Odds are good that the government spied on you today. After all, Greater Boston is blanketed with security cameras, license plate readers, and other gadgets that constantly surveil public spaces and relay the footage to police. Depending on whom you ask, this network of snooping devices is either a tremendous public asset that helps police catch criminals and keep communities safe or a threat to civil liberties and harbinger of a dystopian future — or a little of each.
Security camera footage helped police identify the Boston Marathon bombers and suspects at the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the devices clearly have a continued role in law enforcement. Yet the cameras, and the software used to sift through the video they generate, just as clearly could be abused by an officer snooping on a celebrity or his ex-wife. And the systems are a ripe target for hacking: Even if you trust that local police would use data from surveillance devices appropriately, what about the hackers or foreign governments who might be watching too?
As the cameras become more common and more sophisticated, and the software to process all those images more powerful, the debates over how to balance security and civil liberties need to come out of the shadows. Public officials ought to be leading the debate about how, when, and where to deploy these powerful tools, instead of leaving those determinations to the police.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey took a welcome step in that direction Wednesday when she paused a city contract that would have taken steps to integrate Boston’s camera network with that of several neighboring cities. By itself, the proposal would have had a seemingly slight impact: It just would have made it easier for police in Boston to access an existing camera in Quincy or vice versa.
But the ACLU of Massachusetts and others raised concerns about such a move with no public input, and last week Janey said she would put off signing the deal. That delay creates an opportunity for the public to weigh in on how Boston and other cities should use surveillance technology in the future, and when sharing between jurisdictions is appropriate. Does it make sense for every cop in Brookline to have access to every camera in Winthrop? What training ought to be mandated? Does the system log all its users, so there’s a record if an officer misuses it? As it so happens, the Boston City Council was already considering an ordinance that would have required more transparency from the city on how it uses surveillance technology; how and when to share footage with other jurisdictions belongs in that discussion.
In 2021, concerns about surveillance go well beyond police. Private businesses snoop on their customers; many homeowners now have networked cameras on their doorbells. And of course, nearly everyone carries a camera in their pocket capable of producing videos that would have been state-of-the-art three decades ago. In general, people forfeit the expectation of privacy when they step into public spaces and into this web of cameras.
Still, there is a price to such constant monitoring, and good reason for the city to proceed carefully. The sense of always being watched, especially by the government, is inimical to personal freedom. And surveillance can have a chilling effect — for instance, on protesters who know they are being monitored in public places as they exercise First Amendment rights. More cameras, and more sharing, may well help stop enough crime to be worth the price in greater surveillance. But that’s a judgment call that needs to be made in public, by elected officials who can be held accountable for the consequences.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.