Boston Police Used Social Media Surveillance for Years Without Informing City Council

This piece first appeared in Privacy SOS.

In December 2016, the Boston City Council held a hearing to discuss the Boston Police Department’s plan to spend $1.4 million on a social media surveillance system. Police Superintendent Paul Fitzgerald and Boston Regional Intelligence Center director David Carabin spoke of their commitment to transparency but did not provide any specific details about the software. After news of the plans became public, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans explained, “We’re not going after ordinary people. It’s a necessary tool of law enforcement and helps in keeping our neighborhoods safe from violence, as well as terrorism, human trafficking, and young kids who might be the victim of a pedophile.”

Ultimately, facing mounting public pressure and skeptical city council members, Mayor Marty Walsh and Commissioner Evans scrapped the costly proposal. But during the heated debate about the issue, and even in the city council meetings where the software proposal was discussed, Fitzgerald, Carabin, and Evans failed to mention an important fact that would have substantially informed the conversation: The $1.4 million plan to buy social media surveillance software wouldn’t have been the BPD’s first foray into social media surveillance. Indeed, since 2014 the BPD had spent $26,698 on a social media surveillance system called Geofeedia. During that time, the department secretly monitored the social media posts of thousands of ordinary Bostonians, including then–sitting City Councilor Tito Jackson — one of the critics of the BPD’s 2016 plan to buy the outrageously costly system.

Information about how BPD used Geofeedia would have been a welcome contribution to the debate, but now that we know more about how the department used the technology, it’s not so surprising that they failed to mention it. A report released today by the ACLU of Massachusetts details the BPD’s use of the social media monitoring software in 2014, 2015, and 2016, finding that troubling abuses occurred in secret. Based on records obtained through the Massachusetts Public Records Law, the report shows that employees at the Boston Regional Intelligence Center used the software to scan and collect thousands of posts containing specific terms on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, YikYak, and Flickr. The selected search terms targeted speech related to race, religion, and political activity, but they didn’t turn up any evidence of violence or terrorism.

Selection of BPD email alerts, organized by social media platforms

In 2014, during an initial trial of the software, the intelligence center monitored posts about the Black Lives Matter Movement by tracking words like “protest,” “#blacklivesmatter,” and “Ferguson.” Then-City Councilor Jackson came under surveillance during this time because of a Facebook post he made about racial inequality in Boston. After reviewing the ACLU’s report, former Councilor Jackson spoke to the AP: “I spoke out about [BPD’s] 2016 plan to spend $1.4 million on a social media surveillance system in part because I worried that the tool would be used to track people not because they did something wrong but because of their political views,” he said. “Little did I know that that had already happened.”

In 2016, the records show, BRIC targeted students involved in a walkout to protest budget cuts at Boston Public Schools. BRIC also targeted what its analysts called “Islamic Extremist Terminology” by searching for posts containing terms like “ISIS” as well as Arabic terms colloquially used by Muslims. The targeting of speech related to Muslim religious and cultural practice and the labeling of that speech as “extremist” raises serious civil liberties concerns. And according to the documents, casting Muslims as inherently suspicious served no public safety purpose; not a single of these posts appears to reference any violence or terrorism, apart from people talking or making jokes about political issues involving ISIS.

The BPD stopped using Geofeedia in 2016 after the ACLU of Northern California revealed that the company marketed itself to law enforcement as a tool to keep track of protesters. Even though the documents contain no evidence to suggest that Geofeedia helped the BPD prevent or solve serious crimes, the department nonetheless soon after requested $1.4 million for a new social media surveillance system.

In order to prevent something like this from happening again, the ACLU calls on the Boston City Council to create a standardized, public process for the BPD and other city agencies to adhere to before they acquire or use surveillance technology. The BPD, for its part, should change its policy to prohibit surveillance and intelligence collection on individuals based on their “race, religion, national origin, and protected political speech and association, except in cases where the Department has reasonable grounds to believe that a person has committed a crime and their protected activity or status is directly relevant to the investigation,” the report recommends. Additionally, the police should not collect or share the information of individuals “who are not suspected of specific articulable, criminal activity, with designated, enumerated exceptions for situations like missing persons investigations.”

