The Boston Police Department used a social media surveillance system to keep tabs on black and Muslim protesters — gathering thousands of posts about political and social activism, religious issues, and other personal matters “irrelevant to law enforcement concerns,” according to a report released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The data mining program, dubbed Geofeedia, was run by the Boston Regional Intelligence Center between 2014 and 2016.
“This system explicitly targeted users’ First Amendment protected speech and association,” explained the ACLU of Massachusetts. “It treated ordinary citizens discussing ordinary affairs as justifiable targets of surveillance.”
In the ACLU report, co-authors Nasser Eledroos and Kade Crockford said they uncovered the department’s alleged discrimination in documents obtained through a public records request.
“There is no indication that the wide net BPD cast over social media using Geofeedia was ever instrumental in preempting terrorism or other violence, solving serious crimes, or providing the residents of Boston with any other public safety benefit,” the pair wrote. “This is unsurprising, given that many of the search terms fed into — or, frequently, provided by — Geofeedia were terms associated with political activism, like ‘#blacklivesmatter’ and ‘protest.’”
Other words that cops allegedly homed in on were “#MuslimLivesMatter,” “ISIS,” “Ferguson” and “#DontShoot.”
“More broadly, BPD used Geofeedia to track numerous Arabic terms for no apparent reason other than their frequent use in the Muslim community,” wrote Eledroos and Crockford. “Among the categories of keywords BPD tracked using Geofeedia was ‘Islamic Extremist Terminology,’ which included not only references to ISIS and similar terrorist organizations but also innocuous Arabic words routinely used to discuss religion or community, including ‘ummah’ (which means ‘community’ in Arabic) and ‘al Sham’ (which roughly translates to Greater Syria).”
The ACLU called the social media surveillance tactic an online version of “stop and frisk” — New York City’s infamous policing program, which was declared unconstitutional in 2013.
The Boston Police Department used the system in 2014, 2015 and 2016 before finally shelving it that year after receiving backlash from Facebook and Twitter. The companies banned cops from using their data in December 2016, and ultimately caught the ACLU’s eye and prompted them to make the records request.
Police officials told the Associated Press that the civil rights organization was ultimately “misinformed” — and that their report did not paint a true picture of what the department was doing with the data mining system.
“Our main focus in all of this is public safety, not targeting speech, not targeting people’s political affiliations,” said Detective Lt. Michael McCarthy. “And quite frankly, to have the ACLU to even make that insinuation is not only insulting, but it’s completely misinformed.”
McCarthy added, “If we weren’t diligent in our efforts to provide safe events for those participating and attending … then we wouldn’t be doing our job as police officers.”