The Boston Police Department (BPD) primarily gathered and monitored social media posts and online activity from those in the Muslim community and those participating in protests, according to a newly released report from the ACLU of Massachusetts.
The BPD used the surveillance software for years without the approval of the Boston City Council.
The report analyzes the use of the location-based analytics platform Geofeedia and notes that the online accounts of those who posted the words “#blacklivesmatter”, “#muslimlivesmatter” and “protest” were often of interest to Boston police.
Also swept up in the surveillance were those who participated in the 2016 student walkout to protest cuts to the Boston Public Schools budget and then City Councilor Tito Jackson.
The police department is no longer using Geofeedia and withdrew a plan to purchase another social media surveillance system due to public opposition back in January 2017.
BPD Lt. Det. Michael McCarthy denies any targeting of speech or political affiliation, according to an article by the Associated Press.
“Our main focus in all of this is public safety … to have the ACLU to even make that insinuation is not only insulting, but it’s completely misinformed,” McCarthy said.
The ACLU’s report, co-authored by Kade Crockford, notes that said surveillance never turned up any criminal or even suspicious activity.
“We first became aware that the Boston Police Department was seeking proposals in response to an RFP related to social media surveillance technology in the fall of 2016,” Crockford said. “I discovered in fact the city had already contracted with a company called Geofeedia for over a period of about three years prior to those debates around the new acquisition around the fall of 2016.”
A public records request filed by the ACLU in December of 2016 brought forth evidence of the surveillance in April of last year.
Also of interest were those who posted online about the acquittal of Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, particularly those who talked about the Black Lives Matter rally in Boston following that decision.
Crockford said what is troubling is that the ACLU put out a report years ago showing the surveillance abuses of people for their political views by the BPD’s regional intelligence center, which was engaged in this most recent monitoring of social media accounts.
“The BPD did not apologize for collecting the records [back then] in the first place and has not changed its policy since then,” Crockford said. “And nonetheless they wanted to spend $1.4 million on an even more advanced tracking system despite the fact that the one that they had already been using didn’t seem to do a lick of good.”
Geofeedia, the system that BPD was using for surveillance often encouraged Boston police officers to monitor certain keywords or events, like the student walkout, Crockford said.
An email exchange with the company about the walkout has been made public in the report.
Geofeedia is no longer receiving support from major social media giants, including Facebook and Twitter because of its practices.
But the monitoring of commonly used Arabic words on social media, Crockford argues, appears to be a result of decisions made by BPD, not the software.
“The documents suggest that the BPD made the decision to classify certain ordinary Arabic words like ummah [community in English] as Islamic Extremist Terminology, which we find to be wholly inappropriate and offensive,” Crockford said. “Geofeedia may have offered BPD certain hashtags as suggestions, but all of those decisions were ultimately made by police.”
The report also calls for local elected officials and state legislators to take this type of surveillance seriously and has prompted city councilors to have a hearing on a potential surveillance oversight ordinance.
Crockford said that BPD should also reconsider its policies even though there may be action on the part of city councilors.
“An approach that considers everyone a suspect and considers all information potentially useful to some sort of criminal investigation or threat … that backwards approach is not only detrimental to civil rights and civil liberties, but it doesn’t do any good as far as public safety. So we encourage the Boston Police Department to change its policy so they are not collecting information about people they have no reason to believe are involved in criminal activity,” Crockford said.