They're Watching You

It's a few minutes past 8 a.m. when Rachael Splaine Rollins slides into the passenger seat of her husband Eric's green Acura SUV, juggling a leather tote bag and a plate of raisin toast. A red plastic cup of orange juice is wedged into the center console alongside a nectarine and some napkins. Breakfast en route is a familiar scenario for this young power couple, both Cambridge natives, who bought their two-story white house in West Medford only last year.

Tucked at the end of a bumpy, narrow private drive, the house is cloistered by trees and marked by a faded American flag draped over the porch railing. The location is sheltered but convenient. On days like this one, Eric drives into the city and drops Rachael off near her law practice at Bingham McCutchen before commuting to his job at the Department of Social Services in Cambridge.

The bass-taxing tunes of gangsta rapper 50 Cent rock the car as Eric starts the engine. Rachael waits until he eases the SUV down the knobby drive before passing him the half-eaten raisin toast on a ceramic plate. A social worker for teenagers who is built like a football player, Eric mumbles a joke that elicits an affectionate swat from his wife. She smooths her short black hair with a manicured hand before reaching out to intercept the empty plate he tries to stash under his seat.

And then, just like that, the private portion of their commute is over. As they turn off the narrow lane onto Route 16 before merging swiftly onto I-93 South, Rachael and Eric Rollins fall beneath the unrelenting gaze of Boston's exploding network of video surveillance cameras.

“There's a camera on one of those beams,” says Rachael, pointing to one of a dozen electronic eyes installed along I-93 by the Massachusetts Highway Department. She can also spot at least a dozen surveillance cameras on her short walk from the corner where Eric drops her off near South Station to her office at 150 Federal Street three blocks away. Rachael, who specializes in labor and employment law, says cameras at ATMs and other high-risk places give her a sense of security. But she says she never noticed how widespread video surveillance is until she started making a concerted effort to look. There are cameras on the Federal Reserve Bank building, cameras on the ramp to the Fiduciary Trust Building. Rachael's own building, like many in the Financial District, is heavily monitored by surveillance cameras — more than a dozen, according to the cagey security officer, who won't be any more specific. “I can't answer that,” the officer says. “But every place around here has tons of cameras.”

Eric drives from one appointment to another for his job. He has also started noticing cameras, from the elevators of his office to the Fast Lane tollbooths on the Mass. Pike. “I never really realized how much I could be on film,” he says.

“When you start noticing potentially how many times you're photographed without your knowing, it's a little scary,” Rachael says. “It's very 1984.”

Two years to the month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, surveillance cameras are everywhere, from predictable places like ATMs, airports, and parking garages, to church plazas, office buildings, supermarkets, and highways. Cameras are watching fans at the FleetCenter, students at Harvard, workers in their offices, drivers on Route 128. When the Big Dig is complete, there will be 400 video cameras along the Central Artery; nearly half of them are already in place. That's not including the more than 228 cameras in the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority's Fast Lane booths, or the 50 that the Massachusetts Highway Department has installed throughout the state. Massport has some 400 cameras, most of them at Logan Airport. There are 17 positioned in and around the city by the Boston Transportation Department — 15 at intersections and 2 on the roof of City Hall. The MBTA has 77 cameras and is installing more in subway and commuter rail stations.

Next year, the T will activate six designated “hubs” where images from cameras throughout the MBTA's more than 60 stations will be monitored. But public agencies have been downright sluggish in installing cameras compared to the private sector. There are at least 128 surveillance cameras in Boston's tightly packed Financial District, according to a survey by a privacy advocacy organization. Of those, 110 are on private property, 10 on government buildings, 6 in highly elevated positions, and 2 on street poles. This may be a vast underestimate. No one knows how many cameras there really are, just as no one keeps tabs on where they are or how they're used. “Nobody is making this information available so you can be informed about it to agree or not agree,” says Bill Brown, founder of the New York Surveillance Camera Players, the advocacy group that counted up the cameras downtown — and which stages a form of protest by enacting skits in front of them. “In fact, it seems the only efforts taken these days are to make it not available.” It's enough to induce a flush of Orwellian paranoia, even if it's not necessarily a plot to monitor people's every move or to create the kind of total surveillance societies of science fiction (or of London, for that matter, where the average person is reportedly photographed 300 times each day). The steady intrusion of electronic surveillance and the shrinking of private space is largely driven by the collective desire for things to be safer, faster, and more efficient.

