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Drones, stingrays, hidden microphones: Law enforcement in Massachusetts is increasingly using surveillance technology

Law enforcement is using surveillance devices across the state, but oversight of this technology has not kept up with its increasing presence.

A hawk sat on a support arm of a security camera at the Massachusetts State House.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file

Drones monitoring Black Lives Matter protests. License plate readers, hidden in plain sight, dumping the plate numbers of every passing car into an Internet database for anyone to see. A camera, tucked away high on a telephone pole, watching a home and its inhabitants for eight months without them ever knowing.

A few steps removed from the all-seeing video networks featured in some British crime dramas, these are but a partial inventory of surveillance technology widely used by police across the state. Boston alone has almost 1,000 pole-mounted cameras operated by police, plus access to another 380 used by other agencies.

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The cameras are not distributed evenly around town. About a third of them are clustered downtown, and the police districts of Roxbury, Dorchester, and the South End — neighborhoods largely made up of residents of color — each have more than 100 cameras. West Roxbury, by contrast, has just one such camera.

Boston police also operate a fleet of drones, license plate readers, and a device called a cell-site simulator, which captures cellphone signals in a chosen area and can pinpoint the location of individual users. Other police agencies, including the State Police, also make regular use of surveillance devices. The eyes of law enforcement, in other words, can be just about anywhere.

Oversight of this technology has not kept up with its increasing presence, leaving the public largely in the dark about what technology police are using on them, and what rules, if any, hold law enforcement accountable.

Now, civil rights groups and public officials are intensifying pressuring on police departments to publicly disclose their surveillance practices, and to place restrictions on certain technology that may infringe on people’s right to privacy.

“The bare minimum [is] ensuring that at least there are some rules everybody’s agreed to about who’s accessing this information . . . who’s getting monitored, and what communities are under the microscope,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

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Police are quick to defend the technology, saying it is an invaluable resource for public safety duties ranging from missing persons investigations and public event patrols to gang infiltrations and drug busts.

A surveillance camera on Congress Street was placed by Boston police this month. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“These are really, really important public safety tools and I just wish people looked at them as what they are: a tool to help us provide safety for the city,” Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox said in an interview.

“It helps us investigate and solve crimes quickly after the fact,” he added, saying cameras can also serve as a crime deterrent, and as a way to hold police accountable.

Adam Wandt, a vice chair for technology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said Boston police’s increase in surveillance equipment over the past 15 years mirrors trends in other major police departments. As tools like drones and cameras have grown popular, they’ve also gotten cheaper, he said, meaning that surveillance technology is becoming “very common among police departments all over the country.”

However, the line between gathering evidence and invading privacy isn’t always clear to residents, public officials, or even the courts.

In November, the ACLU petitioned the Supreme Court to take up a Massachusetts case involving federal agents who “surreptitiously installed a small surveillance camera near the top of a utility pole” in Springfield and watched the residents of a private home for months, zooming in close enough to see their faces. Federal appeals judges were divided on whether secretly pointing cameras at people’s homes violates a person’s constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure, and the Supreme Court could decide next month to hear the case.

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In December, the ACLU also sued the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services for failing to provide public records about how they use license plate reading technology, in a case that is still pending.

Today, license plate scanners are commonly used on highways as a replacement for tollbooths, but law enforcement use of the devices has been a source of public concern for years. A decade ago, the Boston Police Department accidentally gave the Globe a database that included license plate numbers of more than 68,000 vehicles collected over a six-month period, prompting the department to temporarily suspend use of its 14 scanners.

Two years later, another journalist discovered that the Boston Transportation Department had left its entire license plate reader database online, with more than one million records available for anyone to download. The data, which was used primarily for parking enforcement but was shared with law enforcement, also listed information identifying thousands of suspected gang members and terrorists. That error has since been resolved.

Boston police currently operate five license plate readers at fixed positions around the city that continually record numbers from passing cars so officers can look back at the data as needed for investigations, according to the department’s chief of communications, Mariellen Burns.

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Also in December, the ACLU published public records revealing that Massachusetts State Police used drones in 2020 to monitor Black Lives Matter protests in six communities across the state. While police departments have been known to use drones to monitor large-scale events such as parades or the Boston Marathon, the State Police drones were used for smaller protests in Agawam, Fitchburg, Gardner, and Leominster.

State Police spokesperson David Procopio said in a statement that use of any of the agency’s 25 drones during protests in recent years has been “for crowd safety and traffic management only,” and that no data was recorded or saved.

