Boston needs a surveillance ordinance

On June 19, 2018, the Boston City Council held a hearing “regarding the usage of surveillance equipment in the City of Boston.” My testimony, presented during one of the hearing’s two panels, is below:

This hearing could not be timelier. New technologies — even those not explicitly intended for surveillance — massively expand the government’s ability to watch over the public. Whether we recognize it or not, the technologies we implement in cities today will play a significant role in defining the social contract of the next century.

For the past several years, I have studied how local governments acquire and use new technology. I even had the fortune for work for a year here in City Hall as part of the Department of Innovation and Technology. On many accounts, Boston is at the forefront of the movement toward what many people call “smart cities.” The City uses data and other technology in many thoughtful and innovative ways. But when it comes to taking responsible steps to protect privacy, Boston has fallen behind. While cities like Seattle and Oakland have passed wide-ranging ordinances that govern the municipal use of surveillance technology, Boston has failed to act.

This hearing represents a vital step forward for Boston. Enacting surveillance ordinances that provide transparency and public oversight of new technology is the most important step that we must take to ensure that the cities of the 21st Century promote liberty and equity.

It is urgent that Boston develop policies that comprehensively account for what surveillance means today. Failing to account for today’s realities of surveillance — and the forms of surveillance most likely to become possible in the future — will render a surveillance ordinance impotent.

I urge the Council to broaden the subject of this hearing to encompass surveillance technology (and in particular surveillance software) rather than surveillance equipment. We can learn from Seattle, which initially limited its surveillance ordinance to purchases of new equipment. Under the terms of this bill, the Seattle Police were still able to use Geofeedia, a software service that collects and analyzes social media data, without notifying the public. Given that the Boston Police Department similarly used Geofeedia for several years without notifying City Council, it is clear that we are prone to repeat the mistakes of Seattle if we do not proactively emphasize technology over equipment.

It is also essential that public oversight be applied to the policies that govern surveillance technology. The ordinance must allow the public to collectively shape the answers to the following three questions:

1. How will the data be used? The ordinance must cover algorithms that analyze the data collected by surveillance equipment or scraped from social media feeds. From Geofeedia to predictive policing, the practice of surveillance today often relies on machine learning algorithms that can be inaccurate and biased.

2. Where will the data go? Given the egregious abuses of human rights being perpetrated right now by ICE, we must ensure that any data collected by the City of Boston does not find its way into the hands of federal law enforcement.

3. How will the technology evolve? Future-proofing a surveillance ordinance requires enforcing public oversight of software updates that alter a technology’s capabilities for surveillance. Otherwise, a technology approved in one form (or perhaps not even considered surveillance technology when purchased) can evolve into a tool for unwarranted surveillance as its software is updated. For example, body camera manufacturers are developing facial recognition software, which police could use to track people’s movements and identify individuals in crowds.

I applaud the City Council’s initiative in holding this hearing. Ultimately, this is not a debate about being for or against innovation — it is about facilitating the innovation that city residents want. After all, being a “smart city” means more than just using technology wherever possible — it means being “smart enough” to accomplish policy goals, with the aid of technology, without violating public expectations or rights. By working to enforce stronger public oversight of surveillance technology, Boston can help ensure that new technology is deployed in accordance with its residents’ values and improves daily life.

Thank you.