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Boston ordinance gives city oversight of surveillance technology, sets limits on school information sharing

In 2014, a surveillance camera was attached to a light pole on Boylston Street in Boston.Steven Senne/Associated Press

The Boston City Council approved a law Wednesday intended to safeguard the public from invasive surveillance technology and also prohibit school officials from sharing student information with Boston police outside of dire emergencies.

The ordinance states that surveillance technologies cannot be funded, acquired, or used without a go-ahead from the council, and that if city authorities want to use existing surveillance technology in a new way, they must receive council approval before deploying the new use.

“We need clear safeguards in place to ensure that the surveillance technologies used by the city are deployed with transparency, public accountability, and democratic oversight,” Councilor Michelle Wu, a mayoral candidate and sponsor of the proposal, said in a statement.


Boston is now among a group of 20 communities nationwide, including Cambridge, Lawrence, and Somerville, that have approved such laws aimed at governing surveillance and information-sharing, according to a statement from the ACLU of Massachusetts, which backs the law.

Under the new law, the City Council will have sway over the use of gunshot detection devices, X-ray vans, biometric surveillance technology, automatic license plate readers, and social media monitoring software, among other tech tools.

Wednesday’s vote follows the council’s decision last year to ban government use of face surveillance technology. Supporters of the ban have said the technology can generate false matches, and have expressed concerns that it is less accurate when identifying people of color.

On Wednesday, Kade Crockford, director of the “Technology for Liberty” program at the local ACLU, said that surveillance in Boston “like policing itself, disproportionately targets Black and brown people.”

“For years, we have been subject to surveillance policy-making that occurs in secret, behind closed doors, without any democratic engagement or public debate,” Crockford said in a statement. “We are thrilled to enter a new chapter in Boston’s democracy.”


One section of the ordinance limits when and how student information can be shared with law enforcement. And the ACLU said that aspect of the law is a first-of-its-kind in the nation.

With a few mandatory reporting exceptions, the law states that school safety specialists shall not collect student information except for creating “student reports,” which are documents that detail criminal misbehavior.

The law details specific criteria for producing such reports, and also spells out the circumstances under which such reports can be shared with local police: if a student has seriously injured someone; if they are a credible threat to school safety that would amount to criminal conduct; if they are in possession of a gun or certain controlled substances.

Last year, it was revealed that city agencies had shared information about students more than 100 times from 2014 to 2018 with a Boston-area intelligence-sharing network that includes an agent from the US Department of Homeland Security.

And, in at least two cases, school incident reports were used by immigration authorities to make the case to deport students, according to their lawyers, the Globe has reported.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, a sponsor of the ordinance, said in a statement that the new regulations offer protections that start “the work of dismantling the school to prison, and school to deportation, pipelines.”

“The residents of Boston deserve a transparent process that fosters accountability when it comes to how we are policed and surveilled,” Arroyo said.

The new legislation specifically bars school officials from including certain information in the student reports, including immigration status, address, and confirmed or alleged gang affiliation. It also prohibits sharing student information with Boston Regional Intelligence Center, which is a police intelligence-gathering operation, federal immigration authorities, federal law enforcement agencies, or any law enforcement fusion center “under any circumstances, except where required by state or federal law.”


Nora Paul-Schultz, a Boston Public Schools physics teacher and cochair of Boston Teachers Union Unafraid Educators, said that in the past “the lack of policies and oversight have led to the criminalization of students for typical teenage behavior.”

“Doing so has had devastating consequences for those young people and their families. I am hopeful that this ordinance will provide significant guardrails that will better protect our students from being criminalized in our schools,” Paul-Schultz said.

The matter now heads to Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s desk. A mayoral spokeswoman said Wednesday that the administration is reviewing the proposal.

Danny McDonald can be reached at Follow him @Danny__McDonald.