But surveillance technology designed for one purpose, like collecting tolls, can easily be used for another — such as tracking suspects in a crime. It's a phenomenon privacy advocates call “function creep,” and it's dangerously common. While authorities promise time and time again to use the information captured by these cameras only for the public's safety, records show it is already quietly being purloined for other purposes.

There are no federal or state laws that govern the use of video surveillance. “It's very difficult for citizens to keep up with technology,” says Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “And the development of technology is outstripping the development of law that protects us from abuse of that technology.”

This state's only statute that addresses electronic monitoring is hopelessly outdated, crafted in 1959 before the advent of video cameras, supercomputers, the Internet, wireless communications, global positioning systems, and the databases that make information increasingly searchable. The law bars recording without mutual consent, contending that the “uncontrolled development and unrestricted use of modern electronic surveillance devices pose grave dangers to the privacy of all citizens of the commonwealth.” Yet it's never been updated to encompass the new and invasive technologies that make individuals' daily habits more and more visible — and traceable.

“New technology will allow for all of our actions, movements, utterances — even, perhaps, our thoughts — to be monitored,” says Barry Steinhardt, who follows technology issues at the ACLU. “We need rules. And if we don't have them, we'll find ourselves in a surveillance society.”

The Operations Control Center of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, on the second floor of a nondescript building in South Boston, smells like a new car and looks like Mission Control in Houston. The central wall is three stories high, a massive, curved surface with 54 video monitors in two clusters framed by varying projections of charts, diagrams, and intricate color maps of Boston's turnpike, tunnels, and highways. There's a government-issue sterility to the corridor: deep blue, faintly pinstriped carpeting; walls painted shades of dark gray; low, metal-partitioned workstations; luminous digital clocks timed to the second. A bank of glass windows on the rear wall separates the room from a wide hallway that overlooks three sprawling rows of workstations crammed with computer screens and video monitors that can display images from any of the system's hundreds of cameras.

While the OCC isn't yet operational and won't be fully staffed until the Big Dig is completed next year, there are already 175 cameras in place and technicians to monitor them. OCC superintendent Jim Murphy is recruiting former police officers, firefighters, and turnpike workers to operate the control center. In the near future, some 25 technicians, working round-the-clock shifts seven days a week, will be responsible for monitoring the system's hundreds of cameras. Murphy muses that when it's all up and running, the place will look like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Turnpike authority chairman Matthew Amorello calls the OCC facility “the most advanced transportation control center in the country.”

The surveillance technology feeding into it is equally sophisticated. Magnetic-loop detectors, traffic sensors, and air-quality gauges can automatically shift a camera to look at a specific area. Technicians monitor data from the sensors and scan the shifting video images in real time, recording any that show a disturbance such as an accident, fire, or breakdown. “We can project on these screens any image that we want,” says chief engineer Michael Swanson, pointing to images from cameras inside the Central Artery tunnel. “There isn't a section of this tunnel that isn't under active video surveillance.”

The cameras, which can zoom in, pan-tilt, and maneuver on command, are capable of remarkable detail. They can focus in on a license plate or view how many people are in each car. In the right conditions, they can see who's driving, though they are not now used for such purposes or outfitted with newly developed software that can read license plates or recognize faces. “I'm not aware that we've ever in an exercise been asked to spot a person,” says Amorello, stressing that the system's primary function is traffic monitoring and safety. “We don't have that capability.” Still, he says, “we could probably upgrade to that if we went to that kind of society.” The turnpike authority is, however, considering using license-plate recognition software like those on its Fast Lane cameras to issue warnings to speeders. (This technology is also being tested on other highways by the University of Massachusetts Transportation Center, which has two cameras, one aimed at Route 9 in Hadley and one in Northampton, that electronically read and record license plate numbers.)

The authority, which oversees the turnpike and the tunnels, also collaborates with other state and federal agencies. Its 400 cameras will be supplemented by those the separate highway department has been installing along routes 128, 93, and 3. “These folks are in their vehicles in public areas,” says Murphy. “We're not doing it because we're spying on them. It's because we're protecting them.”

