Privacy SOS

In December 2010, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a public records request for information about the City of Boston’s surveillance camera network. The request was filed to the Metro Boston Office of Homeland Security, Office of Emergency Management, at the Mayor’s office in Boston. This office is responsible for managing Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant funding from the federal Department of Homeland Security and distributing it throughout the metropolitan region.

The documents we received sketch out the contours of the networked surveillance camera system operating throughout 9 cities in the Boston metropolitan area: Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Revere, Quincy, Somerville and Winthrop. (Other cities in the area and the state also operate surveillance camera networks, but as far as we know they are not part of the networked metropolitan system. That doesn't mean they aren't, however.)

Below is a summary of the documents we received. Following the summary are the documents themselves. Please feel free to share, transmit, use, remix, copy and write about them; they are public records!

The Metro Boston CCTV system, simplified

As of 2007, there had been two major phases of CCTV expansion using UASI/DHS funds. (Note: there have been subsequent expansions of the system that are not accounted for in these documents. We will update this page with further information as it becomes available.) The expansion included both the purchase and installation of new cameras and the installation of the technological “backbone” through which the data would be shared among the participating agencies.

Phase I included the purchase and installation of 44 cameras in the City of Boston,  and the backbone installation to enable wireless data sharing between (1) Boston and the Federal Protective Service (FPS); (2) FPS and Revere; (3) Chelsea and Everett; (4) Everett and FPS; and (5) Revere and Chelsea. These cities were chosen for integration in Phase I because they already had sizable numbers of surveillance cameras. Chelsea already had 27 cameras, and approximately 60 additional cameras were placed in the four other cities in Phase I. (Note: the federal government assisted Boston in setting up a CCTV monitoring and backbone system at the Federal building in advance of the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. The UASI cameras expansion builds off of that network. As a result, federal agencies have access to the feeds from the cameras throughout the metro Boston region.)

While we asked the Mayor's Office of Homeland Security for maps showing where the cameras are located throughout the 9 cities, the Office declined our request citing the law enforcement methods exemption to MA public records law.

Cost of Phase I: $2,539,004.31

We aren't sure exactly how many more cameras were purchased and installed during Phase II because the budget documents we received reveal that the Boston Police Department was having trouble with networking and hardware issues.

While we don't know precisely how many cameras are in Boston, we can use the figures from Phase I to estimate that in Phase II they received an additional eleven cameras.

Therefore in Boston we can safely assume there are at least 55 UASI-networked cameras, with an additional 92 in the surrounding cities and towns.

That means as of 2007 there were approximately 147 cameras in the networked system, excluding MBTA and other possible data inputs from either other public entities or even private corporations.

Cost of Phase II: $3,450,000.00

The MBTA operates hundreds of surveillance cameras throughout trains and is now expanding to buses:

The MBTA has 402 security cameras in the subway system and is adding 186. The cameras are monitored from a number of different locations, including the MBTA’s OCC [Operations Control Center], the Transit Police Department, and MEMA’s Emergency Operations Center in Framingham.

Additionally, the MBTA has as recently as Spring 2012 installed many new surveillance cameras at stations throughout Boston. We documented some of the new cameras here.

Technical specifications:

The cameras purchased in Phase I are pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ), color cameras. The network also includes fixed cameras — likely those in Revere, Chelsea and Everett that existed prior to the UASI funding. The PTZ cameras are likely the newer ones purchased for BPD with UASI funds. These cameras are IP cameras, meaning they transmit data wirelessly back to the PDs via a wireless internet connection. The information is stored in a network video recorder at each PD. Stored video can be easily shared with other PDs over standard web browsers using a system protected by a basic username and password. (In Phase II, this system was expanded to the other 5 towns.) 

The technical specs for the cameras obtained via Phase II are significantly more advanced than those purchased under Phase I. All of the former cameras are PTZ, low-light and color, with a minimum zoom of 23x. They have little window wipers on them. They are capable of window blanking and are equipped with alarms for tamper, video loss or power loss. 

The system is configured to support future use of face recognition integration; “specialized cameras and optics for enhanced surveillance and tracking”; and “thermal, active, passive & active infrared and covert camera systems”. While the documents do not say whether the system currently integrates these technologies, it explicitly says that it is configured to incorporate them if desired.

The networked system set up for Phase II is also significantly more advanced. Users of the system from Boston and the other 8 cities in the region are able to view all of the cameras in the system simultaneously from one workstation. Each station may also search all available video throughout the entire system. Each department makes its own rules for data storage and sharing, and can, if it desires, restrict certain cameras from other agencies at will.

Each agency can remotely access live and recorded video, conduct searches of stored data, control camera PTZ functions, and perform other administrative functions pending permissions set by the originating agency — the department in whose jurisdiction the camera in question sits. The documents don’t make clear how police would do this, but mobile access would ostensibly come from laptops in cruisers and handheld mobile devices. It’s unclear if they actually have the hardware to do this, or if the backbone simply enables it. The Boston Police likely have access to these tools, and can certainly view the cameras from their multiple operations centers, including the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), the regional fusion/surveillance center.

The backbone of the entire system is at the FPS headquarters in the JFK building. A number of cameras were installed throughout Boston for the DNC in 2004; the FPS served as the hub for these cameras then, and the federal government offered continued use of the space for the CCTV expansion project funded by UASI. The FPS provides space, internet access, and roof views for the system.

The 9 cities in the Metro Boston UASI region act as “independent and interoperable nodes tied together” at the FPS central hub. Each jurisdiction has control over their own system, regulating administrative functions and data usage, with viewing and control access to the others’ cameras depending on permissions, as stated above.

Partnerships have been established between the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), Department of Conservation and Recreation and BPD. BTD has access to BPD cameras. The Metropolitan Office of Emergency Management (at the Mayor's office) and BPD have had discussions about further partnerships with other federal, state and local agencies including MassHighway and the US Coast Guard, though the documents do not allude to any solidified agreements.

The company that built and maintains the surveillance system is called Smiths Detection. The system is called LiveWire. This firm also runs the CCTV systems for the FBI’s National Counterterrorism Center, the DOD, the MBTA, the MTA in NYC, DHS, FPS, and the Federal Reserve here in Boston. That’s likely not close to an exhaustive list.

Finally, the documents allude to an upcoming Phase III camera network expansion: “This project has been allocated $300K to continue with their planning efforts and tying in all of the regional police departments into the CIMS backbone for data sharing efforts.”

Original documents

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