Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans on Tuesday defended the department’s plans to use technology to scan social media and the Internet for criminal activity and threats to public safety and sought to quell concerns that black people, gay people, and Muslims would be targeted.
Speaking on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio, Evans discussed the department’s plans to spend up to $1.4 million on software that would be able to search blogs, websites, chat rooms, and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
“We’re not going after ordinary people,” Evans said on the radio. “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.”
Department officials are set to appear before the Boston City Council on Monday during 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. Council members said Tuesday that they had not been told of the department’s plan to purchase the software, and they want details about how it will work.
“The council should very much be briefed on everything including anything regarding potential privacy concerns,” said Councilor Andrea Campbell, chairwoman of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee.
“How deep can they monitor?” said Councilor Timothy McCarthy. “How are people being targeted? There’s two views on this: People who are focusing on terrorism events that have happened in Boston and people concerned about their privacy rights.”
During the radio interview, Evans said the police department already reviews social media posts and public content posted online is not protected.
“We aren’t invading anyone’s right to privacy here because there’s no expectation to privacy if you put it out there on your Twitter, on your Facebook or whatnot,” Evans said.
The Globe first reported about the department’s plans on Saturday, and civil liberties groups said they worried the technology could pose a risk to free speech and privacy.
“The Internet is our new public square,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union.“We have to be careful about the criminalization of speech that depends on who you are and where you are.’’
Evans said social media monitoring helped investigators in the case involving Usaama Rahim, 26, who had made threats against law enforcement. He was shot and killed by a Boston police officer and an FBI agent after he allegedly lunged at them with a military knife last year.
With the software, law enforcement officials would know where content was posted and could create a “geo-fence” that would send alerts when new posts are made within an area that meets specified search criteria. The software would collect data and alert law enforcement “in near-real-time to significant or threatening social media or online open source content based on user input,” according to department documents.
Investigators using the software will be able to mask themselves by creating virtual identities, documents show.
Department officials expect to select a vendor no later than Monday, according to its request for proposals. Evans said on the radio that a vendor had not yet been chosen.
Two years ago, the Arlington Police Department chose a more passive system, spending $15,000 a year for social media alerts.
The system sends officers alerts about threats via text or e-mail and daily reports about potential threats to public safety related to Arlington. The software, Social Sentinel, searches for key phrases and terms posted, rather than tracking specific people or accounts.
“The alert system, we felt, achieved the responsibility of having a viable social media strategy without monitoring public social media posts and giving the factor of ‘Big Brother’ government,” said Police Chief Frederick Ryan.
In a report released last month, the ACLU revealed that police departments used a surveillance program to track protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., that erupted after police-involved deaths. Law enforcement agencies got the information from data provided by Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to Geofeedia, a Chicago-based company that analyzes public user content. Such data are available to 500 law enforcement agencies. Following the release of the ACLU’s report, the social media platforms either cut or reduced Geofeedia’s access to public user posts.