It was a few days before Super Bowl LII, and inside the public safety command center set up to monitor and deploy security for the big event, a large screen had become the focal point. It showed a 3D view of downtown Minneapolis, displaying icons for all of the spots in the area where Minneapolis Police Department commanders could access video surveillance.
There were a lot of icons. And some of them were moving.
The Minneapolis Police Department has long had access to several hundred fixed cameras across the entire city, with most covering downtown and North Minneapolis. But the display in the command center showed hundreds of camera locations around the stadium alone, in addition to those along Nicollet Mall and in the vicinity of the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Had the city added all those cameras for the Super Bowl?
Yes, some. But it turned out that most of those icons — shown as badges onscreen — represented a new technology developed for the MPD by the Woodbury-based company Securonet: an application called FieldWatch that gave every officer in the field with an iPhone the ability to stream video from his or her location back to the command center.
How many locations? Securonet President Dan Zell said that including the state, federal and other local agencies assisting in Super Bowl security, there were 2,137 phones capable of instantly streaming video to the command center, though no more than 400 were usually on duty at any given time.
FieldWatch, in other words, has created a massive new capability for police surveillance, one that isn’t well known by residents, well understood by city politicians — or well regulated by the city or the police department.
Designed to keep track of officers
Securonet founder Justin Williams established a relationship with MPD in 2015 with the company's first product, something called the Virtual Safety Network and SafeLink. The product provides local police departments with the locations of private security cameras and creates a way for the camera owners to share video with law enforcement. An extension for those products, VideoLink, provides a way for the cameras to stream directly to police departments.
Often used to investigate crimes, the system made it easier for detectives to locate potential evidence. In explaining the products, Securonet talks about how Boston Marathon bombing investigators had to go door-to-door to businesses near the finish line to recover video footage. With SafeLink, they would have already known the camera locations and contacts to expedite the collection of the video that eventually helped identify the bombers.
Securonet now has contracts with Minneapolis, Duluth, Rochester, Metro Transit, Hennepin County, Ramsey County and the FBI’s Minneapolis office. Zell said his company is just starting to market the service across the U.S.
FieldWatch is Securonet’s latest venture, one that emerged from conversations the company had several years ago with MPD Commander Scott Gerlicher, who runs the department’s special operation and intelligence division and who led the public safety operation for the Super Bowl. What, the company asked, would help the department respond to the added pressures of the Super Bowl?
FieldWatch wasn’t initially designed to be a video surveillance application. Instead, it was created to help police commanders simply keep track of officers during large operations. Squad cars can be tracked via GPS networks, but not individual officers. During the Major League Baseball’s All Star game, for instance, MPD used a large metal map of the city and moved magnets around to display the location of cops on foot around Target Field, Gerlicher said.
“One of the challenges you have, especially in an operation that large where you have hundreds and hundreds of officers, is keeping track of where they all are,” Gerlicher said.
Securonet had a beta version of the application ready for testing during last summer’s X Games. What Zell saw as an extension of the video surveillance tools he’d created with SafeLink was seen by police commanders as a way to locate officers.
“If they were walking down the street, you would see the dot on the map moving,” Gerlicher said. “I keep calling it Uber for people.” Commanders and officers in the field can also use the app dashboard on phone or iPad to see where their teammates are.
“What we learned was the logistical aspect of what FieldWatch does is of more operational value,” Zell said. “Video streaming is a huge thing but it’s one of those things you’re hoping you don’t have to use a lot. If we have to use live streaming a lot, that means you have a lot of potentially dangerous incidents going on.”
The video streaming function wasn’t used frequently during either the X Games or the Super Bowl. Gerlicher recalled one incident where a naked man — whom police suspected had overdosed — was near the stadium. Commanders could observe him via the video stream and direct officers and paramedics to the scene. Another incident involved a drone flying near the stadium, which got the attention of commanders who directed officers on bike patrol to find the pilots, said Zell. “Turns out it was some kids, but it could have been a drone dropping a bomb,” Zell said.
During the week of the Super Bowl, FieldWatch video was used to monitor protesters at the Xcel Energy Center and at the Green Line’s West Bank station (the command center also displayed video from the latter protest being streamed by Unicorn Riot, the volunteer run media collective).
“One of the advantages with the live stream is we’re not only able to see the location of that officer, but what they are seeing,” Gerlicher said. “From a situational awareness perspective, that’s extremely advantageous to see exactly what they are looking at.”
Zell said he is now in talks with the organizers of the next two Super Bowls, in Atlanta and Miami.
Technology raises questions
The Minneapolis public safety command center — which during the Super Bowl housed 80 federal, state and local agencies, from Homeland Security to the Minneapolis health department — will remain in place for the NCAA Final Four next winter and the X Games, which are now expected to remain at U.S. Bank Stadium through 2020.
During a pre-Super Bowl media tour of the center, MPD Commander Bruce Folkens said that FieldWatch allowed law enforcement to “deal with incidents on a face-to-face basis.” (MPD conditioned access to the command center on media signing an agreement to not-disclose the location).
