Privacy SOS

Want to protest anonymously? Help ban face surveillance in Boston.

Nationwide, people are marching in record numbers to demand justice for Black communities long subject to police violence, and an end to white supremacy. In response, government agencies from the local to the state and federal are mounting increasingly aggressive attacks on freedom of speech and association.

Last night the world watched in horror as officials tear gassed residential neighborhoods in Washington D.C., action prohibited under the laws of war. This came just hours after the President of the United States deployed state violence against a group of protesters, merely so he could engage in an awkward photo op. Trump was trailed by Attorney General Bill Barr, who has instructed the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces to investigate protesters and help prepare federal prosecutions under the Riot Act.

The attacks on freedom of assembly and First Amendment rights in our nation’s capital were just one of countless examples of police and federal agency violence unfolding across the country. But the protests aren’t stopping.

These are uncertain and frightening times. We are in the middle of a pandemic that shows no signs of slowing. It seems like overnight, all of the chickens hatched during the post-9/11 period are coming home to roost, making the wrongheaded budgetary and policy choices our leaders have made over the past few decades impossible to ignore.

Every night on the news we see police forces and federal agencies armed to the teeth, watching us through a sophisticated and interlinked surveillance apparatus, and protected with face guards, shields, clubs, and guns. Our nurses and medical personnel, meanwhile, are making personal protective equipment out of trash bags, and reusing their masks day after day. Not a single state in the US has sufficient Covid-19 testing. And despite this, police departments are rounding up protesters and locking them up in jails—hotbeds of infection, where physical distancing is impossible, and hygiene products are unavailable.

For too long, we have largely accepted that police departments and agencies like the FBI and CBP will be funded to go wild with weapons and surveillance equipment, at the expense of what our communities need. And for decades, that has been the case. But increasingly, activists across the country are pushing back on budgets that prioritize repression over human welfare, and getting more involved with City Councils, to increase community control of policing. A key piece of that struggle is the fight to ensure that new, dystopian technologies like face surveillance stay out of our communities.

On Tuesday, June 9 at 3pm, Boston residents and people who work in the city have an historic opportunity to protect civil rights and civil liberties now and for future generations. That’s when the Boston City Council’s Committee on Government Operations will hold a hearing to discuss City Councilors Michelle Wu and Ricardo Arroyo’s proposal to ban the municipal government from using face surveillance technology in Boston.

The proposed ordinance would, if enacted, prohibit all Boston agencies and officials from using face surveillance technology and any information derived from it. If Boston’s City Council passes the ordinance and the Mayor signs it, Boston will become the sixth municipality in the state to ban face surveillance in local government, following Springfield, Cambridge, Somerville, Northampton, and Brookline.

Right now, protesters showing up to denounce white supremacy and stand for racial justice are protected from face surveillance technology by the masks everyone is wearing due to the public health crisis. But someday, that crisis will be over—thank god. And then our faces will once again be exposed when we head out to express our First Amendment rights. To ensure those rights to protest are protected, it is essential that Boston lead New England and the nation in passing this crucial measure to ban face surveillance, to ensure that no city department uses the dystopian, dangerous, racially biased surveillance technology.

We must be free to walk around our neighborhoods, visit friends and family, and attend protests without fear of the government keeping track of our every movement through face surveillance.

Please join us at the hearing on Tuesday. Sign up and we will follow up with you to provide more information about how to get involved.

As Frederick Douglass said, power concedes nothing without a demand. Please join us as we demand a free future for all people.

© 2020 ACLU of Massachusetts.