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Council greenlights social media surveillance despite lack of BPD transparency

With the dawn of a new kind of surveillance upon us, it’s critical to trace the advent of social media monitoring in Mass back to its roots.

There is a demonstrable history of the Boston Police Department and other city agencies utilizing sophisticated observation methods, including facial recognition and license plate reading, and of their top brass lying about such practices. As DigBoston has reported, various city agencies and the BPD have also used these tools in secret. So it’s no surprise that Boston city councilors only found out that the BPD was looking to acquire technology and services to wrangle “social media threats” after the Boston Herald broke the news in October.

According to the 88-page request for proposal (RFP) put out by the BPD, basic requirements for the technology are to identify, collect, aggregate, and visualize information in real time via social media platforms. But despite the RFP mentioning that contractor responses will be public record, none of the bids have been made available to the City Council or the public. The irony of this lack of transparency was not lost on surveillance watch dogs, especially after Mayor Marty Walsh sent a letter to the council on Oct 28 in which he asked for the acceptance of funds from the US Department of Homeland Security, to be funneled through the Mass Executive Office of Public Safety and Security:

I hereby transmit for your approval an Order authorizing the City of Boston to accept and expend the amount of $14,216,000.00 … The grant would fund the continued support of unique planning, exercises, trainings, and operational needs, that will assist in building enhanced and sustainable security capacities to help prevent, respond to and recover from threats or acts of terrorism, including chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive incidents.

During a City Council hearing on the topic earlier this month, the BPD and its Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) sent Deputy Superintendents Paul Fitzgerald and John Daley along with BRIC Director David Carabin to testify before Boston’s Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice and the public about the hippest form of surveillance to date: social media monitoring. Carabin repeatedly mentioned that the tools they are seeking, specifics of which could not be disclosed, were exclusively for scraping already-available public data. “We don’t go beyond privacy settings unless we have court permission to do so,” Carabin said.  

Not your grandma’s Facebook scraper

The department’s own request to bidders, however, notes otherwise. In fact, BRIC is looking for a system to, among several other services, “create virtual identities to mask one’s identity, and leverage tools such as proxy servers, while operating under authorized covert, investigative procedures.” It’s clear that BPD wants to peek beyond the simple public profile on your Aunt Mary’s Facebook wall and instead is looking for an apparatus to “query data on the surface web, deep web, and dark web.”

The dark web is only accessible through encrypted networks like Tor and has a reputation for anonymity. It’s not easily accessible public information but rather the sort of thing that police will have to dig through, since IP addresses are kept private on the dark web. Then there is the deep web, which is home to everything that can’t be easily accessed by a standard search engine like Google or Bing. That can be an academic journal, a database, the intranet at your local college, or information behind paywalls. The business of monitoring the deep and dark web is growing rapidly, and officials know that for a price, the tools are available to research unconventional corners of the internet.

According to the same proposal, the BPD is also in the market for software with geospatial abilities. In plain English, that’s technology that figures out geographic information, from addresses and zip codes to satellite images. This can be ascertained by parsing geotagged social media information from Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. At the hearing earlier this month, some city councilors tried to find out more about these technologies and the companies that offer them. Councilor Andrea Campbell, chairwoman of the Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice, revealed the lack of transparency in her questioning of Daley.

Campbell: “Has anyone replied to the RFP?”

Carabin: “Yes.”

Campbell: “How many?”

Daley: “That’s confidential, we’re not allowed …”

Campbell: “When does this become public?”

Carabin: “When we accept or decline.”

Despite such exchanges, the city councilors voted unanimously to approve the funding. The contract was supposed to be awarded soon after, but as of last week the BPD acknowledged in an email to DigBoston that bids are still under review. Police spokesman Lieutenant Michael McCarthy wrote in a statement, “As we move towards any decision we will make as much information available as we can. The Police Commissioner has always conducted a very transparent process when considering matters that impact the public. That remains his commitment.”

About that transparency… The Metro Boston Homeland Security Region, a “multi-disciplinary and multi-jurisdictional advisory council of first responders” that covers urban communities in Greater Boston, has received $200 million in the past dozen years to pay for intelligence analysts and unspecified tools. As for who those analysts are investigating—proof says that for starters, they’re checking in on Veterans for Peace and other activist groups. In 2012, the ACLU published a study, Policing Dissent, based on public records acquired from the BPD and BRIC showing the repeated categorizing of peaceful social justice groups under the label “extremism.” As for the department’s official stance on targeting certain individuals for surveillance, according to a 2010 civil liberties policy:

The BRIC will not seek or retain and originating agencies will agree to not submit information about individuals or organizations solely on the basis of their religious, political, or social views or activities; their participation in a particular noncriminal organization or lawful event; or their races, ethnicities, citizenship, places of origin, ages, disabilities, genders, or sexual orientation.

At the December hearing, more than 50 community members sat for hours waiting for a chance to have their voices heard, only to have officials leave immediately after testifying. Representing the privacy rights organization Digital 4th, the “Massachusetts campaign to protect digital data from warrantless government surveillance,” privacy advocate Dolan Murvihill explained, “We’re asking whether we should hand the BPD the capability to … do what exactly? They didn’t say. We need to know before we appropriate funds what capability they are getting and how or how not they’re going to use it.”

Roxbury Councilor Tito Jackson shared concerns about the surveillance of social justice groups by BPD and affiliated forces. “If we’re saying this is going to help with homicides in the City of Boston then I don’t understand why those people are being monitored,” Jackson told DigBoston. But while councilors seemed split about how social media monitoring could affect social justice groups and if such tools are necessary to keep Boston safe, they nevertheless all approved the funding just two days later, in a closed chamber meeting. Many have rationalized their vote by saying there were additional critical homeland security monies in the same package. Said Campbell, “The majority of this funding … is going to the Office of Emergency Management to respond of acts of terror, to train our departments, our fire, our EMS, even our city employees on acts of terror that could happen.”

Murvihill, the privacy advocate, said, “DHS played some very smart politics by bundling [the social media monitoring] grant in with $14 million in popular emergency services aid.” Still, some councilors want to know more about the tools. Although she voted for the $14 million package, Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley told DigBoston, “Given the need for the specifics, accountability, transparency, and reporting on the social media program within Boston Police Department, I have drafted a hearing order.” Pressley will wait until the new year to file her order and hopes to “get at the heart of how do we really go about the business of social media analytics.”

In the meantime, Boston residents can likely rest assured that the BPD is already hard at work combing Twitter and Facebook—even before its latest wish list is fulfilled for the holidays. In addition to the covert social media monitoring that BPD has done in the past, for at least two years Hub authorities have been contracting with the location-based analytics platform Geofeedia, which ACLU lawyers in California found was provided user information by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. In one case, a San Jose police email exchange mentioned using Geofeedia to surveil protesters because of the “Ferguson situation” in Missouri. Since those records were made public, social media companies have limited Geofeedia’s access to profiles. Boston, however, was already in on the action. As has been noted by the Brennan Center for Social Justice at NYU School of Law, the city paid Geofeedia more than $25,000 in 2015 and 2016.

The specific nature of the services it purchased is undisclosed.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and published in DigBoston.

Latina covering Mass since 2007 for: AP, BostonGlobe, Guardian, NBC, TeenVogue, Latino USA, BayStateBanner, and other publications.

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