Boston Marathon Surveillance Raises Privacy Concerns Long After Bombing Boston jurors in the marathon bombing trial watched a nine-minute video pieced together from different surveillance cameras — some with surprisingly high resolution.
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Boston Marathon Surveillance Raises Privacy Concerns Long After Bombing

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Boston Marathon Surveillance Raises Privacy Concerns Long After Bombing

Boston Marathon Surveillance Raises Privacy Concerns Long After Bombing

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Boston on Monday, they'll run the marathon. An estimated 1 million people will line the streets to watch. Thousands of police will be checking bags and monitoring the crowds, but they can't watch everyone. Bill Ridge, with the Boston Police, says that's why video surveillance is a big part of the security plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL RIDGE: We've got a lot of cameras out there. We're going to be watching, you know, the portions in Boston and particularly the routes along Boylston Street, the finish line.

GREENE: That's the area where bombs were detonated two years ago. Video footage helped apprehend the terrorists, and cameras are now being installed at a feverish pace across the city. That increased surveillance, though, is worrying to some. Curt Nickisch from member station WBUR reports.

CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: On the roof of a tall office building overlooking the finish line, workers are installing a high-definition video camera.

MARK SAVAGE: That's pretty much it. So we should be able to fire this up.

NICKISCH: They work for Lan-Tel Communications, a Massachusetts company contracting for Boston Police and marathon organizers.

ERIC NISBET: All right, yep.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yep, we're good.

NISBET: You're all green.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yep.

NICKISCH: At a satellite office at an undisclosed location, a tech worker is linking the cameras into the computer network. Project manager Eric Johnson shows me how police can remotely watch and control the cameras.

ERIC JOHNSON: I'm zooming in on the infield of Fenway Park.

NICKISCH: He uses a laptop to swivel and zoom an HD video camera installed on a building hundreds of yards away from the ballpark.

You can see home plate. Like, I could probably tell from this camera if the pitch is low and outside.

JOHNSON: Yes, you could, absolutely.

NICKISCH: The same way your TV at home has gotten so much better, so have video cameras. Johnson says cheaper bandwidth and data storage make it easy to record more and better video.

JOHNSON: The wow factor in 2004 was being able to see a camera on a computer. Now, a lot of the law enforcement, that factor's gone. It's like, OK, I can see the image. But what can you do for me beyond that?

NICKISCH: There's a lot they can do. Boston has programmed cameras to automatically turn toward the sound of gunshots. Ideally, the software, Johnson says, could alert police when crowds form or when a certain suspect is recognized by a camera.

JOHNSON: They are not in every neighborhood. But I think they should be.

NICKISCH: Not everyone agrees.

KADE CROCKFORD: Yeah, well, right where we're standing, we can see four separate surveillance cameras.

NICKISCH: That's Kade Crockford, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. And we're standing outside the Old State House. This is where, in 1761, arguments against British warrants inspired the American Revolution and the Fourth Amendment, limiting search and seizure. Crockford says she understands the need for surveillance at a big public event like the Boston Marathon.

CROCKFORD: That doesn't trigger privacy concerns. What does trigger privacy concerns is the city of Boston installing a network of cameras, some in residential neighborhoods, that enable law enforcement to track individual people from the moment that we leave our homes in the morning until the moment we return at night, seeing basically everywhere we went and everything that we did.

NICKISCH: Boston Police won't say how many cameras are already in the city's network or how many new ones are going up for the marathon. But some of them will stay online afterward.

ED DAVIS: That picture was taken just as the first bomb went off.

NICKISCH: We're in the office of Ed Davis. He was Boston's police commissioner two years ago, during the marathon bombing attacks. He says dramatic video footage was crucial to winning a guilty verdict.

DAVIS: The cat's out of the bag. The video exists. The question now is, how do we protect people's rights in the everyday application of the technology that's already on the street?

NICKISCH: Davis says the answer is to be vigilant. In Boston, the city that runs a marathon on Patriots' Day commemorating the opening battles of the American Revolution, the right balance between public security and personal liberty is an ongoing search. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.

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