Today, 21 civil rights, civil liberties, religious, and community organizations called on Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans to drop their plan to spend $1.4 million on high-tech social media surveillance software.
“We need money for community wellness, not surveillance,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This high-tech spying program runs counter to the Boston Police Department’s mission, which is to do community policing, not ‘pre-crime’ monitoring of speech and associations.”
The groups voiced their concerns about the BPD social media spying plans in a letter, which reads in part:
"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.
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. Unwarranted surveillance of peaceful protest groups by the BPD in the recent past and civil rights violations in other cities with similar programs underscore our concerns."
Shannon Erwin, executive director of the Muslim Justice League said, “Dragnet surveillance programs like this don’t protect public safety; they intimidate people into silence. Accessing information and voicing dissent are necessary for holding governments accountable. But programs like this one make people afraid to do so.”
The advocacy groups’ formal request to city leaders comes only days after Twitter cut off a third social media monitoring software company from access to the social media giant’s ‘firehose’ of information. Twitter severed business relationships with these three companies—Geofeedia, Snaptrends, and Media Sonar—after learning that their surveillance products violate Twitter policies meant to protect users from secret law enforcement spying.
Documents obtained by the ACLU show that Media Sonar, like Geofeedia and Snaptrends, encouraged police to use its product to spy on Black political activists. Media Sonar also told law enforcement they could use its surveillance product to “avoid the warrant process.”
“The City of Boston should back out of this plan before it has committed the funds and it’s too late,” said Crockford of the ACLU. “Social media companies apparently don’t want police departments buying access to complex tools like these to monitor their users—because the users don’t want to be monitored. Instead of risking signing up with a company that is later cut off from access to Twitter data, and losing up to $1.4 million, the city should drop this misguided proposal.”