Privacy SOS

The Boston Police Department still hasn’t purchase its expensive spy gear—take action!

As of January 5, the Boston Police Department still hadn’t signed a contract to spend as much as $1.4 million on social media surveillance software. We know this because I’ve been filing weekly public records requests seeking the winning bid for the enormous contract. (Details on the type of surveillance capabilities the BPD seeks are described in an 88-page request for proposals the BPD published in October 2016.) On January 5, the BPD told me they had not yet selected a company to fulfill the bid. Police departments in other cities have used similar software to monitor political speech, focusing particularly on Black Lives Matter activism. 

That means there’s still time to kill this dangerous proposal. Take action now to tell city officials you oppose this costly spy boondoggle.

Among our many concerns about a surveillance system like the one BPD seeks is the lack of transparency around its development. Despite the police department’s pledge to be transparent with the public and the city council about this plan, we’ve heard nothing from officials about what companies the department is considering, or the types of services those specific companies offer. We’ve also heard nothing specific about what kind of policy will govern the proposed $1.4 million social media surveillance system if the BPD indeed acquires it. 

But existing policies provide cause for alarm. Specifically, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center’s (BRIC’s) privacy policy leaves the door open to precisely the kind of civil liberties violations the BPD has been found to have committed in the past. (In 2012, the BPD was found to have spied on peace groups and calling them “extremists” in so-called “intelligence” files that may have been shared with the FBI. The BPD never apologized for this spying, and attributed its retention of these files to a computer glitch.) Like the FBI’s investigations guidelines in the post-9/11 era, the BRIC policy allows officers and intelligence analysts to collect, retain, and even share information about people who are not suspected of involvement in criminal activity.

You read that right: Intelligence cops can spy on your social media accounts and share information about your posts and your associations with the FBI even if they don’t suspect you’re involved in any criminal activity. That’s a perfect recipe for more spying on dissidents and more over-policing of Black and brown Bostonians, but it has nothing to do with promoting public safety.

Until that policy changes, it’s difficult to imagine that something like the BPD’s sought-after $1.4 million social media spying program can be operated in a manner that doesn’t threaten civil rights and civil liberties.

As Evan Greer of Fight for the Future points out in the Boston Globe, “Boston cops have already bent the rules in order to unfairly target Boston’s immigrant communities and communities of color, and harass political activists. With Donald Trump set to take control of the federal government’s deportation program, the idea of police in our community running a mass spying dragnet is more chilling than ever.”

If you agree, take action.

© 2023 ACLU of Massachusetts.