When the Boston Globe revealed late last month that the Boston police department was planning to purchase software that would aid it in scanning social media platforms, civil liberties groups sounded the alarm. The department’s plan caught the city council off guard and now, the Globe reports, police department officials are scheduled to appear before the council Monday for “a hearing on $14.2 million in federal Homeland Security grants awarded to the city’s Office of Emergency Management, a portion of which will be used by the police department to fund the new software.”
The Globe describes what the software would allow police to do:
The software would be able to search blogs, websites, chat rooms, and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. It would provide law enforcement officials with an address of where the content was posted and allow police to create a “geo-fence” that would send alerts when new posts are made within an area that meets specified search criteria.
Law enforcement investigators using the technology — which is in use at other departments around the country — will be able to mask themselves by creating virtual identities, documents show. The department plans to spend up to $1.4 million on the software and expects to select a vendor no later than Dec. 5.
A department spokesman tells the Globe that the software would be used “in accordance to strict policies and procedures and within the parameters of state and federal laws,” adding that “the information looked at is only what is already publicly available.” If the plan doesn’t arouse skepticism in you, though, consider how Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans is defending the plan, pointing to the classic Scary Things so often used to justify an expansion in police power.
“We’re not going after ordinary people,” Evans said on Boston Public Radio, per the Globe. “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.”
Leaving aside the standard attempt to assuage the fears of “ordinary people” — the innocent have nothing to hide, right? — remember that, while they are no doubt legitimate concerns for police, the threats of terrorism, trafficking and neighborhood sex offenders are regularly exaggerated by law enforcement ahead of their encroachment on local communities or after the fact. See the boogeyman threat of pedophiles on Halloween or the Super Bowl sex trafficking myth.
But there is also reason for concern that police use of social media monitoring software will go beyond the targeting of threats and the protection of “ordinary people.”
In October, the American Civil Liberties Union of California obtained records showing that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were providing data access to Geofeedia, a firm that boasted more than 500 law enforcement and public safety clients and touted its software as a tool that could be used for, among other things, monitoring protests. Documents obtained by the ACLU appear to show the company bragging about its use in monitoring protests in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore after police shootings. All three social media platforms shut off or restricted Geofeedia’s access to their data after the revelations, but the company is by no means the only player in the budding industry.
And social media monitoring is on the radar of law enforcement at all levels of government. The FBI recently acquired access to Twitter’s “firehose,” allowing the bureau to see not just the small portion of tweets the average user can view on a daily basis, but all of the roughly 500 million tweets posted on the platform every day. Suspicions that local police were using Facebook check-ins to track Dakota Access pipeline protesters sparked a viral movement of users checking in at the Standing Rock, N.D., camp in an attempt to block law enforcement surveillance, although local authorities denied they were monitoring social media.
The fundamental questions are whether law enforcement can be trusted with expanded data and surveillance capabilities and whether there is any reason to believe that the kind of bias that appears in other areas of policing won’t show up in this area as well. In September, the Associated Press reported that police officers across the country were misusing confidential databases “to get information on romantic partners, business associates, neighbors, journalists and others for reasons that have nothing to do with daily police work.” And in October, City Lab reported on racial disparities in the use of “Stingray” cellphone tracking devices by police.
In other words, there’s reason for pessimism.