Years before a scandal broke out in Boston related to the police department's plan to spend $1.4 million on new social media monitoring software, the Boston Police Department (BPD) had already engaged in online surveillance of ordinary speech. Documents obtained through the Massachusetts Public Records Law show the BPD used a social media surveillance tool called Geofeedia to track speech throughout the Boston region in the years 2014, 2015, and 2016.
The records reveal that BPD used the tool to track phrases like "#blacklivesmatter" and "protest," ensnaring Tweets and other social media posts made in the wake of the Darren Wilson verdict in November 2014. The documents further show that BPD associated ordinary Arabic words related to the Muslim faith with what the Department called "Islamic Extremist Terminology."
Despite the years-long surveillance, the records do not provide any indication that Geofeedia was ever instrumental in stopping violence; even the posts BPD collected mentioning the term "ISIS" were jokes or comments about current events.
In response to these findings, the ACLU of Massachusetts compiled a report, Social Media Monitoring in Boston: Free Speech in the Crosshairs. The report recommends the Boston Police Department change its policy on intelligence collection; the Boston City Council pass a municipal law requiring oversight and transparency of surveillance technology acquisitions; and the state legislature pass the Fundamental Freedoms Act.