Privacy SOS

“See Something, Say Something” — unless it’s omnipresent government surveillance

UPDATE: On July 2, 2012, the MBTA police Twitter account tweeted a copy of the agency's new photography policy. The policy says that people are free to take pictures at MBTA stations, but not of "designated Restricted Areas". It doesn't say that you can't go inside the restricted area to take pictures, simply that you can't take pictures of the restricted area. Does that apply even if the "Restricted Area" is within plain sight? How does that work?

This morning I noticed that the surveillance camera set had been updated on the Oak Grove bound Orange Line platform at the Downtown Crossing subway station in Boston. Naturally, I took some pictures.

The cameras look like top of the line Samsung pan-tilt-zoom models, but I can't be sure which one. This Samsung surveillance webpage advertises a number of models, boasting between 10x and 37x zoom capabilities; most of the models displayed there are "auto-tracking" enabled, meaning that the cameras can automatically follow a person or car through the train station or city, seamlessly moving from one camera to the next.

I was surprised to see the new cameras because the station was already full of CCTV. But the city spent tens of thousands of dollars buying new ones anyway. Here they are:

As you can see in the last image, above, there are now two different kinds of cameras in the station. The dome camera, the Samsung, is the new version. It's likely much more technically advanced than the older version, at right.

These new cameras are part of a new wave of surveillance cameras throughout the Boston Metro region. Surveillance camera clusters are popping up on street corners and in public transit stations at an alarming rate, and at a cost of millions of dollars to tax payers. Since most of the money for these projects comes from the Department of Homeland Security, there is virtually no public process or oversight governing the expansion. DHS simply provides the money and then the cameras appear, whether residents like it or not.

Suspiciously not liking the cameras

When I took these photographs this morning, I was approached by a uniformed MBTA police officer, who followed me off the platform and stopped me. He asked me who I was and why I was taking pictures of the cameras. I told him I work for a civil liberties organization and was taking pictures to document the expansion of CCTV projects throughout Boston. He asked me why. I told him that the cameras are watching me, and that I should be able to document them if I want to, without telling him why.

He didn't like that answer very much. He was a pretty low key guy, so we talked for quite some time about the efficacy of CCTV and about how cameras everywhere essentially obliterate personal privacy in public spaces. "We are both in public right now," I said, "but we are wearing clothing, right? That's because we care about our privacy, even in public." He told me that cameras are useful because they help cops solve crimes after the fact, to which I replied that we should just implant GPS trackers under everyone's skin, to be safe. He didn't think that was very funny.

Knowing full well that police are trained in the FBI and Department of Homeland Security's "Suspicious Activity Reporting" procedures ("See something, Say Something" is a part of this project), I asked him if he was going to fill out a suspicious activity report on me. He said he wouldn't, because I had made it clear that I was not a terrorist or taking the photographs for some nefarious purposes.

That was when I finally suggested that this is precisely why the suspicious activity program is garbage, because it inevitably ensnares people who are doing things that look funny to other people but are completely harmless. Again, he wasn't really interested in hearing about how the SAR project has the effect of turning us all into fear-riddled, Stasi-like snitches, or about how programs like this don't actually make people safer by any demonstrable metric. His disinterest makes sense given DHS' enormous propaganda efforts to force "See Something, Say Something" on Americans nationwide, and that his department has just released a "See Something, Say Something" iPhone app, which they seem very excited about.

After talking with me for a bit, the officer determined that I wasn't suspicious. I shouldn't have needed to talk with him because I wasn't doing anything wrong, even if I looked funny. Looking funny isn't against the law, and nor is doing something that people think is odd. I could have kept walking when he called out to me. But I spoke with him because I'm interested in the police's attitudes about these programs.

But what if I had just kept walking, I asked? What if I refused to answer his questions? He told me that he'd have forced me to answer them. I told him that I know my rights, that I would have asked if I was being detained, and if not, kept moving. What would you have done then, I asked? Would you have radioed back to the command center, and asked that the camera monitors go back and snap a picture of my face to run through their face recognition system, to determine my identity?

Yes, he said.

The lesson? Cooperate with the state, or else you'll find yourself listed as a subversive or trouble maker in some government database, with no way to get out.

But then again, maybe talking to the officer didn't change my fate. Some agent in a dark command room somewhere in Boston might be uploading my picture to a federal database as I write this, even though the cop on scene determined that my seemingly "suspicious" behavior was in fact harmless. Stranger things have happened.

After all, the FBI lists being "overly concerned about privacy" as an "indicator of terrorist" activity: 

But don't be scared: we've got your back. If you are taking photographs of law enforcement or surveillance technology and you are interrogated by police, get in touch. We have a right to know how our money is being spent, and how the government is watching us.

Got some photos of new surveillance cameras in your hood? Send them our way. And remember: the government considers taking photographs of cameras to be "suspicious activity", so be prepared to encounter law enforcement if you do this. Know your rights: it's not a crime to take pictures in public, as the omnipresent CCTV makes clear. But you will draw attention to yourself if you do it, so be aware and know your rights.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.