Did IBM use “Face Capture” to Surveil Boston Calling? What is “Face Capture”?

A large element of what was troubling to readers with whom I spoke about our disclosures at DigBoston was so-called “face capture” and “face tracking” software employed on live video surveillance of Boston Calling attendees at both music festivals last year.

In emailed comments published by the Boston Globe days before the most recent festival, IBM addressed reports of the technology’s use.

City of Boston Public Event Mgmt Demo handout, prepared by IBM for the City of Boston in anticipation of live implementation in May of 2013.
“City of Boston Public Event Mgmt Demo handout,” prepared by IBM for the City of Boston in anticipation of live testing in May of 2013.

Writes the Globe:

IBM did not return calls seeking comment about the demonstration, but in an e-mail, company spokeswoman Holli Haswell said neither “face capture . . . nor facial recognition” were used at the event.

Out of consideration for the privacy of the thousands of individuals whose images were captured and retained for more than year, flapping in the digital breeze, as it were, and additionally out of a desire to respect substantive security concerns, we eschewed publication of the original files. We did, however, provide exhaustive sourcing, and take back not a single line of our original work. Dan McCarthy, Editor of DigBoston, had this to say about the “Boston Trolling” series’ significance:

“The discovery of this story, and its ensuing publication in the print and online pages of DigBoston, has been a watershed mark for journalism, but not just within Greater Boston. In the weeks that followed the initial chapter, we have been approached by print publications and online news outlets, both national and international. And there’s good reason for that. The microcosm this story represents seems to have tapped into a larger encroaching sense of diminishing privacy in the new socio-cultural frontier.”

There are in fact multiple references to “face capture,” both in the preparation for and in the “Post-Mortem [sic]” of the Smart Surveillance Solution pilot at Boston Calling. (note the timestamps in the above image).

In preparation for the first festival, at least three cameras were configured with “face capture” as a Use Case.

From IBM spreadsheet "CoB Analytic Cameras."
From IBM spreadsheet “CoB Analytic Cameras.”

“Face Capture” in video surveillance is not a type of software, but a necessary element in multiple analytic profiles. It refers to exactly what it literally describes, the photographic capture of a person’s face. IBM’s denial is particularly hollow, in that it cannot only be refuted directly by its own documentation, but by a simple observation of the visual media that its employee stored unsecured on his private server.

“Face Capture” can be done on any video where a subject’s face appears in full or in a predetermined percentage in at least one frame – software can be configured to do this automatically according to certain rules determined by the programmer and operator, such as in the performance of a “Near-field People Search.” Some software, including IBM’s, can “learn” what sort of searches it should perform and deliver automated alerts when it gets a “hit.”

IBM and the City of Boston most certainly performed “face capture” at Boston Calling – whether or not they used facial recognition technology remains to be settled. Both have denied this as well, while the same IBM employee’s documentation makes note for integration of a “third-party facial recognition engine.” Boston Police denied their involvement in the program entirely, and shortly after pictures of BPD officers observing the software in live use were published by Vice’s Noisey. I’m publishing all of the “Command Center” photos with BPD in them for dramatic effect below.

DigBoston’s McCarthy also noted the attitude of acceptance of privacy encroachments in the wake of the Marathon bombings, and how revelations like those published in Dig are enabling a “sudden shift to one of justifiable skepticism. It may be one of the last weapons the Fourth Estate has in these increasingly uncertain and nervous times.”

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