Before we started the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism six years ago, one of the projects that inspired us to go out and seek funding for investigative journalism was a series titled Boston Trolling. Written in collaboration with reporters Kenneth Lipp and Jon Riley, the articles exposed the City of Boston for using facial recognition technology provided by IBM in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing on unsuspecting concert-goers who attended the first two Boston Calling concerts on Government Center. Our writing was eventually amplified by outlets from the Boston Globe to the BBC, pushing the incoming administration of Marty Walsh to denounce the aforementioned tech that was deployed under Mayor Tom Menino.
We have continued to cover these issues with our publishing partners, most recently via Dan Atkinson and his excellent work for the regional biweekly newspaper (and site) DigBoston, where I serve as editor and co-publisher. It’s the kind of journalism that we had in mind when we started BINJ—fact-based muckraking on ugly stuff that doesn’t always get attention from big outlets. When it comes to surveillance, television journalists especially tend to see the issue as one of convenience; take, for example, the acceptance of license-plate readers every five feet on the freeway since it means people will (potentially) sit in less traffic.
We put a different kind of lens on surveillance. In his recent report for the Dig and BINJ, Atkinson showed:
For more than a year, Boston city councilors—including now-Mayor Kim Janey—have been pushing for a new law that would give the body more oversight and approval of surveillance technology.
But while that fight plays out in council chambers, city officials are quietly looking to hire consultants to maintain a linked network of more than 1,000 video cameras across the Metro Boston area, with remote access shared across nine cities.
Privacy advocates and a city councilor challenging Janey for mayor are demanding she stop the plan from going into effect before the council sets new standards.
Following that article, “Janey pause[d] [the] surveillance network proposal that would connect 9 communities in Greater Boston,” as the Globe reported on June 4. It was certainly rewarding to see that happen, and we appreciate the recognition given by Northeastern journalism professor and media journalist Dan Kennedy, who blogged, “Reporting by DigBoston and BINJ helps delay snooping by surveillance cameras.” But this is Massachusetts, so we kept on digging and asking around. As Atkinson reported for an update published today on the Dig site:
After DigBoston broke the story of a plan to link more than 1,000 surveillance cameras across the Metro Boston area so police across nine cities would have remote access to regionwide footage, Mayor Kim Janey told other media outlets she would “take a fresh look” at the proposal. Still, BPD is moving ahead to add more surveillance cameras in Dorchester in yet another proposal taking place without the oversight Janey pushed for as a councilor.
Needless to say, we’re still on the case.