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Beantown's Big Brother: How Boston Police Used Facial Recognition Technology to Spy on Thousands of Music Festival Attendees

Your good times are being watched.

Although we look back on it now through a mournful or angry lens, it's easy to forget just how downright disorienting the days and weeks following the Boston Marathon bombing in April of 2013 were. Adding to the surrealism of the drama for me was a night spent on lockdown in my Watertown home while the gun fight between authorities and the alleged bomber raged on blocks away, and the intrusion of heavily armed law enforcement trampling through my front yard during the next morning's manhunt. For weeks after in the city, riding the subway or at any sort of big event, a sense of unease would sneak up on me from time to time when I realized just how easy it would be for something like the bombing to happen again. You might forgive someone attending the Boston Calling music festival at Government Center about a month later, a now twice-yearly, extremely successful event, for feeling somewhat apprehensive. It was, after all, the first large gathering of thousands of spectators since the bombing. But, as a recent investigation published in the alt-weekly Dig Boston has uncovered, perhaps concertgoers like myself needn't have worried so much; after all, the city was watching our every movement.


I remarked at the time, in writing reviews of the concert in May, as well as on the follow up that took place in September, just how refreshing it was to experience a large-scale music festival like this in the heart of the city without an overbearing security presence. Yes, there were bag checks, and police stationed throughout, but at nowhere near the high-alert style numbers you might have expected. Instead of feeling unsafe, the resumption of something resembling normal life without an overreactive militarized-style doubling-down was liberating. It felt like the city was treating us like adults, which, as anyone who's been to big concerts or sporting events around here will tell you, isn't necessarily the normal routine. As a music critic who typically avoids festivals at all costs, it was a big part of what made me able to enjoy myself at this one in particular.

One of the reasons for a less physically imposing police presence may have been that the city was in the process of testing a pilot program for a massive facial recognition surveillance system on everyone at the concerts in both May and September. Using software provided by IBM that utilized existing security cameras throughout the area, the city tracked the thousands of attendees at the concert and in the vicinity, and filtered their appearance into data points which could then be cross-checked against certain identifying characteristics. And then… Well, what happens next is what makes this sort of thing so potentially troubling.


Slides provided to me by the Dig's Chris Faraone show how the system was meant to work, with the software capable of distinguishing people by such characteristics as baldness, eyeglasses, skin tone, torso texture, and beards which, considering this was an indie rock concert may have overloaded their servers. The data would then be transmitted to a hub, where city representatives, Boston Police, and IBM support staff could watch in real time, all while simultaneously monitoring social media key words related to the event. The purpose, ostensibly, was being able to pick up on suspicious activity as it was happening, for example “alerting when a person loiters near a doorway as they would if trying to gain entrance,” the slides explain, or alerting of “attempts to climb perimeter barricade,” or an “abandoned object near barricade.”

These seem like worthwhile things to be on the lookout for, but among the capabilities was one that seems particularly egregious and questionably necessary: “Face Capture of every person who approaches the door.”

From IBM's Powerpoint document on facial recognition analytics.

The Boston Police Department denied having had anything to do with the initiative, but images provided to me by Kenneth Lipp, the journalist who uncovered the files, show Boston police within the monitoring station being instructed on its use by IBM staff.

The implementation of such a system so closely following the bombings may seem arguably justified, but it's important to remember just how much was made of facial recognition software's ineffectiveness when it came to identifying the bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev themselves. Despite the fact that both men's images were captured on security cameras on the day of the bombing, and that their identities were known to law enforcement, technology was incapable of coming up with a match.


“The technology came up empty even though both Tsarnaevs’ images exist in official databases: Dzhokhar had a Massachusetts driver’s license; the brothers had legally immigrated; and Tamerlan had been the subject of some FBI investigation,” the Washington Post reported at the time. Instead, it was traditional police work, eye witnesses, tips from people who recognized them and so on, that gave the police and federal agents the information they needed. So what made the city think things would be any different this time?

The shortcomings of facial recognition software of the kind being tested out at Boston Calling, and implemented in other cities throughout the world, notably in New York City post-9/11 and everywhere throughout London, not to mention increasingly in retail stores throughout the country, are well documented. Too often, the images captured are rendered less effective by different facial expressions, facial hair, hats, the angle at which they were taken and so on. Face painting, interestingly, has also been shown to stymie cameras, something that might be a particular issue at music festivals like this one, where costume trappings have become standard.

Surveillance footage, courtesy of Kenneth Lipp at Dig Boston.

“This is definitely not the first time that government and private actors have worked together to use people attending an event like that as guinea pigs,” Kade Crockford the Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project told me. She likens the image capturing going on at the concerts here to a similar story uncovered by the The Intercept recently that showed 15 states, including Massachusetts, have been sharing driver’s license images and data with federal agencies to fill up their already massive terror database and watch lists.


Despite the fact that the technology is still imperfect, most observers agree, there is going to come a point soon where it does work—a project in the works from researchers at Facebook has shown that it can match two facial images with 97.25 % accuracy, a fraction smaller than the normal human brain can do, for example. It's imperative we start worrying about what governments can and will do with that capability when the time comes.

