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ACLU: Boston Police used social media to surveil black, Muslim protesters

February 10, 2018  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
ACLU: Boston Police used social media to  surveil black, Muslim protesters

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The Boston Police Department utilized a social media surveillance system to track black and Muslim protesters — collecting thousands of posts about social and political activism, religious concerns, and other personal matters “irrelevant to law enforcement,” a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Wednesday said.

The data tracking program, called Geofeedia, was operated by the Boston Regional Intelligence Center between 2014 and 2016, according to the ACLU.

“This system targeted users’ First Amendment protected speech and association,” the ACLU of Massachusetts stated. “It treated citizens discussing ordinary affairs as targets of surveillance.”

In the report, co-authors Nasser Eledroos and Kade Crockford said they revealed the department’s purported discrimination in documents acquired through a public records request.

“There is no indication that the wide net BPD cast over social media was instrumental in preempting terrorism or violence, solving crimes, or providing the residents of Boston with any other public safety benefit,” the two indicated. “This is unsurprising, given that many of the search terms fed into or provided by Geofeedia were terms associated with activism, like ‘#blacklivesmatter’ and ‘protest.’”

Other words that police allegedly looked for were “#MuslimLivesMatter,” “ISIS,” “Ferguson,” and “#DontShoot.”

“BPD used Geofeedia to track Arabic terms for no reason other than their frequent use in the Muslim community,” Eledroos and Crockford added. “Among the keywords that the BPD tracked was ‘Islamic Extremist Terminology,’ which included not only references to ISIS but also words used to discuss religion or community, including ‘ummah’ (which means ‘community’ in Arabic) and ‘al Sham’ (which roughly translates to Greater Syria).”

The ACLU referred to the social media surveillance effort as an online variant of “stop and frisk” — New York City’s notorious policing program, which was deemed unconstitutional in 2013.

The Boston Police Department employed the system in 2014, 2015 and 2016 before shelving it after receiving backlash from Facebook and Twitter. The companies prevented authorities from using their data in December 2016, and ultimately caught the ACLU’s attention and prompted them to make the public records request.

Officials told the AP that the civil rights group was “misinformed” — and that their report did not paint an accurate picture of what they were doing with the system.

“Our focus in all of this is public safety, not targeting speech, not targeting political affiliations,” Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy said. “Quite frankly, to have the ACLU even make that insinuation is not only insulting, but it’s also misinformed.”

McCarthy continued, “If we weren’t diligent to provide safe events for those participating and attending … then we wouldn’t be doing our job as officers.”

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