Meanwhile, the Boston City Council in December approved the Police Department’s guidelines for the use of surveillance technology. The guidelines lay out 18 types of technology police own and operate, and name the department, state, or federal laws that govern each device or database. The City Council’s greenlighting of the new guidelines marked the first time the body exercised new powers under an October 2021 ordinance.

A camera on Washington Street near the Old South Meeting House. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

But surveillance in some form is quickly becoming a fact of modern life. Wandt, of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, stressed that ”people need to realize they don’t have an expectation of privacy while in public.”

”The law is extremely solid in that area,” he said. “Police or a citizen could record them in almost all parts of the country without a problem.”

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Wandt said the real concern for the public should be police departments’ record-retention policies and safeguards — how long and how securely they hold onto recorded audio, video, and other sensitive information.

“No matter how much effort departments take to protect their data, we see breaches of law enforcement and government databases on a regular basis,” he said. “Of course the public needs to be worried about government abusing data, but they need to be even more worried at this point about a hacking group coming in and then posting information online.”

Crockford, however, said “robust checks and balances” are needed be sure the technology is deployed for proper purposes and not aimed at certain neighborhoods or residents of color.

Statewide, surveillance laws vary widely by police department, with some communities implementing strict bans on certain technology while others allow police to operate with little to no regulation. In a 2020 police reform law, Massachusetts was among the first states in the country to pass restrictions on the use of facial recognition software; in nearly all cases, police are now required to get a court order to access such data from the RMV.

Boston has prohibited police from using certain technology — the City Council banned the use of facial recognition software for policing in 2020 because it wrongly identifies people of color at alarming rates — but other surveillance tools are still in use.

In 2021, an investigation by WBUR and ProPublica revealed that Boston police had purchased a cell-site simulator for more than $600,000, using money seized during investigations. Also known as a stingray, the device mimics a cellphone tower to trick nearby phones into connecting to it in order to secretly pinpoint people’s locations. The investigation was the catalyst for the 2021 Boston surveillance ordinance.

The Boston Police Department’s policy states that the device “cannot and will not be used to capture emails, texts, contact lists, images or any other data.”

Data obtained by the Globe indicates that Boston police have been using a cell-site simulator since at least 2017, most often in drug investigations. The device has been used in and around Boston an average of 20 times a year, most often in Roxbury and Dorchester, according to department data.

The department also owns an arsenal of cameras and recorders to capture still photos, audio, and video, at any given moment. The collection of cameras is divided into multiple categories, and includes specialty cameras (such as night vision, thermal, and X-ray), and so-called “covert” devices, able to livestream and record in secrecy.

Commissioner Cox declined to share details about the cameras, saying that “these devices were put in the category [of covert] to protect the investigatory integrity of the device, and so we typically don’t describe the individual devices.”

Cox stressed that, like the cell-site simulator, covert devices can only be used with a court order, or in exigent circumstances.

Fatema Ahmad, executive director at the Muslim Justice League, said the department’s use of other technology should also come with greater oversight, particularly as Massachusetts passed a law last year enabling undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. During a November City Council hearing, Ahmad warned specifically about license plate readers, which activists say could be easily used to pinpoint and deport undocumented immigrants.

Cox said the use of license plate data is “always historical, [after] an event’s happened.” In a December letter, Cox also told the City Council that Boston police had rejected a dozen requests for help from ICE in 2022.

The Boston Police Department has also been criticized in the past for its use of drones, though Cox said they are primarily used today for missing person investigations, crime scene reconstruction, and large public events.

In 2017, a Jamaica Plain resident noticed police officers hovering a drone over his neighborhood, leading to one of the first public complaints about the department’s surveillance practices. Police acknowledged purchasing three drones earlier that year, but denied using them at the time, saying the officers were likely “playing with a toy” while in uniform. In spring 2022, the department bought at least one new drone and said it wanted to create an on-call team to “expand the use of drones . . . beyond crime scene investigations.”

The department currently owns eight drones, half of which are registered and in use, according to the department. In the past year, Boston police reported 17 drone missions (not including training missions), or roughly one every three weeks.

Kendra Lara, the city councilor for Jamaica Plain, said she will push for the council this coming year to closely scrutinize police use of drones, the gang database, and gunshot detection software. She said councilors should have the ultimate say on what type of technology police can and cannot use.

“I don’t want to spend money on things that are ineffective and that are going to ultimately harm our constituents and violate their privacy,” she said. “This review gives us the ability to pause and ask, ‘What are the things we are deploying that could possibly have a negative impact on our residents, and should we be deploying them?’ ”


Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her @itsivyscott.