Boston Police Used Facial Recognition Technology On Thousands Of Unknowing Festivalgoers

August 13, 2014 | Sophie Weiner

Boston police used mass facial surveillance technology on thousands of attendees at last year’s Boston Calling festival, Dig Boston reports this month. Employing existing security cameras, the program scanned people for recognizable characteristics, like “height, clothing, and skin color.” The documents uncovered by Dig, which have been online for nearly a year, show that the city’s partnership with IBM on this software was already in effect before the festival.

Among [the documents] are memos written by employees of IBM, the outside contractor involved, presenting plans to use “Face Capture” on “every person” at the 2013 concert. Another defines a party of interest “as anyone who walks through the door.”

The urban laboratory described herein details specifications of a so-called Intelligent Operations Center designed and licensed by IBM. As it turns out, this integration of the company’s branded Smart Surveillance System (SSS) and Intelligent Video Analytics (IVA) software was preceded by a beta phase piloted at the 2013 Boston Marathon less than two months before the expanded system was rolled out at Boston Calling.

The festival took place almost a year ago, but 50 hours of video surveillance are still online.

The city openly announced working with IBM, but focused on how the program would help with traffic issues and overall “health” for Boston residents. The administration was not as open about their plans to have IBM aid them in building “comprehensive resources designed to analyze body and facial patterns, to gauge panic levels and crowd sentiment, and to scan social media.” The Boston Police Department has denied their involvement. A spokesperson told Dig, “We do not and have not used or possess this type of technology.”

Mayor Marty Walsh’s press secretary Kate Norton wrote in response to inquiries:

The City of Boston engaged in a pilot program with IBM, testing situational awareness software for two events hosted on City Hall Plaza: Boston Calling in May 2013, and Boston Calling in September 2013. 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.

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… From the City’s perspective, we have not seen a clear use case for this software that held practical value for the City’s public safety needs.