Boston Police Social Media Monitoring Plan Endangers Us All

12/07/2016 08:23 am ET | Updated Dec 07, 2016

This piece originally appeared in DigBoston, Boston’s only bad-ass independent weekly.

The Boston Globe editorial team gave its full throated endorsement to the Boston Police Department over the weekend, backing the BPD’s plan to spend up to $1.4 million of taxpayer money to purchase social media monitoring software.

The spyware would be used to launch a new surveillance program, constantly scanning online activity in the Boston area in order to target individuals for investigation and arrest, or flag certain neighborhoods for increased policing.

The Globe’s support for the move displays a lack of understanding of how mass surveillance technology works, and a willful ignorance of the history of how it has been used.

The editors claim that using powerful software to scrape, collect, geographically track, and analyze all posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites is no different than a police officer “stopping to check on someone shouting dangerous threats on Boston Common.”

If that’s the analogy you want to go with, then what the Globe is supporting is not a couple cops checking something out downtown, but a world where every single one of us has our own personal robocop, constantly following us around―noting our location, our religious and political beliefs, our daily habits, and who our friends are―and reporting that information back to headquarters, where an army of analysts churn through the data looking for patterns.

The Globe rightly lauds the positive uses of big data, like news agencies searching Twitter for breaking stories, and racial justice advocates compiling information about police shootings. But equating these civilian activities with mass government surveillance misses the mark, both technologically and constitutionally.

Beyond the bombshell revelations of Edward Snowden, we’ve learned a lot these last few years about the ways that law enforcement agencies collect and store information about people, using our computers and phones against us. With the data they vacuum up en masse, the government is able to build near complete profiles of our lives.

But it’s worth it because it keeps us safe, right? Wrong.

Even the government’s own reports admit that bulk data collection programs have never actually prevented a major violent attack. Meanwhile, there’s ubiquitous evidence that intrusive government spying programs have a dangerous chilling effect on freedom of expression.

Despite the Globe’s optimism about the BPD’s intentions, wherever these mass spying programs exist, they are inevitably abused. Sometimes it’s in grotesque ways like NSA agents digitally stalking their ex-lovers, and sometimes in routine ways, like when data ostensibly collected for “anti-terrorism” purposes is then shared and used to investigate routine crimes like nonviolent drug offenses.

The Globe claims that there is no evidence that the Boston police have “crossed over” into spying on people who have a reasonable expectation of privacy. They would do well to check their own reporting from 2012 about the BDP monitoring anti-war activists, or to note that the National Lawyer’s Guild is currently suing the department for refusing to comply with a FOIA request for documents related to surveillance of organizing and dissent.

The First Amendment is supposed to guarantee our ability to speak and express ourselves freely without fear that the government is constantly looking over our shoulder, determining whether what we have said is of interest. But that’s exactly what Boston Police Commissioner William Evans explicitly said the BPD program would do, scour the Internet for speech that is “alarming to us.”

A 2015 PEN America study showed that many writers and journalists report self-censoring due to fears of government surveillance and retribution. Perhaps we should give the Globe’s editorial team the benefit of the doubt, and consider that they may be throwing their support behind the BPD’s Orwellian plan out of fear.

After all, soon all of their late night tweets may be scrutinized by a computer at Boston police headquarters. And even if they trust the current department leadership with that power, what about the next?

With four years of Donald Trump ahead of us, a man who has promised to expand mass surveillance and explicitly use it to target Muslims, immigrants, and political dissidents, now is not the time for news outlets to pander to authoritarianism or write from a place of fear.

I hope the Boston Globe will reconsider their misguided stance and stand up for our basic rights. But regardless of what they do, the outcome of this debate is up to all of us.

Please join me in calling on Mayor Marty Walsh and Boston City Council to halt the BPD’s plan to use scarce tax dollars for a program that would strip us of our freedom while failing to keep us safe.

Evan Greer is a touring transgender musician and organizer based in Jamaica Plain. She’s the campaign director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, and organizes Boston’s beloved radical queer dance party, Break the Chains. Follow her on twitter at @evan_greer

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