Boston councilors seek to make city’s array of surveillance technologies more transparent

"We are misusing public resources and exacerbating distrust when the community has to mobilize each and every instance some issue pops up related to over surveillance."

–Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

A proposed ordinance from several Boston city councilors would require officials to be forthcoming regarding the surveillance technology the city has at its disposal, including how it’s used, when it’s obtained, and how information collected is shared.

The filing follows incidents in recent years where Boston police faced scrutiny from privacy advocates regarding how the department secretly acquired and used new surveillance tools.

The measure would also provide clear-cut rules about what Boston Public School student information is provided to police and when — the product of longstanding concerns surrounding how school officials and local police cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

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Councilors say the provisions are needed companions to the city’s ban on facial recognition surveillance technologies the council passed in June, amid evidence that currently available systems misidentify people of color at higher rates.

“The basic premise is that we are misusing public resources and exacerbating distrust when the community has to mobilize each and every instance some issue pops up related to over surveillance, related to information sharing that harms our students and our residents,” Councilor Michelle Wu said Tuesday during a virtual council committee hearing on the ordinance.

The ordinance and surveillance technology and data

Specifically, the law, in practice, would require city departments — including Boston police — that use such technology to create policies that spell out the purpose behind using it, how data is compiled and protected, and who has access to that information. Each policy would have to go to the City Council for review and approval.

Furthermore, the mayor’s office would need the council to sign off on acquiring or using any new, unapproved surveillance technology or data and provide a technology impact report for each addition. All departments would be required to submit an “annual surveillance report” outlining how technology was used, how often it was used; how data acquired through its use was used and shared; and other related factors.

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“The City of Boston must institutionalize a public process to approve government surveillance and to ensure a free future for all,” Emiliano Falcon-Morano, policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts’s Technology for Liberty program, told councilors. “The decision about whether the Boston Police Department or any other local agency should use surveillance technologies and, if so, how and under what circumstances, should not be made in secret without any public deliberation or debate. These decisions must be hashed out in public and driven by elected officials by you — by the City Council — informed by their constituents and expert testimony.

“Basically, what we’re saying today is that sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he added.

The ordinance and Boston Public Schools

Another provision restricts what information Boston Public Schools can share with law enforcement, limiting when school officers can create a student report to: cases of “serious bodily harm;” instances of when a “true and credible threat” is present to the safety of the school; and when a student possesses a firearm or possesses or uses controlled substances that are not marijuana, alcohol, or nicotine.

Student reports created by police could not contain information related to a student’s immigration status, citizenship, neighborhood of residence, national origin, ethnicity, native or spoken language, or suspected gang affiliation, among other details.

School personnel and officers would be prohibited from sharing student information with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center — the department’s information gathering unit that receives funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The proposal also outlines an internal process that must be followed before a report is shared with police or an agency outside of the school district.

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Councilors and advocates have maintained serious concerns about how information is gathered by BRIC and used in the department’s so-called gang database, in which minorities are disproportionately represented. In 2019, the database showed 90 percent of people in its files were considered Black or Latinx, councilors said last week.

In September, the Boston School Committee voted to adopt a new policy geared at how student information is shared with city police, but teachers and advocates have said that the measure does not go far enough in protecting students, particularly those alleged of committing even minor offenses.

“It gives a too broad definition for what type of incident can lead to a report going to BPD,” said Nora Paul-Schultz, a physics teacher at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury.

Paul-Schultz, also a leader of the Boston Teachers Union Unafraid Educators committee, was among the activists, students, and recently graduated students who called for further action from the council.

“Passing this ordinance is the next essential step towards creating a more equitable, safe environment, one in which school police officers don’t act as accessories to federal immigration authorities, surveillance technologies are not used without oversight, and students are given every opportunity to learn without fear,” said Khymani James, a senior student at Boston Latin Academy and the sitting student representative on the School Committee.

The ordinance and city officials

Notably, the input lacking at Tuesday’s hearing was from Boston police and the Walsh administration, whose absence frustrated councilors.

In a letter obtained by Boston.com to the council’s Committee on Government Operations Chairwoman Lydia Edwards, Fernando Ortiz, the city council liaison for the mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, declined an invitation to participate in the meeting.

“Setting aside considerations as to the policy implications and feasibility of the proposed ordinance, we are concerned that the ordinance contains provisions that appear to conflict with the City of Boston charter and related statutes, and that it proposes to change policies that were adopted less than two months ago by the Boston School Committee and the Superintendent which resulted from months of public engagement and careful consideration,” Ortiz wrote.

The ordinance “requires considerable attention and the Administration will be listening intently to Councilors’ and stakeholders’ views on the proposal,” he added.

Council President Kim Janey, in her remarks Tuesday, acknowledged that the ordinance is “dense” but noted it was filed months ago in May.

“We want to pass something that we can all feel good about,” she said.

Read the proposed ordinance:

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