“We need the ordinance to pass so we’re not dealing with executive branch demands to expand surveillance in a Whac-A-Mole fashion.”
After DigBoston broke the story of a plan to link more than 1,000 surveillance cameras across the Metro Boston area so police across nine cities would have remote access to regionwide footage, Mayor Kim Janey told other media outlets she would “take a fresh look” at the proposal. Still, BPD is moving ahead to add more surveillance cameras in Dorchester in yet another proposal taking place without the oversight Janey pushed for as a councilor.
While civil liberties advocates said they were glad Janey was pulling back from the linked access plan, they said all new surveillance proposals need to be put on hold until the City Council gets oversight powers through a new ordinance that councilors have sought for more than a year.
“It’s appropriate to hold off on any more expansions of government surveillance in Boston,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at ACLU Massachusetts. “It’s totally fitting for the city to decide on not moving forward on any new surveillance projects until this ordinance is in place.”
In April, Boston’s Office of Emergency Management put out a request for contractors to handle network monitoring and maintenance of a linked wireless network of more than 1,000 cameras in the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region, which covers Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Quincy, Revere, Somerville, and Winthrop as well as Boston. The network would let remote users from across the region watch live and recorded footage from desktops and through remote access, and the consultant was asked to install “quick deploy cameras” and increase monitoring for major events like the Marathon.
In 2020, then-Councilor Janey and two other councilors wrote legislation that would require the council to sign off on getting new surveillance technology, instead of just having it go out for bid through city departments with no community oversight. The council is still considering the new legislation, and when the Dig asked if Janey would withdraw the surveillance network request, a spokesman said the city was acting as a proxy for the MBHSR and would not commit to pulling the proposal back.
But a week later, following criticism from civil liberties groups, a spokesperson for Janey told the Boston Globe that Janey was “directing her staff to take a fresh look at this request.” In a statement to the Dig, a Janey spokesperson confirmed Janey had “paused” the process and said it had begun under the administration of then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
But on the same day the Globe reported Janey had “paused” the process for the surveillance system, BPD’s latest request for more cameras was available for bidders. That request, described as a Department of Justice Grant in bid documents, is for the installation of 18 cameras in the Bowdoin Street area of Dorchester, with half a dozen cameras on the street between Adams and Geneva. The cameras will be mounted on street lights or traffic signals and will take “particular attention to vehicular and foot traffic in and around the neighborhood,” according to bid documents.
In a statement, a Janey spokesperson said the mayor’s office is “also taking a look at an unrelated purchase initiated by the Boston Police Department a year ago, following a grant from the federal government.” Crockford said some Bowdoin residents may want to see more cameras in the neighborhood for public safety, but the issue needs to be debated in public so all aspects of the plan can be considered.
“I’m sure there are some folks who are fed up with gun violence and want more cameras, but also people in the neighborhood who don’t believe cameras will protect them and don’t want the Boston Police Department to monitor their daily lives,” Crockford said, noting that other agencies, like ICE or the FBI, may also have access to surveillance cameras. “That’s why we need to have conversations in public, we need to pass the surveillance ordinance into law so every proposal goes through that process.”
And Crockford pointed to the Bowdoin project’s origins in federal grant funding as another reason for the Council to have oversight over all surveillance projects, and why current plans need to be put on hold until that process is in place. Too often, Crockford said, grant funds are approved without enough knowledge of what they’ll be used for, and departments are able to fund programs like the proposed linked network or new cameras under the radar.
“[Police departments] say it’s free money, we can’t leave it on the table—civil rights advocates say we should leave it on the table. This isn’t for free lunches for kids in school or drug programs, this is free money so the people of Boston can have the pleasure of being monitored by Boston police and God knows who else,” Crockford said. “We need the ordinance to pass so we’re not dealing with executive branch demands to expand surveillance in a Whac-A-Mole fashion, so we can have an informed public conversation about what kind of surveillance is appropriate and if people do think it is appropriate, what rules there are to govern its use.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this please consider making a donation at givetobinj.org
Dan is a reporter who has covered Massachusetts for the Boston Herald and Gatehouse Media.