The collaboration among the turnpike authority, the highway department, and other government agencies is an example of the kind of cooperation the public demanded after the September 11 terrorist attacks. But it also means that drivers can be watched almost anywhere they go. “If they begin to collect information for purposes other than maintaining traffic, then it's really a question of whether people have given their consent,” says Carol Rose. “When we give consent for one form of technology that may in fact invade our privacy, like the Fast Lane, we have to be aware of how it will be used in combination with other forms of technology, and therefore have other purposes.”

Authorities repeatedly promise that they have no such plans. The Fast Lane privacy policy stipulates that turnpike officials “shall maintain the confidentiality of all information including, but not limited to, photographs or other recorded images and credit and account data.” Such information “shall not be a public record,” the privacy policy says, and cannot be used for law enforcement purposes except with respect to toll collection. Similar assurances have been made verbally and in writing by the many other public agencies watching us through cameras. Asked by the Boston Globe two years ago whether the turnpike would ever release Fast Lane records to police, spokesman Bob Bliss said: “It doesn't appear to be contemplated that that's going to happen.”

Then came the subpoena.

Fast Lane was installed on the Massachusetts Turnpike in 1998, and since then every toll plaza in the state has been outfitted for it — 114 lanes in all. About 340,000 people with Fast Lane accounts have 670,000 transponders, generating millions of transactions per month. The automatic billing system works by reading a radio transponder on the vehicle's windshield and recording the date, time, location, and identity of the vehicle's owner. Pictures of the car are taken by two cameras — and in some cases three. The data is logged, and the information is stored in an archive for an indefinite amount of time.

Documents obtained by Boston magazine through a public records request show that on August 14, 2002, the Hampden County District Attorney delivered a summons to the turnpike authority's Fast Lane Patron Services Department. A murder had been committed, and the killer was suspected to have driven through the Mass. Pike's exit 6 in Chicopee the night of July 13. The summons demanded “any and all records” regarding the exit between 11:30 p.m. and 2 a.m., and the turnpike authority tried to block it. But Superior Court Justice C. Brian McDonald sided with the district attorney, arguing that the Fast Lane privacy policy wasn't “sufficiently precise” to prohibit its disclosure for “law enforcement” or “criminal law enforcement” purposes. Moreover, he continued, it would be “absurd and unreasonable” that the grand jury's investigation of a murder “be frustrated by a concern for the confidentiality of electronic toll collection system information.”

Chairman Amorello says the turnpike authority doesn't give out identifying information “unless there's a court order to release it. We can't sell it to Reader's Digest or lists like that, and we can't use it for any purposes of law enforcement in general,” such as clocking drivers' speeds by monitoring how fast they're traveling from one Fast Lane checkpoint to the next. Amorello acknowledges that the State Police have tried to get such information, but he insists that there's a “prohibition on who that information can be released to.” Still, the data is already there if the rules change.

The Fast Lane's disclosure of private information to the district attorney was not the first instance of function creep. Cameras were not part of the original design and were not installed until December of 2000. The turnpike authority aimed to crack down on abusers who ran the Fast Lane without paying up, having lost more than $5 million in tolls by then. The information sharing had begun: Multiple offenders who didn't pay up would be reported to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which could bar them from renewing their licenses or registrations until they paid their balance. Privacy advocates grumbled that the enterprise was a slippery slope on an already eroding privacy guarantee. But drivers continued to sign up in droves. After all, the system saved them time and effort.

Part of Gail Nelson's daily routine was to exercise after work. The then-46-year-old secretary at Salem State College waited until she was alone after business hours, then discreetly changed into her sweats and sneakers behind a partition in her workspace.

What she didn't know was that campus security officers had installed a hidden camera — recording 24 hours a day — to catch the suspected illegal activities of another worker in her office. While the camera didn't capture any wrongdoing, Nelson claims in a lawsuit that it did see her every move in what she thought was the privacy of her own office, from the time she stripped down to apply medication to a painful sunburn to the many times she changed her clothes after work. In her complaint, Nelson says she was secretly taped undressing for almost four months, until a janitor discovered the camera and told her about it.

