By Aaron Kesel
Boston Police effectively broke the law by illegally surveilling social media users for years to conduct online surveillance in 2014, 2015, and 2016, without telling the city council, and violating civilians right to free speech, a new blog post by the ACLU alleges.
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 called Geofeedia. After news of the department’s plans became public news, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans claimed at the time, “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.”
However, the plans were scrapped by skeptical city council members, Mayor Marty Walsh and Commissioner Evans. Leading up to 2016, since as far back as 2014 according to the documents, the department secretly monitored social media posts of thousands of ordinary Bostonians with other surveillance software that were not named by the report. The police even spied on a then–sitting City Councilor, Tito Jackson — who was, ironically enough, a critic of the BPD’s 2016 plan to buy the outrageously overpriced system, the report stated.
The Geofeedia software was first used on a trial basis for two weeks in January 2014 and then for another two weeks in November 2014 without any type of approval from the city council. The documents show that during this two-week trial of Geofeedia in November 2014, BPD used the software to monitor and collect social media posts about protests in Boston in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
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, which found that disturbing abuses of human rights occurred in complete secret. Based on the records obtained through the Massachusetts Public Records Law, the report revealed that employees at BRIC used the software to scan and collect thousands of posts of unsuspecting users containing specific terms/phrases on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, YikYak, and Flickr just to name a few.
But there is just one problem: the keywords used by BPD targeted speech related to race, religion, and political activity, but didn’t turn up any evidence of violence, solving serious crimes or terrorism as the plan was marketed. Instead, the BPD violated several Bostonians’ privacy rights and targeted users’ First Amendment protected free speech.
Further, Geofeedia used terms associated with political activism, like “#blacklivesmatter” and “protest.” Bizarrely, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Geofeedia received funding from the CIA’s venture capital arm In-Q-Tel.
BPD ceased using Geofeedia in 2016, after the ACLU of Northern California revealed that Geofeedia literally marketed itself to law enforcement as a tool to “keep track of protesters.”
In 2017, the Department officially announced it was withdrawing its contentious $1.4 million proposals for a new social media surveillance system. However, the door was left ajar for a similar social media surveillance system in the future and the BPD hasn’t been punished for its use.
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The ACLU is calling on the Boston City Council to create a regulated, public means that would require the BPD and other city agencies to adhere to before acquiring or using surveillance technology. The report also recommended that the BPD should change its policy to prohibit surveillance and collection on any 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. Additionally, the report further states that 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.”
The ACLU added that state legislators should immediately pass the Fundamental Freedoms Act to protect citizens against unwarranted surveillance of their free speech except in extreme conditions where an individual is suspected under legal grounds to have committed a crime and there free speech would help assist law enforcement in their investigation.
It’s worth noting that in 2012, the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild published a report based on BPD documents which showed that the Department tracked the activities of antiwar and peace activists in the city, producing “intelligence reports” about individuals and organizations that were labeled with terms like “HOMESEC-DOMESTIC” and “EXTREMIST.”
BPD spent over $26,000 on Geofeedia subscriptions over approximately 16 months, wasted on nothing more than spying on users; there is no proof provided in the documents that any crimes were ever stopped or any arrest ever occurred except for potentially harassing people for riding dirt bikes for “reckless driving.”
A 2014 survey of 1,200 law enforcement agencies found that 80 percent used some form of social media surveillance, the report noted.
In recent years Activist Post has told you about a slew of surveillance tracking software including Twitter’s ChatterGrabber, a program that was “used to monitor tickborne diseases, such as Lyme disease, public sentiment involving vaccines, and gun violence and terrorism, serving as an early warning system for public health officials through suspicious tweets or conversations.”
Then there is the pre-fake news Truthy study which fits more into what BPD were doing with Geofeedia. The study used Twitter’s full database to study political language focusing on the spread of “political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution,” researchers said.
Truthy was an ensemble of web services and tools to demonstrate applications of data mining research (a fancy word for spying), from visualizing meme diffusion patterns to detecting social bots on Twitter. Ironically, the now-sitting head of the FCC Ajit Pai who got rid of net neutrality, stated that the study had “come straight out of a George Orwell novel.”
Surveillance of ordinary citizens happens all the time from social experiments like Facebook’s infamous emotional experiment to Truthy, to police and law enforcement agencies prying into users’ private lives or through the creation of a Stasi web of surveillance asking citizens to tattle on each other with their smartphones. It’s not just the NSA spying that was revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden; the problem is far more vast, and the scary thing is no one seems to care that we are walking straight into 1984.
Image credit: ArsTechnica