Privacy SOS

Boston Police pledge transparency on spying, but refuse to provide public with any info

Yesterday dozens of people turned out to a Boston City Council meeting hosted by the council’s Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice to raise their voices in opposition to the Boston Police Department’s plans to buy $1.4 million worth of social media surveillance software. In attendance at the hearing were police Superintendent Paul Fitzgerald and the director of the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), David Carabin. Despite their vague promises about a commitment to transparency, neither law enforcement official would disclose any specific information about exactly what kind of surveillance powers or technologies their department seeks. These details would only become public once the department had entered into a contract agreement with the chosen surveillance proprietor, according to the officials. 

The Committee met to discuss the city’s receivership of an annual Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant called the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). Approximately $300k from this year’s $14 million UASI grant will be allocated to the social media spying software, say the police. According to city officials present at the hearing, the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region, which includes over a dozen towns around Boston, has received over $200 million through this grant program over the past decade plus. These funds have supported legitimate public safety programs and purchases, but they’ve also gone towards paying for so-called “intelligence” analysts at the BRIC. Analysts working at the BRIC have violated the public’s trust before.

In 2012, for example, the ACLU published a study based on so-called “intelligence reports” from the BRIC, which described antiwar groups like Codepink and Veterans for Peace as “extremists.” These reports may have been shared with the FBI. After the BPD was caught spying on peace groups, the department said it had retained those files for longer than its internal policy allowed because of a “computer glitch.” As far as we know, the department did not apologize for the inappropriate spying, nor did it change any of its internal policies or procedures to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. The department’s reaction to the publication of our report, “Policing Dissent,” leads us to assume the police continue to monitor and document protected political speech in the city. Despite claims from the BPD officials present at the meeting yesterday, the department’s privacy policy for intelligence collection does not require that officials suspect someone of involvement in criminal activity before collecting information about them, retaining that information in intelligence files, or sharing it with outside agencies. The policy specifically states that the Boston Regional Intelligence Center “may retain protected information that is based on a level of suspicion that is less than ‘reasonable suspicion.'”

But it’s not just the BPD’s recent history of policing of dissent or its insufficiently protective intelligence collection policy that concerns us. The Boston Police Department has also engaged in racially disparate stop and frisk policing on the streets. A 2014 review of BPD stop and frisk data showed that Black people were subjected to 63% of all stops, despite the fact that they represented only 24% of the city’s population. We worry that the overpolicing of Black and brown communities on the streets will spill over to overpolicing of the same communities and people online, if BPD goes ahead and purchases this deep web analysis surveillance tool despite the public’s concerns. (And those concerns are many: Councillor Josh Zakim told the hearing yesterday that his office had received more emails about this issue than any ever before, with the possible exception of a proposed plastic bag ban.)

City Councillors present at the hearing had similar concerns. Councillor Ayanna Pressley told the BPD officials present she would prefer that this $1.4 million is spent on trauma and recovery services, and other programs that directly help community members who are victimized by violence. We agree: that huge sum of money would be better spent on those kinds of restorative justice and healing programs, not more surveillance. Councillor Tito Jackson, meanwhile, said he wants to make sure that the policies and procedures that will govern any kind of new surveillance program like this one will be hashed out in public, with input from community, civil rights, and civil liberties organizations. Councillor Andrea Campbell, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice, agreed, saying she hopes the public process that contributed towards the development of the Boston Police Department’s body camera policy will be a model for this process and policy. 

We at the ACLU are thrilled and grateful that our city council is so engaged on this issue, and we look forward to working with councillors to make sure any program—if enacted—respects the civil rights and civil liberties of all people.

But we aren’t giving up on stopping this costly surveillance boondoggle. If you agree with us, and think this huge sum of money would be better spent elsewhere, tell Mayor Walsh and your City Council reps to drop the plan. The BPD was scheduled to select a surveillance vendor yesterday. According to the Boston Globe, they haven’t yet done so. There’s still time to take action to stop this from happening. Add your voice!

Read: The ACLU’s testimony against the surveillance program.

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