“It's going to get better and better. As it does, it's not just the FBI, CIA, and government agencies, but also every shopping mall you go into, potentially sports arenas,” Crockford says. “It's going to look a lot like dystopian scenes in the mall in the film Minority Report.”

Like in so many other areas, the technology here is moving faster than the legislature and the courts. “We really need to get a handle on what exactly government agencies are doing. Not just thinking about it, but actually acting on public concerns about how this technology is going to be used against us, and actually passing laws that restrict some of the ways.”

It's important to point out that none of this would've even come to light if not for the sleuthing of the reporters at the Dig, including Lipp, who stumbled across the IBM documents and agreements with the City of Boston on how to implement the software on an unsecured server left out in the open by an IBM employee. He's found similar troves of information regarding programs like these in Chicago and New York City, and evidence of IBM instituting similar programs in Scotland, Israel, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, and New Jersey.


“In the case of Boston, what's very concerning is how recklessly they tested something on the public carte blanche, predicated on this Never Forget thing, post-9/11 thing,” Lipp says. “The really disturbing thing to me is that all of us this is being ushered in under the umbrella of Smart Cities. What it means to me is cities using integrated surveillance, having tech partners that establish themselves as contractors in the city by putting their hardware in the infrastructure. Once they have infrastructure in place, they can apply any of the software they want to it.”

When reached for comment, Boston Calling explained their involvement with the program: "City of Boston public safety officials contacted us in advance of our May 2013 festival to tell us they would be testing a new surveillance system as an extra safety measure. Boston Calling Music Festival was not involved in the implementation of the program. Our practice is to comply with all public safety initiatives the city chooses to implement. Fan safety is our number one priority."

In the demonstration for Boston there were “only” 13 cameras used, but there were 200 they could have brought online. Even worse is what happened to the data after the project was complete. The mayor's office, who haven't responded to my requests for comment, released a statement admitting to the program. (The program was conducted under former mayor Tom Menino's administration, not recently elected Martin Walsh). The idea is simple logistics, they say. Nothing to worry about here.


“The purpose of the pilot was to evaluate software that could make it easier for the City to host large, public events, looking at challenges such as permitting, basic services, crowd and traffic management, public safety, and citizen engagement through social media and other channels. These were technology demonstrations utilizing pre-existing hardware (cameras) and data storage systems,” it read in part. “The City of Boston did not pursue long-term use of this software or enter into a contract to utilize this software on a permanent basis,” it goes on. But, it says, they remain open to the potential for other similar situations. Among their concerns, they say, are legal and privacy issues. Oh, you think?

Demo of IBM software detecting person of interest.

Even those who might not begrudge a city for keeping an alert eye on a big event like a music festival, particularly coming on the heels of a terrorist attack, can likely agree that it's what happens with the data after it's been determined to be of no use. You don't have to be overly paranoid to suspect, as we've seen with the NSA revelations uncovered by Edward Snowden, that once data is collected, it isn't often deleted. In fact, Lipp says, he was able to uncover 70 hours of footage from the concert still online up until last week when they published their story. Similarly, he's easily found his way into lightly secured reams of documents that include Boston parking permit info, including drivers’ licenses, addresses, and other data, kept online on unsecured FTP servers.


“If I were a different kind of actor, a malicious state actor, I could pose a significant threat to the people of Boston because of what I have in the folder.”

“It's an astounding level of stupidity as far as IBM's control over the data,” Crockford says. “When we're talking about numerous government agencies having access to this, as well as corporations, whether they're contractors, or ones that sit next to police officers at so-called fusion centers, we really have to be concerned. How many people have access to this server on which all this data sits?”

It's not as if law enforcement in Boston has shown the best judgment when it comes to the type of people being observed. Earlier this summer, over a thousand pages of notes compiled by the Boston Regional Intelligence Center on the activities of Occupy Boston members were uncovered, including absurdly minute details such as the comings and goings of local bands, down to the ticket prices of shows. You may also recall when authorities in Boston were going undercover online pretending to be punk rock fans in order to smoke out the locations of DIY house shows, or “concerts.”

Even worse, all of this was done in secret. “The city did nothing to disclose this, there were no city council hearings to ask whether it should be done,” Crockford says of the facial recognition tests. “It's perfectly demonstrative of how surveillance policy manifests with government agencies deciding behind closed doors to spend a lot of money spying on innocent people, and nobody is told about it.”


It's enough to make one wonder what else is going on that we don't know about. Personally, I can't help but be curious how many times I showed up on the cameras myself at the concerts, moving throughout the grounds. Did they watch me dancing to Passion Pit, or swooning to Marina and the Diamonds? And for what? What is it that made me and everyone else there a person of interest to the city of Boston other than our desire to come together with the rest of the city to enjoy a day of music?

Following a few of the worst days in this city's history, we were treated to one of the funner ones of the year at Boston Calling, but the fact that we were all being spied on at the time has spoiled my memory of even that. It's made all the worse because a big reason why we go to concerts in the first place is to be able to divest ourselves of our identities, to lose ourselves, literally and figuratively speaking, in the throng of the crowd. That's starting to see less possible every passing day.

Luke O'Neil is on Twitter, where his tweets are being monitored. - @lukeoneil47


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