Metro

New State House surveillance camera points at popular protest spot

A surveillance camera has been added to the front of the State House facing Beacon Street.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
A surveillance camera has been added to the front of the State House facing Beacon Street.

Protestors: Don’t forget to smile.

A new security camera nestled on an 18th-century balcony of the Massachusetts State House faces one of the state’s most prominent places to demonstrate — in front of the Capitol’s steps. And it has raised familiar questions about balancing security and liberty in the post-Sept. 11 era.

State House officials say the device, installed in late June, is a routine measure to protect the tens of thousands of people who come to Massachusetts’ seat of government every year. It’s one of dozens around the State House and untold thousands around the city.

Advertisement

But civil liberty advocates see the new State House camera as an especially pernicious government encroachment into citizens’ right to peaceably assemble and protest — and to do so, the activists argue, without being captured digitally.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“Under no circumstances should state government be monitoring First Amendment-protected activities unless they have a reason to believe that criminal activity is occurring there,” said Kade Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Especially in the context of recent debates about immigration and deportation, she said, “knowing the State Police have access to a camera — positioned in a place giving troopers a view of who is standing in front of the State House demanding something of their government — may chill some political speech.”

The new camera was installed in late June as part of a broader security upgrade by the Bureau of the State House, which is jointly overseen by the governor and Legislature. Cameras have monitored the outside of the building for at least 15 years.

Both the unarmed Department of Conservation and Recreation rangers who patrol the building, the State Police, and other law enforcement agencies have access to the State House’s video security system, including the new camera, as necessary, according to Beacon Hill officials briefed on the matter.

Advertisement

Those officials, who declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of the issue, said that security and law enforcement officials have access to the system so they can ensure the Capitol and the areas around remain safe, and to look out for public safety threats such as suspicious vehicles or violent protests that could put people in danger.

In a statement, Lizzy Guyton, the governor’s communications director, said, “The safety and security of the Massachusetts State House is vital to all who work, visit and gather here to make their voices heard — and these security updates are solely to improve public safety.”

But questions sent to governor’s office — such as how long the state retains video footage and who controls the new camera’s movement — were not answered.

Tammy Kraus, the superintendent of the Bureau of the State House, who reports jointly to the governor, state Senate, and state House of Representatives, said in a statement further details about the camera upgrades “are not available due to security concerns.”

To be sure, it’s just one surveillance camera in a building, city, state, and country full of them. But the new camera, mounted on the famous front facade of the Capitol completed in 1798, is particularly prominent.

Advertisement

Harvey A. Silverglate, a civil rights lawyer in Cambridge and a noted civil libertarian, said he is skeptical of the new device because “it creates an atmosphere of a monitored society.”

Symbolically, he said, the front of the State House is a bad place for a camera.

“It transgresses the look and feel of liberty. That doesn’t mean it’s unconstitutional,” he added. “But in a decent society, the government shouldn’t do everything it is legally empowered to do.”

On Tuesday, ostensibly in full view of the camera, a few dozen people gathered in front of the State House steps to protest a bill proposed by Governor Charlie Baker that would permit local law enforcement to detain certain unauthorized immigrants at the request of federal officials.

June Lipton, one of those rallying against the bill, expressed ambivalence when asked about the new camera.

“In general, I have mixed feelings about CCTVs,” the 63-year-old Arlington resident said, using an acronym for closed-circuit television. “I see how it can be helpful for security, but overall I see it as an invasion of privacy. I’m not comfortable with the government knowing so much about what people do and where they go without cause.”

Seth Gitell, a spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, declined to comment on the new camera, as did Natasha Perez, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg’s chief of staff.

Dave Procopio, a spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, said in an e-mail that security cameras at the State House are not installed, maintained, or operated by the State Police.

But, he said, “as the law enforcement agency responsible for protecting the State House, we have access to footage from any security camera, when necessary to monitor or investigate a potential crime or safety threat.”

Compared to many other state capitols, the Massachusetts State House has less visible security. Public entrances, and the magnetometers and bag-scanning devices there, are manned by Department of Conservation and Recreation rangers, who do not carry firearms, rather than armed police officials.

Massachusetts State troopers maintain a presence at the governor’s office but are usually not posted at public entrances.

Baker, Rosenberg, and DeLeo recently hired a director of State House security, who will be responsible for coordinating the overall safety and security for building, and the people who visit it. He starts on Monday.

Crockford, who directs the Technology for Liberty Program at the state ACLU, launched several queries about the camera in a telephone interview, including whether the camera is connected to a facial recognition system that would allow law enforcement to determine the names of people in the camera’s view. And she emphasized worries about how long the footage is kept.

Former Boston police commissioner Edward F. Davis, whose firm does security work for the Globe, said concerns about how long data are retained are reasonable.

But, Davis said, “In this day and age, the issue with cameras is pretty much decided: They’re everywhere. And quite frankly there’s an expectation that public buildings will have video surveillance as part of their security package.”

Speaking about the State House, he said, “It’s hard to make the argument that there shouldn’t be cameras there.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.