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Boston police delay program to monitor social media

Privacy rights advocates said they left a City Council hearing Monday with more questions than answers after Boston Police Department officials declined to discuss details on forthcoming software that would monitor social media.

The department plans to spend up to $1.4 million on software to monitor potential criminal activity on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. The police were expected to have chosen a vendor by Monday, but officials said they had yet to select one, leaving much to be determined about how law enforcement could use the program.

The choice will be revealed to the public only “at the point of decision,” said Police Superintendent Paul Fitzgerald, adding that the software would be used in accordance with existing privacy laws.

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Improving law enforcement’s capabilities to monitor social media is increasingly essential, said David Carabin, director of the Boston Regional Intelligence Center. “We currently do not have the tools to deal with the volume of data we’re looking at here,” he said at the hearing.

Police should have called for citizens’ input much earlier, said Dolan Murvihill, a software engineer and member of the group Digital 4th, which advocates for updating privacy laws.

“We need to know — before we appropriate funds, and before we hand the power of the purse over to the Boston police — what capabilities they’re getting and how they are going to use it, and decide, as an informed public, whether we should provide that power,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said in a statement that “such surveillance chills speech” and does not prevent terrorism.


Jacey Fortin can be reached at jacey.fortin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JaceyFortin