Boston’s surveillance ordinance is set to go into effect in August. Here’s what you need to know.
By Kade Crockford, technology for liberty program director
Last year, the City of Boston voted unanimously to pass an ordinance that will require community control over police surveillance (CCOPS). After being signed into law in November 2021, the ordinance is now set to go into effect in August 2022. Boston joins over 20 other municipalities nationwide—including Cambridge, Lawrence, and Somerville in Massachusetts—with CCOPS laws that empower local communities to influence surveillance and information sharing decisions.
Here’s what Boston residents need to know about the ordinance and its implementation this summer.
How does this ordinance change things?
Surveillance oversight laws give concerned residents and community organizations a meaningful chance to debate and push back against the deployment of surveillance technologies in their neighborhoods. Prior to the implementation of the ordinance in Boston, decisions about surveillance technology acquisition and policy were made behind closed doors, without any democratic engagement or public debate. Over the years, a lack of transparency and democratic oversight governing surveillance in Boston has led to numerous abuses, including the Boston Police Department’s use of social media surveillance technology to target Black people and Muslims online.
The surveillance ordinance institutionalizes transparency and democratic oversight, ensuring all decisions about surveillance technology acquisition and governing policy are made in public by the people’s elected representatives on the City Council.
The ordinance applies to technologies already in use by city agencies—nothing gets grandfathered in or automatically approved. Each technology currently in use must receive approval from the City Council for the agency to continue to use it. It applies to the Boston Police Department, the Boston Parks Department Park Rangers, Boston Public Schools, Boston Public Health Commission, Boston Housing Authority, Boston Municipal Protection Services, and the Office of Emergency Management.
How does the ordinance work?
The ordinance requires the Mayor to submit various documents to the City Council and to make them publicly available on the city’s website. These documents include:
- Surveillance Technology Impact Reports (STIRs), which are due to the City Council starting August 1, 2022. These reports describe specific surveillance technologies, and must include the following information, at minimum:
- Information about the technology and how it works;
- Information describing the purpose of the technology;
- Details regarding the kind of information the technology will collect and how it will be shared with external entities;
- The locations where the technology will be deployed;
- A description of the privacy and anonymity risks the technology may pose, and a mitigation plan to address those risks;
- A description of any disparate impact the technology may have on a particular group, and a mitigation plan to address that disparate impact;
- The financial cost of acquiring, maintaining, and deploying the technology; and
- An explanation of how the city-wide surveillance policy will apply to the use of the technology, and if it cannot, a technology specific use policy.
- Each department's Surveillance Use Policies (SUPs), which are due to the Council July 31, 2022. These are policies to govern each surveillance technology maintained by the agencies subject to the ordinance. The policies are drafted by departments and then the Mayor's office submits them to the Council for approval.
- Technology-Specific Surveillance Use Policies (TSSUPs). These are policies governing the use of surveillance technology and surveillance data that are not covered by the city’s Surveillance Use Policies. For example, if the Boston Police Department has been approved to use drone surveillance subject to a Surveillance Use Policy, but they want to add additional surveillance features to the drone, they would be required to submit a TSSUP in order to do so.
After receiving these materials, the City Council has 60 days to decide by majority vote whether to approve or deny policies and requests to continue to use or acquire individual technologies. If the Council declines to approve a policy or technology, the Mayor may send the issue to the Surveillance Oversight Advisory Board, which can discuss the Council’s concerns, consult with community groups and experts, and report back to the Mayor with suggestions for modifying the request.
Starting February 1, 2024 and annually thereafter, the ordinance also requires the Mayor to submit to the City Council and the public Annual Surveillance Reports, which describe how all approved technologies have been used. These reports must include the following information, at minimum:
- A description of how the technology has been used, including whether it captured information about people not suspected of unlawful conduct;
- Information about how surveillance data was shared with external agencies;
- A summary of community complaints about the technology;
- The results of any internal audits pertaining to the technology;
- A detailed accounting of whether the technology has fulfilled its identified purpose;
- The number of public records requests received pertaining to the technology over the prior year;
- An estimate of the total cost of maintaining and using the technology;
- Information about any civil rights violations or disparate impact; and
- A disclosure of any information sharing agreements related to the technology or the data it produces.
After receiving and reviewing these reports, the City Council can recommend changes to the governing surveillance use policy, or withdraw approval for continued use of a particular technology. No later than May 31 each year, the City Council must hold a meeting to discuss the annual surveillance reports, and release a report including a summary of all surveillance ordinance related matters that came before the council that year.
How can you get involved?
The ordinance is only as strong as the people’s will to participate in our local democracy. Beginning this summer, residents will be able to review the City’s surveillance technology reports and policies as they are submitted to the City Council. The City Council will then work with the Mayor’s office to schedule votes on these matters at Council meetings throughout the late summer and fall. Residents with concerns or feedback on the City’s surveillance policies or technologies can sign up to testify at City Council meetings or express their views to the Council via email.
The ACLU will be paying close attention, and we look forward to working with civil rights and civil liberties supporters in Boston to make sure the City is acting in accordance with our values. To stay informed about our efforts as the ordinance goes into effect, follow the ACLU of Massachusetts on social media.