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Boston Police Department plans to buy $1.4m social media spying tool

Published: November 29, 2016
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Source: Privacy SOS

The Boston Police Department plans to buy a $1.4 million social media surveillance tool capable of building out complex associational profiles of users, tracking posts by location, performing ‘sentiment’ analysis, and much, much more. A detailed description of what the department is looking for is laid out in an 88-page request for proposals dated October 2016. Bids for the contract were due at the end of that month, and the department is apparently going to make a decision about which company to hire on or around December 5. 

The public learned of the Boston PD’s decision to spend this gargantuan sum of taxpayer dollars on social media spying technology in the wake of news that the FBI now has access to the entire “firehose” of tweets and associated metadata from Twitter’s data processing company, Dataminr. The news about the FBI’s access to Twitter data came at a perplexing time, just after the social media giant announced it was cutting back (or cutting off—it’s not exactly clear) social media spy company Geofeedia’s access to the firehose. That decision reflected advocacy by our sister organization, the ACLU of California, which successfully lobbied Twitter to cut Geofeedia off in light of evidence that it was marketing its product to police as a means of spying on political dissidents. 

Despite this, and the national outcry that ensued, the Boston police appear intent on going forward with its proposal. On Monday, December 5, the day the department is supposed to announce the winning bid, the Public Safety Committee of the Boston City Council will meet to discuss the proposed spying plan. 

According to the Boston Globe, the City Council is not pleased. Apparently, the public wasn’t the only group in the dark about the BPD’s plans to buy this expensive spy software; the City Council first learned about it by reading the newspaper, too. As I’ve said to the press all week, if that secrecy is any indication of how a program like this might be implemented, we shouldn’t be confident that the police will protect civil rights and civil liberties, as officials have claimed they will in canned statements to the press.

Police department spokesman Michael McCarthy hasn’t made the brass available for interviews with members of the media about this issue, but has released a statement assuring the public that the cops’ new toy will be used in accordance with federal and state rules and regulations. That sounds nice, but it won’t stop the kind of abusive surveillance we are worried about. That’s because, when it comes to newfangled technology like $1.4 million social media spying software, there aren’t specific, applicable rules. And the existing rules about what police can collect and retain, and about whom, don’t go far nearly enough.

The Boston Police, for example, have a policy that says its officers and “intelligence” specialists cannot spy on people solely because of their race, religion, or First Amendment protected speech or association. But that “solely” is a loophole the size of the continent; you can drive a massive COINTELPRO-like spy program right through it. 

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The law is insufficiently protective of our rights, and so won’t stop the BPD from using fancy social media spying gear to compile dossiers of dissidents, Black people, or Muslims—even if the police don’t suspect those people are involved in specific criminal activity.

Another thing police have said in defense of this wasteful program is that we don’t have a right to privacy in our tweets because they are public. Why shouldn’t the police look at them? This raises the question of whether we should do things simply because we can. The answer is: Of course not. 

Sure, the Boston Police could send an officer to sit outside your home all day snapping pictures of everyone who goes in, and everyone who goes out, making detailed notes about who wore what, who was with whom, at what time people come and go. That would be legal. But it wouldn’t be right, and we wouldn’t accept it. That is, unless the police had a really good reason to conduct that type of surveillance.

The same principle applies on the internet. The only difference is that the police couldn’t actually post up outside every single Boston resident’s home to take photos of them all day, because there aren’t enough cops to do that. But with $1.4 million and fancy surveillance software, the police absolutely can scan and track the social media postings of millions of people not just here in Boston but around the world. Again: We shouldn’t do things simply because we can.

Ultimately, this social media spying issue is similar to other matters related to technology and civil liberties. The ACLU’s position isn’t that cops should never look at Facebook or Twitter. We simply oppose dragnet surveillance, both because it violates our right to live in a free society and because it doesn’t work to keep us safe. If the police are conducting a criminal investigation, they can certainly look at a suspect’s social media to see if they can find evidence. But trawling the internet looking for ‘pre-crime’ information, or building profiles of people not suspected of crimes, simply because of their race, religion, or political ideas, is counter to everything we are supposed to stand for. 

If you agree, join us at Boston City Hall on Monday, December 5 at 1:30 PM and make your voice heard. 

 

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