Privacy SOS

Seven million dollars in new surveillance cameras to be installed on Boston buses

Despite the fact that the crime rate on public transit systems in Boston is declining, the MBTA has just announced that it intends to install brand new surveillance camera systems inside hundreds of buses throughout the city. The Boston region's millions of commuters and hundreds of thousands of residents can once again thank the federal Department of Homeland Security for yet another hit to our privacy.

From Boston Magazine:

The MBTA is retrofitting 225 buses in its fleet with new high-tech cameras that show the insides of the vehicles from multiple angles. Not only will the transit authority be able to get a better look at who’s riding the bus, but each installation includes a four-screen monitor housed at the front of the vehicles, affording other riders utilizing the transit system a chance to see what’s happening during their commute.

So far, only 10 vehicles have been retrofitted with the new devices, but MBTA officials said by summertime 215 more vehicles will feature the same updated technology.

Money to pay for the cameras came in the form of a federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The MBTA is relying completely on the nearly $7 million allocation to purchase and install the cameras and multi-view surveillance screens. The T spent none of its own money on this particular project, officials said.

According to the Boston Magazine report, the system enables MBTA police to wirelessly link into the surveillance cameras on each bus, raising serious questions about the security of the operation. As any computer expert will tell you, if it happens over a network, it can be hacked. (After all, if sophisticated spooks can tap the phones of senior State Department officials, I'm guessing the MBTA's IP video surveillance network isn't such a tough nut to crack. And that's to say nothing of the NSA's own capabilities.)

The seven million dollar DHS grant for state of the art camera systems comes just two years after MBTA officials, facing massive debt, cut services and hiked fares. For the past two years running, officials have warned that absent a legislative miracle or help from another source, riders would again face substantial fare hikes and/or service cuts. Last year, officials cut the MBTA budget by $21 million, just over three times the figure that DHS has shelled out for these new surveillance systems, and that's for buses alone. These moves to beef up mass transit surveillance, diminish critical transit services, and jack up fares come at the same time that ridership on the T is climbing.

While surveillance advocates and the companies that profit off of mass spying argue that cameras on public transit are necessary in order to protect the public and to protect bus drivers from (unquestionably serious) abuse, there's no evidence to suggest that cameras have a deterrent effect on serious crimes. In fact, a simple Google search reveals that MBTA surveillance cameras routinely catch people in the act of committing violent crimes, showing that the cameras are not the deterrent law enforcement claims them to be. And while cameras can be helpful to investigators after the fact, studies show that they aren't actually a magic bullet. In London, a city completely blanketed in CCTV, one thousand cameras on the street only resulted in solving one crime per year. The reality is very different from what you see on cop shows.

Some people say that cameras make them feel safe. But do we want to live in a world in which the government is constantly monitoring our every move, just for the feeling of security? If they don't actually make us safe, but they make our society more conformist and less open, is this really something we ought to spend our precious resources developing?

As a commuter who rides public transit every day, I commonly have to dodge buckets collecting rain water that seeps through the ceiling into subway stations. But when I look up, I'm pretty much guaranteed to see a row of tens of brand new surveillance cameras staring me in the face. That strikes me as a very serious problem. Unfortunately, as today's news shows, we are still barreling full speed towards a full-on surveillance state that shows no sign of slowing down.

Meanwhile, the rain water keeps dripping through cracks in the ceiling.

UPDATE: In response to the "upskirting" saga of 2014, the MBTA police have put up hundreds of posters throughout the public transit system, advising people that we DO have a right to privacy! Well, from one another. Not from the MBTA, of course.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.