City councilors want specifics from Boston police on how they plan to use $1.4 million in software to track Facebook and Twitter feeds, echoing civil rights advocates’ concerns that online sleuthing could unfairly target young people, minorities, and other groups.
“We need to have a sense of who is being monitored — what the criteria are for looking at someone’s social media statements, and potentially tracking them and monitoring them over time — to be able to know that this is not being used in a discriminatory manner,” City Council President Michelle Wu said.
The council’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee will discuss BPD’s pending purchase at a hearing Monday as part of a discussion about $14 million in proposed homeland security grant spending.
“I never have been a fan of big government, so I’m always a little cautious — actually, very cautious — when it comes to another layer of government taking a peek at people’s business,” said City Councilor Timothy McCarthy, vice chairman of the committee.
Police said yesterday that they have not yet decided whether to buy the software, but didn’t say if they plan to publicly detail how they would use it.
“While no decision has been reached by the department to adopt or purchase this social media analysis tool, policies and procedures are already in place to ensure the protection of personal privacy, civil rights and civil liberties,” police spokesman Lt. Michael McCarthy said in a statement.
“The BPD prides itself on being as transparent as it can be. Our record speaks to that fact. We will continue to be as open as possible moving forward.”
Civil rights watchers from the ACLU and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights told the Herald similar tech has disproportionately targeted minorities in other cities, including “Black Lives Matter” protesters and black youth who get roped into gang prosecutions over posts they liked on Facebook. They called on Boston police to disclose what search terms will be used.
In New York City, authorities have faced criticism over “Operation Crew Cut,” a gang initiative that relied heavily on the “new battleground of social media,” as NYPD put it in a 2013 press release, in building cases against young people.
City Councilor Anissa Essaibi-George said police “have to be careful to not wrongly accuse kids just because of who their associates are.”
But she added, “I think that we need to also be aware of the reality of not giving away the tools that Boston police are using to make sure that we are a safe city.”
Dan Atkinson contributed to this report.