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Council backs law to give Boston surveillance tech oversight, limit info sharing between BPS and BPD

"This is about transparency."

Surveillance security cameras mounted above Devonshire and Franklin streets keep multiple eyes on the downtown intersection in October 2019. Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Government & tech

The Boston City Council on Wednesday backed an ordinance that aims to give City Hall oversight authority on surveillance technology used by the government, and to establish limits for when Boston Public Schools can share student information with authorities.

The law, years in the making, requires that any surveillance technology sought by Boston police be approved by the council beforehand. Authorities must also get the council’s sign-off to use any technology they already own for a new purpose.

“This is about civil liberties. This is about transparency. This is about government acknowledging what it’s using — tools, surveillance technology — in order to watch all of us. That’s it,” said Councilor Lydia Edwards, chair of the council’s Committee on Government Operations. “And what it also does is make sure that if there is a new technology that comes out, that we will be aware that the government will be transparent about what it’s using.”

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The ordinance, co-sponsored by councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Michelle Wu, was praised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which provided input on the regulation.

According to the ACLU, Boston, should acting Mayor Kim Janey sign the law into effect, will join 20 other municipalities around the country — including Somerville, Cambridge, and Lawrence — that have laws on the books giving the community say in government surveillance.

The law covers technologies such as video surveillance, social media monitoring software, and automatic license plate readers, among other gadgets.

“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,” Wu, also a candidate for mayor, said in a statement provided by the ACLU.

The latest law, though, is not the first time the council has targeted surveillance technology for tougher oversight.

Last year, councilors unanimously passed an ordinance that seeks to ban technologies that automatically identify and track people using their face — a charge led by evidence that current systems misidentify people of color at a disproportionately high rate.

“Surveillance in Boston, like policing itself, disproportionately targets Black and brown people,” Kade Crockford, the “Technology for Liberty” program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “With (community control over police surveillance) laws, concerned residents and community organizations now have a meaningful chance to debate and push back against the deployment of surveillance technologies in their neighborhoods.”

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The law unanimously supported by the council on Wednesday also limits Boston schools from sharing student information with police except for emergencies.

The provisions of the law “allow us to still make sure that our kids are safe while also ensuring that situations that we’ve had in the past — where people have ended up with criminal records out of school incidents, or have ended up deported based on school incident reports — that those loopholes are covered,” Arroyo said.

Nora Paul-Schultz, a Boston teacher and co-chair of the Boston Teachers Union Unafraid Educators, in a statement provided by the ACLU, said the lack of oversight has allowed charges to be filed against students for “typical teenage behavior.”

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

Read the ordinance:

Amended Docket 0397 Final by Christopher Gavin on Scribd

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