The police can’t be expected to put on blinders and ignore the darkest corners of the Internet. So although civil liberties groups sounded an alarm after the Boston Police Department announced plans to buy software to monitor public online comments and social media for threats, those fears are misplaced. If anything, the department should be commended for updating its tactics to a new era.
The software automatically scrubs social media streams, which the ACLU of Massachusetts likens to Big Brother-style surveillance. “This should frighten anyone who cares about the First Amendment in this country, particularly as we face four years of a Trump administration,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at ACLUM. “This could put people of color, Muslims, and others who might be targeted at risk.”
Crockford believes such data collection should begin only when there is a suspect or an arrest, not before. But that’s an unusual double standard that would never be applied to offline public speech. Catching wind of an emerging terror threat via a public Facebook post is different in scale, but not different in principle, than a cop stopping to check on someone shouting dangerous threats on Boston Common.
It’s worth emphasizing that the software allows law enforcement to scrub public posts. This sort of technique has already been used by news organizations, and others, to expose wrongdoing. After a horrific spate of shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers, citizens and news organization alike compiled aggregations that were (legally) caught on camera and posted on social media. Reuters has developed an algorithm to help it spot and verify breaking news on the vast public ecosystem that is Twitter. While the ACLUM raises concerns about the software’s possible impact on minorities, they may be getting it backwards: Monitoring social media has been an effective way for the Anti-Defamation League and others to call out hate groups. The explosion of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant vitriol on the Internet is a good reason for police to employ software like Boston’s, to catch anything that crosses the line into incitement or plotting violence.
Analogies to the pre-Internet world may never be entirely precise, but monitoring public social media posts doesn’t seem too different from a police officer listening to the radio, looking at publicly posted placards, or simply reading the newspaper. There’s no evidence that the BPD has crossed over into spying, hacking, or clandestine surveillance of people who have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The public sections of the Internet are the new town square, and asking police to stay away from them would be to ask them not to do their jobs.