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Boston spied, used facial recognition on concertgoers


Recent news reports claim that the City of Boston tested an IBM video mass surveillance system at the Boston Calling Music Festival last year.

According to a local blog, Dig Boston, a new, sophisticated event monitoring platform was deployed and evaluated which gave authorities “a live and detailed birdseye view of concertgoers, pedestrians and vehicles in the vicinity” of the event.

Using IBM’s Smarter Cities solution, the City of Boston leveraged its existing camera infrastructure to monitor everyone who attended the music festival.

The solution allowed for the capture of thousands of faces using more than 10 cameras, capable of intelligent video analysis. The dashboard supplied by IBM allowed city authorities to display real-time data, as well as monitor traffic congestion and suspicious objects, screen people for possible forensic identification purposes, and conduct real-time video analytics. More than 50 hours of recordings were captured during the event, such as the example below, which were purportedly reviewed by Boston Police.

The comprehensive resources provided to the city for evaluation by IBM also was designed to analyze body and facial patterns, gauge panic levels and crowd sentiment, and to scan social media. Though evidence point to police testing of the system, the Boston Police deny that they were involved in the system’s evaluation.

In a statement, the mayor’s press secretary said: “The City of Boston engaged in a pilot program with IBM, testing situational awareness software for two events hosted on City Hall Plaza: Boston Calling in May 2013, and Boston Calling in September 2013. The purpose of the pilot was to evaluate software that could make it easier for the city to host large, public events, looking at challenges such as permitting, basic services, crowd and traffic management, public safety, and citizen engagement through social media and other channels. These were technology demonstrations utilizing pre-existing camera hardware and data storage systems.”

In further statements, the city said that this test was a trial, as the city has no standing policy on the use of situational awareness software. While BiometricUpdate.com has reported that the federal government is encouraging the development of guidelines for commercial use of facial recognition technology, no such initiative has been undertaken for government use. Further, no guidelines exist concerning government spending disclosures on mass surveillance systems. While another news report estimates that total spending on IBM smart city initiatives in Boston have totaled at least US$4.1 million since 2012, including grants from IBM, it points out that the local government did not disclose that it intended to spend a portion of those funds on surveillance.

This use of IBM’s branded Smart Surveillance System (SSS) and Intelligent Video Analytics (IVA) software was preceded by a beta phase piloted at the ill-fated 2013 Boston Marathon, less than two months before the expanded system was rolled out at the Boston Calling music fest.

The continued testing of the combined systems can probably be attributed to the marathon bombings. In 2013, almost two hours after the winners had completed the race, two explosions occurred near the finish line. Three spectators were killed and 264 others were injured. Among the injured, 17 were reported in critical condition. At least 14 people required amputations. The race was halted eight minutes after the explosions, which set off one of the most intensive criminal manhunts in U.S. history.

The inclination to continue to use enhanced video mass surveillance systems in the wake of the tragic events at the marathon is understandable but not justifiable. While video images of the terrorist bombers helped identity and capture them, there really has been little transparency or public discussion surrounding the deployment of this type of mass surveillance.

While IBM’s Smarter Cities solutions have been marketed primarily as “Big Data” services designed to enhance the efficiency of municipal service delivery, the reality is that the solution also delivers highly-intrusive video mass surveillance functions.

Public reaction a few years ago to a counter-terrorism technology entitled “TrapWire” is instructive. The public response to a system that could conduct pre-attack surveillance “such as photographing, measuring and signaling” by using networks of surveillance cameras installed in most major American cities, at “high value targets” to detect “suspicious” behavior, was overwhelmingly negative.

While the public has an expectation of diminished privacy for security reasons at highly vulnerable places such as airports and on public transportation systems, it does not have an expectation of being constantly and continuously surveilled by governments in other public venues, such as concerts.

Law-abiding citizens have expectations in democratic societies that their governments will not continuously spy on them. They have expectations that law enforcement and other government agencies and authorities will use proper procedures, not violate privacy laws, and mostly importantly, not trample upon constitutional rights that require governments to obtain warrants for the persistent tracking of individuals.

The general public also expects that governments should be forthright in their declarations of public spending. If spending on smart city initiatives involve mass surveillance pilots, then city governments should duly inform their residents and promote discussion on whether funds should be used in such a fashion.

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