“It’s great to have this situational awareness for the command post,” Gerlicher said. “But it’s just as important for the officers out on the street to know where their backup is. From their phones they can pull that information up.”
Still, the ability to stream, record and store video from any iPhone raises questions that force locator functions do not. One function of FieldWatch is what is called the “evidence vault,” a cloud-based storage location for recordings of streamed video. Most of the video streams sent to the command center during the Super Bowl were recorded and retained in the cloud, and Zell said the application allows officers to tag and keywood video for later retrieval and to set permissions to determine which department personnel can view it.
And though the FieldWatch app can be configured to allow the storage of video on each individual iPhone, Zell said MPD did not want that function; that’s because though MPD officers are issued iPhones, officers from some of the departments that helped with Super Bowl security used personal phones.
The video from FieldWatch is similar to the video being recorded on body cameras, though the MPD’s repeated attempts to update and toughen its body camera rules and procedures do not apply to FieldWatch videos, Gerlicher said.
“It’s a little different scenario than normal body camera usage, which is a lot day-to-day. This is a special event situation. But especially after an event or in the case of an emergency situation, it’s great to have the livestream, but it’s also great to be able to pull up any relevant information and preserve that after the fact.”
The videos are covered by the state Data Practices Act, though it’s unclear if how many people outside the department even knew they existed until now.
“We have whatever video we captured, but there is no current system to code different events as you can with the body cameras,” Gerlicher said. “You got all or nothing. Certainly that would be a refinement that FieldWatch could implement. But because we’ve been using it on a limited basis for special events we haven’t gone down that road yet.”
Privacy, hacking concerns
Council Member Steve Fletcher’s Ward 3 includes U.S. Bank Stadium and much of the downtown area that was used for Super Bowl events. As vice chair of the Minneapolis City Council’s Public Safety Committee, he has concerns about the conflict between safety and privacy.
“People want both, and I think we’re seeing moments in our history — as technology gets out in front of our existing ability to think through those questions — we have not always managed that balance well,” Fletcher said.
“This is a conversation that needed to happen regardless of whether the Super Bowl happened or not,” he said. “But the Super Bowl brought attention to it, and also brought some new tools into the arena that aren’t necessarily going away.”
Fletcher said he thinks the council should talk about the level of transparency the public deserves about the new tools and “when people are entering an area where they will be surveilled more intensely than others.”
Fletcher said he wasn’t aware of FieldWatch — or the addition of 20 fixed cameras in his ward via a grant from Verizon — until he toured the command center before the Super Bowl. One city camera, the council member discovered, could focus on the front door to his home, “Pretty close,” Fletcher said.
“At some level you could see it as a very helpful tool and a tool that could help do enforcement in a more responsible way when people aren’t having to make snap judgements,” he said. Having a “second set of eyes on something is not necessarily a bad thing.”
On the other hand, Fletcher said, “it means anybody could be watching anywhere.”
“Are we expanding our surveillance and our capacity in a meaningful way? I don’t think we should do that by accident.”
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU and editor of the freefuture blog, which looks at the intersection of technology and privacy, was not familiar with FieldWatch but said it should be looked at through the same lens as other surveillance applications. “This is something the community should be made aware of,” Stanley said.
But he said he is less concerned with the way FieldWatch is used than if regular body camera video were routinely streamed. “We don’t think body camera footage should be streamed live to a central location,” he said. “If implemented properly, body cameras are capturing every law-enforcement interaction. That’s the right thing to do in terms of oversight, but it also sweeps up a lot of private interactions.”
Stanley said his concern about streaming large amounts of video is the threat of losing control of the data through hacking. “Any technology is under threat of being hacked,” Stanley said. “Cyber-security is hard. It’s much easier to attack a given application than it is to defend.”
Stanley said he can understand the benefits of being able to share real-time views of an incident with police commanders, but that the cities that use FieldWatch and similar applications “should be governed by a good set of policies that ensure they don’t become a threat to privacy.”
Zell said he uses Amazon’s Web Services for data storage and said the company uses the same technology of other major cloud storage companies to secure data. “It’s all about how do you make sure that video data is not breached, for everybody’s benefit — for public, for law enforcement,” he said. “It’s privacy for the public but for law enforcement it’s a little bit more about liability concerns.”
“We’re using all of the technologies available to ensure the protection of the data,” Zell said.
A multitude of uses
As of now, MPD doesn’t make much use of FieldWatch outside big events, Gerlicher said. In addition to this summer’s X Games and next year’s Final Four, he said he could envision it being used at events like the Twin Cities Pride parade and the Twin Cities Marathon.
But he also thought there could be other times it could be helpful, perhaps to help an officer deal with a person exhibiting mental health issues. “I believe there’s a multitude of uses for FieldWatch that haven’t yet been tapped into.” Gerlicher said.
Zell, of course, can come up with lots of other uses. FieldWatch and the related SafeLink and VideoLink applications could provide police commanders a valuable view of the chaotic scene at a school shooting, he said. And Securonet has been brainstorming with the MPD about ways the application could be used more often by officers.
“This is a product,” he said. “Our job is to make sure folks know about the product and the understand the value and they buy it, or subscribe to it. “