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MBTA asked for input on fares, so how about surveillance?

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  July 18, 2012 09:48 AM

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Kade Crockford, project manager and principal investigator of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts, wrote this guest blog.

The MBTA is about to install thousands of new surveillance cameras throughout its transportation network. The additional cameras will double the number operable today--which, for anyone who looks out for them, is sort of hard to imagine, given that cameras are pretty much everywhere in MBTA properties today. They reportedly plan to do this by installing cameras on buses and trains--an invasion of our privacy we have not yet been forced to collectively suffer.

This is yet another example of what has become the status quo--we are simply told that new surveillance technologies and practices will be implemented in our cities or towns. No one asks us; there is no consent of the governed watched.

An engaged people should be alarmed when public, democratic process is skipped in favor of secrecy and expediency. What's the government so afraid of? What does it have to hide?

The MBTA and Boston Police Department seem confident that we need to be watched by surveillance cameras every time we leave the house. And there are likely people who agree with them. Some people think cameras make us safer, or they at least feel safer knowing they are there, always watching.

Others among us know that there is ample evidence to show that cameras do not deter crime, begging the central question: Should we sacrifice our privacy and liberty in the name of vague promises that are not backed up by any trustworthy empirical data?

Compare the lack of debate over freedom and security in our society to the process the MBTA recently used for other decisions.

When the MBTA announced that it was planning fare hikes and service cuts, it held listening sessions around the state to engage with people affected by the cuts and hikes, and to hear from communities before making its decision. Lots of people don't agree with the decision the MBTA arrived at, but the agency at least tried to engage with riders about serious changes that would affect their lives.

Why isn't that the case when it comes to omnipresent surveillance? When it comes to federal grants to our police departments and state agencies for surveillance technologies like cameras, automatic license plate readers, advanced biometrics technologies like face recognition and iris scanning, and networked government databases, there is hardly ever any engagement with the public.

The Department of Homeland Security alone has dished out over $34 billion to states since 9/11. The grants are given, the technologies acquired, and then we--the people who paid for the tools, who live in the monitored zones--are made to simply live with it.

Adding insult to injury, the MBTA won't even tell us exactly how many new cameras it plans to deploy, and its announcement tells us almost nothing about how the agency intends to use these cameras. Will it implement advanced biometrics, allowing agents to identify you and pull up your file with a simple click? Will it use advanced video tracking analytics that allow monitors to search thousands of cameras for spontaneous gatherings, perhaps a crew of people walking to a bar, or an impromptu protest?

We simply don't know.

We also don't know who will have access to these cameras; for how long the data will be retained; which outside agencies (including federal agencies like the FBI and the military) will be looped in; or whether there are any auditing mechanisms in place to ensure that this powerful technology isn't abused.

At a minimum, the MBTA must make clear its policies on the video recordings it collects, such as how long they are kept, and who has access to them. Once a few days have passed and it has become clear that the recordings do not show evidence of criminal activity, they should be destroyed and not made available to other agencies.

The MBTA's actions are another example of how our relationship with the government is precisely the opposite of what it should be. Unless the government has a good reason to believe we are involved in criminal activity, it should know next to nothing about us that we don't volunteer to tell it. And we should not only know what the government is doing with our tax dollars but also play a much more serious role in determining how they are spent in the realm of "homeland security."

It's past time to reverse this unfortunate trend. A good first step would be for the MBTA to level with the public about why, where and how it is using this advanced technology.

Only then can we have an informed debate about whether we want to live in a surveillance society. And that's a debate we urgently need to have.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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