A former Boston Police Commissioner said recently that the terrorist attack at Ohio State University last week is reason enough why local law enforcement authorities should monitor social media platforms such as Facebook. Boston Police plans to spend as much as $1.4 million on new software to search the internet and social media for potential threats.
Social media monitoring programs would seek keywords and phrases on the internet, looking in chatrooms, social media, and blog posts. These can be tracked in specific geographic areas and send alerts to police about potential dangers. Officials in the law enforcement field say that the technology allows quick and efficient means of detecting warning signs of potential terror.
In the case of Abdul Razak Ali Artan, who rammed students with his car and slashed others with a knife in his attack at Ohio State University on November 28, he made posts on Facebook that suggested that he was angry about perceived slights to Muslims. While he did not express loyalty to any particular group, the Islamic State claimed that he was one of their soldiers.
While the First Amendment protects persons who merely share Islamic State propaganda on the internet, police can monitor threatening posts and use informants and other means such as surveillance and wiretaps to gauge the seriousness of any threats.
Groups concerned about civil rights are seeking to know how Boston police will use the $1.4 million social media tracking system. In an interview with the Boston Herald, Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal of the Lawyer’ Committee for Civil Rights said, “Bottom line is that the way this type of technology is used could have a disproportionate impact on individuals of color.” Espinoza-Madrigal also referred to a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision that found minority individuals have been “repeatedly targeted” by the Boston Police Department. “This is a very real threat that has been recognized by the court,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
The concern that Espinoza-Madrigal and others have expressed is that efforts to combat violent criminal gangs with predominantly minority membership might mean too much focus on social media used by young black people. Young black people who may have relationships with gang members but not involved in crime could be confused for actual criminals. “The concern here is that you are compromising individuals’ right to free speech if you’re using what they communicate through social media to target them for law enforcement,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. The Lawyers’ Committee and similar groups want law enforcement to publish their search criteria for tracking criminals and terrorists on Facebook and Twitter.
Advocates such as the ACLU are fearful that constitutional rights could be jeopardized if the police department should use search determinates such as “Black Lives Matter.” However, the Boston Police Department recently stated that the new software would “be used in accordance to strict policies and procedures and within the parameters of state and federal laws. And, in keeping with the BPD’s longstanding commitment to community policing and transparency, privacy rights and crime prevention will receive equal consideration as the BPD explores the pros and cons of adopting such a program.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he is not concerned that the program could be used to inappropriately. “It’s not about discrimination. It’s about safety,” Walsh told the Boston Herald.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, U.S. police departments have spent nearly $4.75 million on software used to conduct surveillance on social media of prominent activists and suspects. “The numbers we have are massively understated,” Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s liberty and national security program, told The Washington Post. “But it gives an indication of a phenomenon that is growing rapidly and flying under the radar.”
The Brennan Center found that the city of Los Angeles, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the County of Sacramento in California, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the County of Macomb in Michigan were the top spenders of surveillance software. Each agency spent about $70,000 tracking social media over the past three years.
This year, the ACLU also condemned Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for cooperating with police, fearing that it was being used to monitor groups such as Black Lives Matter. “Further steps are required if these companies are to live up to their principles and policies by protecting users of all backgrounds engaging in political and social discourse,” the ACLU report read. “So, today, the ACLU of California, the Center for Media Justice and Color of Change are calling on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to commit to concrete changes to better protect users going forward.”
The Brennan Center and other advocates are not convinced that the new software will not be used to spy on software by the police. The International Association of Police Chiefs reported that nearly 50 law enforcement agencies across 44 states use tracking tools to gather intelligence. Such tools have recently been used to track racially charged protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland.
Faiza Patel said that she fears that police tracking might become more prevalent under the leadership of an eventual Donald Trump administration. She said in the interview that “Today, the main way protesters organize is online,” she said. “This is a new administration that has been frankly threatening to the act of political protest.”