Earlier this spring, the City of Boston quietly sought bids for a company to help assemble a vast surveillance network across the region, linking more than 1,000 cameras in a network that officials in any one of nine Greater Boston municipalities would be able to access.
But this week, Acting Mayor Kim Janey hit pause on the plan, and a chorus of advocates are calling on her to drop it altogether, citing privacy and civil liberties concerns.
“Going forward with this project despite community opposition would establish a supercharged surveillance network that would endanger privacy, civil liberties, public safety, and racial justice in the City of Boston and surrounding cities and towns,” Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement to the Globe. “We urge the Janey administration to continue standing up for Bostonians’ rights and safety, and to immediately abandon this [request-for-proposal] process.”
The city of Boston released the request for proposal on April 5, and the deadline for the selection of a vendor was Wednesday. The existence of the proposal was first reported by DigBoston.
Under the plan, cameras would be linked in a wireless network that would be capable of sharing video and video control in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Quincy, Revere, Somerville, and Winthrop. According to the city’s request for proposal, “any user of the system from any participating jurisdiction must have access to and control of any camera in the system subject by the rights and rules defined by the system administrators.”
The system would include an estimated 750 cameras in Boston, 20 in Brookline, 150 in Chelsea, 75 in Everett, 75 in Quincy, 50 in Revere, 40 in Somerville, and 40 in Winthrop, according to the proposal. The proposal did not list the number of cameras, if any, from Cambridge.
However, in a statement this week, a Janey spokeswoman said the acting mayor has paused the process “and is directing her staff to take a fresh look at this request. . . . Mayor Janey remains committed to strengthening public safety, transparency and accountability for the City of Boston.”
Civil rights advocates said the city should scrap the initiative, which they think is misguided.
“Most people in any of these cities don’t know these cameras exist, don’t know who has access,” said Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Boston-based Muslim Justice League. “This is a really, really significant issue with very little transparency.”
The primary goal of the surveillance network, according to the proposal, is to provide key pieces of “critical physical infrastructure” within a federally designated Homeland Security region in Greater Boston. The contracting entity is the City of Boston, and the city’s Office of Emergency Management is the department seeking the vendor. The city has so far received two bids for the project, the draft process for which started in early March, under then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration.
The prospective vendor would be required to help with large celebrations such as the Boston Marathon and Fourth of July celebrations, in addition to helping with unplanned events. In certain circumstances, the vendor could be asked to quickly deploy new cameras and provide increased monitoring services.
Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge-based criminal defense and civil liberties attorney, said in an e-mail that “the system envisioned here appears to give the citizen no warning” they are under surveillance.
“And so this does raise privacy concerns,” he said. Silverglate said the city’s plan “would probably pass muster” under federal law, but said it’s less likely that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court would approve.
Because the SJC, he said, “has frequently interpreted the similar provisions of the state Constitution so as to provide more liberty and privacy than the federal Constitution, I would not bet that the SJC would be too friendly to the ‘Office of Emergency Management’ and its plan to invade our privacy.”
Silverglate said when it comes to privacy and search-and-seizure, a search warrant is required unless there is an extraordinary and “exigent” need for an intrusion into a citizen’s privacy. In order for the proposed program to survive a legal challenge, the city would have to show that the monitoring system is the “least intrusive method available for protecting public safety.”
“I am skeptical of this,” he said. “A less restrictive response might be, for example, better street lighting, which raises no privacy concerns.”
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes suggested the network could foster a more efficient exchange of information among the participating police departments’ systems.
“In reality, the police would never have occasion to view the cameras in another jurisdiction,” meaning officers in Brookline would not be regularly viewing camera footage from Dorchester, said Kyes in an e-mail. But, he continued, if a serious crime took place near the border of one town or city — say, neighborhoods in the north part of Chelsea — “It would definitely be helpful to look at the cameras in Everett and/or Revere that were close to where the crime occurred.”
“This enhancement would make it that much quicker and more efficient when time was of the essence in locating a particular suspect who poses a danger to the public or perhaps locating someone that was abducted,” he said.
In Brookline, the town administrator, Mel Kleckner, said there has been extensive community dialogue regarding surveillance and military-style policing, including a committee dedicated to considering police surveillance in town. He expected the Brookline Select Board to discuss the regional proposal on June 15.
“I don’t intend to make further public comments about this matter before the Board’s discussion,” he said in a Friday e-mail.
Municipal surveillance has become a notable political issue in Boston in recent years.
Janey, as a city councilor, was among those who backed a surveillance oversight ordinance for the city, which would provide guard rails around how the city could use surveillance technology. Such a proposal was filed in 2018 and was refiled this year. The measure aims to provide “accountability, transparency, and oversight regarding the use of surveillance technology and surveillance data by the city of Boston and its agencies and officers to protect privacy, civil rights, and racial and immigrant justice.”
There was a working session on that measure earlier this year and another one tentatively scheduled for early July. It’s thought to have enough support on the council to pass this year.
One of the sponsors of that proposal, Councilor Michelle Wu, said this week that the city “should not be implementing new policies that would fly in the face of pending legislation.”
“We should get a vote on the legislation and then implement proper procedures after that,” said Wu, who, along with Janey, is among a half-dozen major candidates running for mayor.
She added, “This is very important to make sure that we are not chasing mishaps or violations of people’s rights after the fact.”
Last year, Boston authorities banned city government use of face surveillance technology, which attempts to identify people by scanning their faces. That measure makes it illegal for local authorities to obtain or use a face surveillance system, to use information derived from such a system, or to contract with a third party to surveil faces.
Supporters of the ban have said the technology can generate false matches, and have expressed concerns that the technology is less accurate when it comes to identifying people of color. The measure does include exemptions. For instance, it would allow law enforcement to use evidence generated by a face surveillance system in the investigation of a specific crime.