More Monitoring, Less Speech

The Boston Police Department’s monitoring program is too expensive and too broad.

Much has been made of observing the Twitter musings and rantings of our President-elect. But less thought has been given to the potential of using social media to prevent crime.

For privacy advocates and local officials, however, that debate is just beginning with the Boston Police Department’s recent decision to spend $1.4 million on software that will allow for large-scale social media monitoring.

Unfortunately, this initiative’s many problems make us strongly question the large sum of money that Boston Police Department will invest in it. For one, its efficacy is hamstrung by the fact that the technology can only look at information that is already publicly available, according to a statement to the Boston Globe from a police department spokesman.

Serious criminals are not plotting their crimes in public web forums. Many are using untraceable portions of the deep web. Others have simply set their Twitters to private. With the bar for thwarting the software so low, we are concerned that this large outlay will not yield a large dividend for the police department.

The Boston City Council is also concerned, and held a hearing Monday to discuss the issue. In the hearing, the Department did not name a vendor for the social media tracking software, missing a previously set December 5 deadline.

We hope that the Department missed the deadline because it is rethinking its decision to pursue the program in the first place. Beyond the fiscal concerns it raises, the idea of social media monitoring has also drawn the scrutiny of civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. They rightly fear that such wide-reaching online surveillance will deter free speech, as people may not speak their minds as freely under the specter of surveillance. These consequences are not as minor as they may appear; in addition to representing an unnecessary government encroachment upon speech, the proposed program may unfairly target Bostonians living in certain neighborhoods. The ACLU also points to the difficulty of accurately deriving actionable information from large amounts of data.

Negative by themselves, these kinds of pseudo-intelligence programs are also part of the unfortunate trend of police militarization. If obtaining surplus equipment from the military has worsened the divide between police and communities, monitoring efforts will undoubtedly have a similar effect. Indeed, the ACLU has already shown that police departments in cities with troubled police-community relations like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore have used social media to track social justice protests.

Given all of these serious concerns, we cannot support the Boston Police Department’s move to adopt social media monitoring of this scale. We understand the difficulties of enforcing the law in large cities like Boston, and the bravery of the officers who put their lives in harm’s way to protect us. But they must do so in a way that does not infringe on the very ideals they are defending.