Tech

Boston PD Tested Facial Recognition Software By Recording Every Face At Local Music Festivals

Giuseppe Macri
Tech Editor

Concertgoers at last year’s annual Boston Calling music festivals weren’t just there to watch the show — they were watched themselves as test subjects for Boston police’ new facial recognition technology, which reportedly analyzed every attendee at the May and September two-day events.

Employees at IBM — the outside contractor involved in deploying the tech alongside Boston Police — planned the test of its Smart Surveillance System and Intelligent Video Analytics to execute “face capture” on “every person” at the concerts in 2013. Targets were reportedly described “as anyone who walks through the door,” according to company memos obtained by Dig Boston.

Using 10 cameras capable of intelligent video analysis, police and IBM captured thousands of faces and scanned individuals for details including skin color, height and clothing to screen for possible forensic identification. The tech also watched traffic and crowd congestion, searched for suspicious objects and monitored social media in real-time.

Attendees and promoters were wholly unaware of the test, which was conducted amid a slew of media and photographers regularly in attendance and during a public event where the expectation of privacy is at a minimum. Sensitive documents detailing the program were found unsecured online, where they’ve reportedly been accessible for more than a year.

The images, video and information obtained by the program will be kept for months and years — even after the sorting process deems it irrelevant — and more than 50 hours of video footage from the events are still intact, according to the report.

Other data stored online by Boston police in unsecured servers include drivers’ licenses, addresses, parking permit information and more.

Boston PD initially denied any involvement in the programs’ deployment on May 25-26 and Sept. 7-8 at City Hall Plaza, stating in an email from a representative that “BPD was not part of this initiative.”

“We do not and have not used or possess this type of technology,” the department wrote to Dig.

Files on the program uncovered online include photographic evidence showing Boston PD present inside IBM’s program monitoring stations and receiving instruction on how to use the tech. When presented with this evidence, Boston officials admitted the city’s direct involvement.

“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,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh press secretary Kate Norton wrote in an email to the publication.

“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.”

According to the statement, the city found the “situational awareness software” to be without much “practical value,” and as a result, said it will not be pursuing the implementation of such surveillance. The city also said it currently has no guidelines governing or barring the use of such technology at large public events like Boston Calling.

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