The video surveillance at the college was neither illegal nor uncommon. Employees at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, for instance, were secretly videotaped before and after their shifts by cameras hidden in their locker room. Managers claimed they were trying to catch a busboy they suspected of selling cocaine, although they never found any evidence of illegal activity. While the Sheraton employees shared a $200,000 settlement for invasion of their privacy, Gail Nelson's case is still pending.

“I think there needs to be more education and understanding as to what is actually going on around this state,” says state Senator Marc Pacheco, who is sponsoring a bill to regulate video surveillance in the workplace. Outside of wiretapping prohibitions, he says, “there's no protection at all relative to Internet, video, and e-mail surveillance.” Pacheco thinks employers have every right to protect trade secrets and regulate the misuse of company resources. But as surveillance equipment becomes cheaper and easier to use, he says, employers' increasingly intrusive and unregulated monitoring tactics make on-the-job privacy almost nonexistent. “If an employee is going to be in a situation where they're being monitored,” Pacheco says, “I think they should know about it.”

Arthur Bourque is a former cop and the owner of Surveillance Specialties in North Andover, which conducts covert video surveillance. His company installs roughly 700 hidden cameras a year, with, he says, a 95 percent success rate in capturing industrial espionage or workplace theft. Some of Bourque's covert cameras are as tiny as a dirt speck on a wall. “We've had a cleaner try and get it off,” he muses. He fears that legislative restrictions will impede his ability to catch culprits in corporate America.

Bourque won't install hidden cameras in personal residences, restrooms, or locker rooms, and says he turns down cases all the time. “We've really made sure to run on the right side of ethical boundaries, law, and common sense,” he says. He acknowledges, however, that not everyone else does.

“My biggest concern is that the proliferation of cameras on the Internet has allowed any dummy to get into this business,” says Bourque. Installing a covert camera used to take some talent, he says, recalling the old days when equipment was pricey and cameras used to be the size of a brick. Now, video cameras are smaller, computerized, and individually programmable. There's a trend toward integrated systems that include biometrics or facial recognition software, as well as programs that allow cameras to operate with a kind of artificial intelligence. “The changes are happening so rapidly, it's almost impossible as a vendor to keep up,” Bourque says. “All of a sudden, not only people in the trade, but citizens can go anywhere and put them up. The horror stories never seem to cease.”

In November, a Brookline High School football player discovered a camera taped to exposed pipes in the locker room showers. Officials haven't found the culprit. But there's no explicit law against secret video surveillance in Massachusetts — even in places such as locker rooms, bathrooms, or residences — unless sound recording is used. “[The law] doesn't cover and has never been updated to cover silent videotaping,” says Cambridge lawyer Jeffrey Feuer, who represents Gail Nelson. “It has just not been a high priority for the legislature. They've had bills that attempted to do this, but they've never really gotten out of committee.”

“It's extremely disturbing, and it's even more disturbing that it's not a crime in Massachusetts,” says state Representative David Linsky, who is trying to pass a bill against video voyeurism. “This is just a glaring loophole in the Massachusetts General Laws, and it's a loophole that needs to be filled.” Linsky's bill hinges on the test of whether a person has a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Yet that expectation of privacy shrinks by the day as electronic surveillance becomes ubiquitous. And as security concerns continue to mount, dialogue about how public safety is being protected is increasingly under wraps. Asked to confirm how many surveillance cameras are in the FleetCenter (it's been reported that there are more than 100), spokeswoman Courtney McIlhenny said, “We can't really discuss our video surveillance or any of our security procedures.” Nor would Harvard University disclose how many surveillance cameras are on its campus. (There are at least 29 in Harvard Square.) “We obviously do use cameras to provide security,” says spokeswoman Beth Potier, “but we can't get into specifics.” (Other universities, including Princeton, have no cameras on their campuses, though Princeton has some in an adjoining parking garage.)

Linsky calls his bill “an initial step,” and says the explosion of video surveillance technology that has put cameras on street corners, at job sites, in high schools and sports stadiums, and almost everywhere else, isn't really a topic on the legislative table. “I think that's much harder an area for the government to regulate because of the way our laws have evolved,” says Linsky. Still, he says, “I don't think people realize the extent that the surveillance cameras are out there.”