Privacy SOS

Boston has big surveillance plans ahead of the Marathon, but what happens when the crowds leave?

Surprising no one, Massachusetts police officials have announced broad new surveillance plans in advance of the 2014 Boston Marathon. There has been little public outcry. Cameras, it seems, make some people feel safe. But do they actually make us safe?

The available empirical evidence shows us surveillance cameras do not meaningfully deter serious crimes. As every major terrorist attack over the last decade shows, cameras do not stop people hell bent on committing mass murder. As far as their utility during investigations is concerned, while the advanced camera system in Boston would most likely prove useful to investigators in the event of a disaster at this year’s event, last year’s tragedy showed us that there was in 2013 no lack of video monitoring on Boylston Street. Might this new, integrated camera system help the police identify suspects faster? Perhaps. But what about the day after the Marathon?

Will the integrated camera network, made up of hundreds of high-powered devices backed up by advanced computer analytics and tracking systems, be dismantled after the Marathon crowds dissipate? If prior experience with large public events is any indication, the answer is no. When cities host major events like political conventions, international summits, and major sports competitions, the surveillance and police infrastructure built up to sustain a one-off security plan usually stays for the long-term. The lights and the news cameras may pack up and go, but these police cameras tend to stick around forever.

For that reason, the people of Boston should look closely at both the hype surrounding surveillance cameras, and the actual technologies that have been recently implemented in the City of Boston.

Surveillance cameras: Do they work?

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, numerous studies have shown that cameras don’t do much if anything to deter crime. A 2005 study commissioned by the British government, for example, found that "CCTV schemes produced no overall effect on all relevant crime viewed collectively." A 2008 study conducted by professors at the UC Berkeley Law School found that surveillance cameras had an impact in terms of deterring minor property crimes like vandalism, but hardly any on serious crimes. According to the Berkeley researchers, the "lack of deterrent effects on violent crime and its limited usefulness with respect to investigations" seriously diminished the program’s value. A Los Angeles study also published in 2008 found that LAPD cameras had zero impact on crime rates. More recently, a 2013 report found that crime rates actually increased on Chicago public transit platforms after surveillance cameras were installed.

The facts show that cameras don’t do much if anything to deter or stop crime. But isn’t surveillance footage useful to investigators, after the fact? It’s actually not as helpful as you may think. In the UK, where police have relied heavily on a massive surveillance infrastructure stretching across the country, an "internal police report found the million-plus cameras in London rarely help catch criminals."

From the BBC: 1,000 cameras 'solve one crime'.

In one month CCTV helped capture just eight out of 269 suspected robbers.

David Davis MP, the former shadow home secretary, said: "It should provoke a long overdue rethink on where the crime prevention budget is being spent."

He added: "CCTV leads to massive expense and minimum effectiveness.

"It creates a huge intrusion on privacy, yet provides little or no improvement in security."

In short: Cameras aren’t an effective deterrent to stop serious crimes, and they aren’t nearly as useful in solving crimes as some people make them out to be.

Artificially-intelligent surveillance is coming to Boston

Despite the bad facts on surveillance camera efficacy, the Boston metropolitan region’s nearly decade-old, integrated camera network just got a major upgrade. In addition to hundreds of new cameras lining the route of the Marathon, all the way from Hopkinton to downtown Boston, the city has purchased an artificial intelligence system to monitor live camera feeds.

A trade publication called ITProPortal explains what Houston-based Behavioral Recognition Systems (or BRS) and its AISight product will do for the Boston police and other officials:

AISight (pronounced "eyesight"), works by using a particular form of reason-based analysis of video footage that promises to change the way humans conduct their surveillance of other humans.

BRS Labs' AISight is different because it doesn't rely on a human programmer to tell it what behaviour is suspicious. It learns that all by itself.

The system enables a machine to monitor is environment, and build up a detailed profile of what can be considered "normal" behaviour. The AI can then determine what kind of behaviour is abnormal, without human pre-programing.

What's more, AISight permanently learns and registers when changes in normal behaviour occur, so no ongoing programing is required from human operators. In order to do this, it employs a technology known as "artificial neural networks", which mimics the function of the human brain.

What's more, BRS Labs' system is extremely easy to implement even across huge, disparate networks of outdated camera equipment. The company claims that it needs maximum of only a few days for the complete hardware and software installation.

After that, the system sets about "autonomously building an ever-changing knowledgebase of activity seen through every camera on your video network."

The software is already in place in other cities around the United States, such as Chicago and Washington.

"Our system will figure out things you never thought of looking for," said Wesley Cobb, BRS' chief science officer. "You never thought to look for a car driving backwards up the entrance of a parking garage, for example. Our system will find that and alert on it, because it's different from what it usually sees. It's taught itself what to look for."

Federal, state, and local officials from departments across eastern Massachusetts will have live access to monitor the camera network from eight command centers spread throughout the region. Thanks to AISight, they'll have a significant helping hand from computer algorithms programmed to look for "suspicious" activity.

Will the MBTA expand this system for daily use after the race is run this coming Monday? Will the Boston regional camera network implement these advanced video analytics for long-term use, in our residential neighborhoods and on our city streets? Will the technology make any difference in terms of spotting dangerous people? And what kind of privacy protections will be implemented to ensure the system isn’t abused to look down someone’s shirt, or track political protesters?

We’ll be keeping a close eye on these issues for the long-haul. Special security for special events is one thing. Implementing a ubiquitous surveillance and tracking network throughout the region’s streets, trains, and buses is something else entirely.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.