Tech by VICE

When It Comes to Police Surveillance, Local Politics Matter

ACLU and other civil rights groups beat back unprecedented police surveillance proposals in Boston.

by Daniel Oberhaus
Jan 14 2017, 6:51pm

Image: Ben Schumin/Wikimedia Commons

On Friday, the Boston Police Department said that it would not go ahead with a controversial plan to spend $1.4 million dollars on software used to monitor social media activity.

"After reviewing the submitted proposals I felt that the technology that was presented exceeds the needs of our department," Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said in a statement.

The announcement comes after a sustained campaign led by the American Civil Liberties Union, Fight for the Future, and other community organizers to defeat the proposal, which was first made public in late October.

"What's so exciting about this, in addition to the proposal being scrapped, is it's an opportunity for people to really feel their power at the local level," Kade Crockford, ACLU Massachusetts' Director of Technology for Liberty Program, told Motherboard. "This is a moment where people have legitimate fears that the federal government is heading in a more authoritarian direction. It's a really difficult, long fight to change the NSA, but certainly we can change our local police departments and this is a great example of how we do that."

As detailed in the Boston Police Department's (BPD) call for proposals targeted by the ACLU and other community groups, the agency was seeking software that supports "identification, collection, aggregation, synthesis, analysis, visualization and investigation of threat information" in real time. During an interview on Boston Public Radio in December, Evans had said that the software was 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 BPD received proposals from three major surveillance software companies: Dataminr (partially owned by Twitter, it allows users to scrape the platform based on different keywords), GeoTime (alerts police officers when posts meeting certain criteria are made within a predetermined geographic area), and Verint (crawls open-source data sources, such as blogs or Twitter feeds, compiling information based on search criteria).

"We've never seen this particular kind of system anywhere else," said Crockford. "The scale and scope of this project went far beyond the existing social media surveillance systems we know about."

As Crockford pointed out, many other police departments across the US have begun adopting social media monitoring tools such as Geofeedia and Media Sonar to keep tabs on local citizens and "avoid the warrant process." Recently, Twitter has cut these two companies' access to its Application Program Interface, and in December barred the CIA and FBI from using Dataminr for surveillance. The issue rose to prominence last year after the ACLU disclosed that local police departments were increasingly using online surveillance tools to monitor unions and activist groups, especially those affiliated with Black Lives Matter.

"We were concerned that the software would be used not only to police dissidents [in Boston], but also that the software would be used to over-police communities on the internet that were already over-policed on the streets," said Crockford. "To us that clearly means black and brown communities, particularly young black and brown people."

But according to Crockford, this issue wasn't limited to the already over-policed communities of Boston. People from "all walks of life" came together to protest the BPD building an "NSA-style surveillance system" by sending thousands of letters to the Mayor and police commissioner, as well as making an impassioned argument against the BPD surveillance proposal at a Boston city council meeting in December.

While Crockford is enthusiastic about the victory over police spying in Boston, she also cautions that activists need to be aware that police are still heavily monitoring social media platforms. Still, she said this is just something to be aware of, but not a reason to be silent about injustice.

"People should be aware that what they say in public forums on the internet may be monitored by law enforcement," Crockford said. "But the more of us there are criticizing government policy, the less suspicious and unusual it becomes to do so. They're watching, but don't let it stop you from raising your voice."

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