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City of Boston nixes proposal for vast surveillance network

A surveillance camera affixed to the front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston in 2017.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s administration has scrapped a proposal that sought bids for a company to assemble a surveillance network that would link more than 1,000 cameras in nine Greater Boston communities.

Last month, Janey hit pause on the plan amid a chorus of advocates calling on her to drop the proposal, citing privacy and civil liberties concerns. Now, Janey’s office has confirmed the city has done just that and her administration is no longer pursuing the request for proposal.

“Mayor Janey believes it is incumbent on the City of Boston to ensure camera use protects personal privacy and serves the public interest,” said a Janey spokeswoman in an e-mail.


The city of Boston released the request for proposal on April 5, and the deadline for the selection of a vendor was in early June.

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.

Officials from some of those communities claimed they were unaware of the proposal. A Somerville spokeswoman, for instance, said last month that the city “was not consulted on the initial [request for proposal] and the City’s use of surveillance technology and surveillance data is governed by the City’s surveillance technology ordinance.”


Under the now scrapped proposal, the prospective vendor would have been 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 have been asked to quickly deploy new cameras and provide increased monitoring services.

The existence of the proposal was first reported by DigBoston.

The primary goal of the surveillance network, according to the proposal, was to provide key pieces of “critical physical infrastructure” within a federally designated Homeland Security region in Greater Boston. The contracting entity was the City of Boston, and the city’s Office of Emergency Management is the department seeking the vendor. The city did receive two bids for the project, the draft process for which started in early March, under then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration.

Janey became acting mayor when Walsh left City Hall to become US labor secretary in March.

The news that Janey was withdrawing the surveillance proposal was welcomed by Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

“People in Boston and across Massachusetts should be able to seek medical treatment, attend religious services, and visit friends and family without worrying that police are keeping tabs on their every movement,” she said in a statement. “While withdrawing the [request for proposal] is an important first step, the Boston City Council must now pass a strong surveillance oversight ordinance to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in secret, without public deliberation and democratic oversight.”


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.”

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.

Additionally, the state’s police reform law took effect July 1, which includes regulations on police use of facial recognition technology.

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.