Image by Tak Toyoshima
I run a sturdy volunteer group of cypherpunks, Democrats, libertarians, Republicans, and anarchists that meets weekly in Cambridge to plot ways to undermine the surveillance state. You’d be better off using divination sticks than relying on TV to find out what’s going on regarding these matters, so we keep track of it all. Here’s a brief overview of this year’s surveillance-related news in the Commonwealth.
In Massachusetts, we now have no fewer than 65 agencies focusing on homeland security and terrorism. Our local surveillance center (BRIC) operates out of Boston Police Department headquarters, and keeps tabs on Black Lives Matter, peace activists, local Muslim groups, and journalists and activists who oppose their tactics. Along with the FBI, BRIC monitors social media, especially around public events, for inappropriate content. Generally, these technologies and practices are focused sharply on poor and high-minority communities, leaving wealthier and whiter communities to enjoy a less intrusive style of surveillance. One exception to that would be Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), which DigBoston discovered are still being used by BPD despite the department claiming years ago that they stopped tracking drivers en masse. Furthermore, until said Dig discovery, troves of the data collected via ALPR—more than a million license plate numbers tied to location and other information including home addresses in some cases—were left exposed online by the third-party company contracted to store plate information.
Knowing these facts, we advocated for bills this year on Beacon Hill to undermine police militarization (H. 2169) and mandate data collection on police stops and bodycams for all police statewide. We’re also pushing for strong privacy controls (H. 2170), and for Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler’s fusion center reform bill (S.734) which, among other things, would make it so “no state or local law enforcement agency, prosecutorial office, criminal intelligence system, police or peace officer, or agent thereof [could] track, collect or maintain information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities of any individual, group, association, organization, corporation, business or partnership or other entity unless such information directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities.”
On the ground, activists Segun Idowu, Shekia Scott, and Muska Nassery worked throughout the year to bring bodycams to Boston, an idea which Commissioner William Evans greeted with all the enthusiasm of a vegetarian asked to model Lady Gaga’s meat dress. This while activists pried loose proof that BPD lied about not having a “stingray,” a device that spoofs cellphone towers and sucks up call data, likely mostly used in drug investigations. BRIC tarred journalists from the Bay State Examiner as security threats, lied when asked whether they had files on those journalists, steadily refused to meet with civil liberties groups, and awarded themselves an A+ for “Privacy, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties” in their annual DHS report. Of course, we’d know none of this without the Commonwealth’s battered old public records law, which the legislature is currently trying to update so that agencies like BRIC have longer to respond to requests.
At year’s end, the Paris attacks, the San Bernardino mass shooting, and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for unreasonable immigration restrictions have everyone on edge, but especially the Muslim community. There are swastikas on mosques and hit pieces in the press on local Muslims and those who defend their rights. The pressure of surveillance makes everything worse, accentuating suspicion across classes, religions, and races—all without doing anything to actually thwart attacks.
In consequence of all this, black, Jewish, LGBT, anarchist, progressive, and Somali groups came together with the ACLU to hold a standing-room-only session in Roxbury on surveillance, race, and policing. Meanwhile, BPD officials, including a representative from BRIC, hold meetings with local Muslim leaders at their headquarters, and wonder why attendance is below expectations.
If you’d like to join our efforts in 2016, we recommend you use Tor, Signal, and Protonmail to protect your communications, and join our listserv at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex Marthews is the president of Digital Fourth
BONUS: For months, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, along with many of their followers on social media, have been documenting surveillance around Greater Boston to make up for the fact that there is no master list of all camera locations. We need your help! All you have to do is snap a picture of a camera on your cell phone and post it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #BINJbrother. If you’re a surveillance skeptic and don’t want to use your GPS for location, please just tag the city (e.g., #Boston) and building (e.g., #MGH) or intersection (e.g., #MassAve and #Boylston). Try not to mess up, you’re being watched. -Chris Faraone