Yesterday, three city councilors ordered a hearing on the city’s process for adopting new surveillance technology. The ACLU applauds the council’s leadership and looks forward to engaging in policy conversations to make sure Boston is a safe and free city for all of its people, no matter who they are, what they believe, or where they come from.

This piece first appeared in Privacy SOS.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

Is the Tito Jackson in the story Michael Jackson's brother? If he was anything like his brother Michael I'd keep on eye on him too.

Anonymous

Idiot

Dr. Timothy Leary

Once again, it takes one to know one.

Mister Sterling

There is no need for the BPD to spy on civilians. Let the NSA and FBI do it and keep the police department in the loop about actual threats. Using the police department as an intelligence agency is a waste of public money and an unnecessary violation of the sate and federal constitution. Massachusetts is not overrun in pedophiles and has historically low crime. Be better than New York, Boston. Stop spying on citizens. And citizens: quit Twitter and Facebook. They are trash.

Anonymous

'Let the NSA and FBI do it' I don't think so, they should not be spying on US citizens. Period. 4th Amendment!

Anonymous

So a black person speaking on racial equality is so dangerous the Boston police monitor your account but white supremacists are able threaten black civilians and make racial jokes .. White supremacists were able to have their protest downtown a couple months ago lol Some thing never change

Anonymous

Fact: law enforcement agencies can't be reformed from the inside. Real cops actually appreciate outside watchdogs with integrity - like the ACLU - keep pushing!

Anonymous

Geofeedia essentially went out of business about two years ago. This is old news. If you think social media intelligence offerings disappeared when Geofeedia, SnapTrends and others of their type shut down on/around October 2016, then you are totally wrong. There are a host of newer and stealthier next generation SaaS offerings in the marketplace today. Some our hiding in plain site (Alexa could be one) while others are incorporated into much larger technology offerings. Ever wonder how Facebook and Amazon can almost predict your next decision?

Kim

Boston police don’t even want to wear body cams, how can they surveillance someone else? Why don’t they use that surveillance to catch all these people out here killing people?
Better yet take all that money spent on social media and give black People resources, jobs, quality schools with trades in them, etc.

Laura of Oregon

I opened a Medical Marijuana Dispensary in Oregon and a drug enforcement cop got on a witch hunt due to a vendetta he had against me! I had to speak publicly at meetings with the Cuty Council and he of course opposed the opening of dispensaries! The Council ultimately decided to allow them and took a liking to me and asked me to sit on the advisory committee! I suppose this is what caused the spying thru Skype from the day we opened to 2014 and in 2016 when we were applying for our Recreational license, a full blown electronic hack took place where I was taunted and my quickbooks entries, important documents and programs were deleted, attacked and hijacked! It began with my google account then Facebook and from there Microsoft, LinkedIn, twitter and now my Apple ID has been hacked preventing any new apps from downloading and to try and make a new one is impossible! I have been through dozens of iPhones and androids and immediately they are hacked! They spy with the use of lasers I can pick up from my security camera and worse they interfere and manipulate my security system by projecting images into the screen or set the time ahead so no real time is recorded! Missing packages could have revealed the THEIF that stole them but of course the malicious behavior of these rogue cops prove they want to torture me mentally by making my devices not operate to the level they can! I have taken photos of cops on my land and they modify the images by changing them in my phone! Once as my partner and I were going to bed, an intimate and private act in our bed began to play right on the monitor of the security system with no way to save it and the fact that it was playing, made no sense but we both witnessed it! It has been going on for over 3 years now and I see no end in site! They dress in black cloaks and have white lasers which is easy to see them in the trees! But these guys aren't just violating my 4th amendment rights, they portray themselves as me to change passwords as I have found in my email and have used my credit card in file with the apples ID to buy sex app dating services and additional data! I have called to complain about all the inference into my devices and life and the sheriff made no denial but suggested I cancel any services I don't want them to access? I would love for an attorney who specializes in this type of violation to contact me for representation or advice at least! These idiot have no morals and follow no law as they feel they are above it evidently. Laura Sheridan of Winston, Oregon

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