the data, which we will use to inform critical stories. All you have to do is snap the pics and use the hashtag #BINJbrother. Thank you in advance for your assistance.
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.