New MBTA Surveillance Cameras: Be Wary, But Not Afraid

mbtaPhoto by Samantha Carey


The MBTA is putting up a ton of Homeland Security-funded cameras to keep an eye on what’s going on in Boston’s subways, buses, and train stations. Hell, the video released the other day by the MBTA of a woman in a wheelchair rolling down an escalator practically went viral. Officials tell us the surveillance equipment is for our own good and will help keep criminals and terrorists at bay, or at least give the cops a leg-up in tracking down the bad guys.

But there are many questions that have not been asked or answered — questions that could help residents decide whether the privacy they’re giving up in exchange for supposedly safer public space is really worth it.

The MBTA has already refused to say how many cameras are going up, other than to tell us that it’s going to be “double” the previously unknown number of cameras. But what about the technology used? Will the cameras have face-recognition capabilities, able to track your every move and tap into your social security number and other personal information? Will the cameras utilize Video Analytics, enabling the MBTA to target, for instance, everyone with a red backpack? How long will they hold onto the data? And who has access to the information? Does it stay local or can anyone at FBI headquarters in D.C. log in and watch you hopping onto the Green Line?

The idea that surveillance cameras automatically mean better safety is hardly a slam-dunk. If you listen, for example, to the experts at the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University in Canada, the answer is a resounding no. After examining many different studies around the world, they conclude that, “Despite claims by police, private security and camera technology companies, [crime] deterrence has not been proven.”

It’s inarguable that when you post surveillance cameras all over town in public areas, you lose privacy. Some towns nearby have determined that it just isn’t a good trade-off. In Cambridge, the city decided to simply turn off its Homeland Security surveillance cameras. In Brookline, the cameras are covered with a hood except during the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., generally when the fewest people are out and about and the harm to privacy is therefore the least.

Kade Crockford of the ACLU says she is very concerned over how people’s privacy will be impacted by the MBTA’s sudden explosion of cameras. “We question the need for more surveillance cameras in the first place,” she says, “but if they’re going to do it, the MBTA should at least make clear how it intends to use them.”

I called the MBTA and asked its spokesman, Joe Pesaturo, a few of these important questions. Pesaturo would not answer them all, such as how many cameras are being put up. But he did provide the first glimpse into many unknowns, and the answers seemed, at least, to be reassuring.

He said that the high-definition surveillance cameras will not use facial-recognition tools and will not employ Video Analytics — by far two of the most meddlesome capabilities. He wasn’t sure how long the data captured on film would be kept, but said the information would not be automatically uploaded and shared with the feds or outside law enforcement agencies.

There is still cause for concern over privacy, and these answers are hardly conclusive and are just the tip of the iceberg. But it’s nice to hear that some of the most invasive technology will apparently not be peering down at us every time we take a bus across town or scramble onto the morning train on the way to work.