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Civil rights groups ask Boston officials to drop social media monitoring program

More than a dozen civil rights groups and religious organizations called on the mayor and the police commissioner Tuesday to abandon plans to spend up to $1.4 million on new software that will scan social media and the Internet for criminal activity and threats to public safety.

In a letter issued to Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans, the groups again raised concerns about the technology, which would be able to search blogs, websites, chat rooms, and social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Civil liberties groups have said the software poses a threat to free speech and privacy, and worry that minorities would be targeted.


“We are concerned that social media surveillance software will be unfairly focused on people of color, Muslims, and dissidents—if not today, then under future mayors and different police commissioners,” according to the letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and other groups. “Spending scarce taxpayer dollars on surveillance of online speech and associations frustrates the BPD’s mission of community-oriented policing, threatens our civil rights and liberties, and undermines public safety.”

The police department planned to select a vendor by Dec. 5, but officials said at a City Council hearing that day that they had yet to choose one, leaving many questions unanswered as to how the program would be used. Council members said then that they were not made aware of the department’s plans to purchase the software and they were concerned.

“How deep can they monitor?” Councilor Timothy McCarthy said recently. “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.”

The department has declined to provide further details about the software until a vendor is selected.


In asking city officials to “withdraw” the department’s request for proposals, the groups point to the way in which similar technology has been used by other police departments.

Last month, the ACLU revealed that law enforcement agencies used a surveillance program to track protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., that followed police-involved deaths of unarmed black men. Geofeedia, a Chicago-based company that analyzes public user content, obtained information from data provided by Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and supplied it to police departments. 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.

Documents obtained through a public records request show that in 2012, the department’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center compiled dossiers on activists in groups such as Veterans for Peace and Codepink, a women’s peace group, civil liberty watchdogs wrote in their letter to city officials.

“People were subjected to surveillance on the basis of their First Amendment-protected expression,” the letter stated. “Their opinions, associations and political ideas were observed and noted, recorded and databanked, and may have been shared with other government offices. Dissidents were labeled ‘extremists,’ although there was no indication that these peace groups engaged in or planned to engage in violence.”

During an interview on Boston Public Radio last week, Evans said black people, gay people, and Muslims would not be targeted and that the software is “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.”


The software could be used to create a “geo-fence” that would send alerts to police officials 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,” according to department documents.

Investigators using the software could mask themselves by creating virtual identities, documents show.

But people often “make controversial, bombastic, stupid statements online,” the civil rights and religious organizations wrote in their letter. “Those are not indicators that a person is likely to act violently. The City of Boston can make much wiser investments in other positive programs to keep its people safe, healthy, and free.”

Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Jan_Ransom.