Amid privacy concerns and a backlash from civil rights proponents, the Boston Police Department is scrapping a $1.4 million plan to monitor and collect data off of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook — at least for now.
City and police officials plan to re-draft a proposal for analytic software after gaining a better understanding of the public’s privacy concerns.
“Our plan from the beginning was to use this process to learn and examine the capabilities of the technology and use that information to make informed decisions," police Commissioner Bill Evans said in a statement Friday night. "Moving forward, we will continue the process of inspecting what is available and ensuring that it meets the needs of the department while protecting the privacy of the public."
The department has been facing pushback from citizens and civil rights groups since the it began soliciting bids for the analytic technology program at the end of October.
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A petition opposing the program garnered 3,000 signatures, Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future, said in a statement.
“This is a huge victory and offers a glimmer of hope for our basic rights at a time when it is in short supply,” she said of the police department’s decision to back off the program. “Mass surveillance programs like the one the Boston Police intended to launch don’t actually make us safer, but they have a profoundly chilling effect on freedom of speech and our basic civil rights.”
The city Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice plans to hold a series of public hearings for more feedback on privacy concerns and to better inform the public about social media monitoring and its use in policing, said City Councilwoman Andrea Campbell, who chairs the committee.
ACLU Massachusetts’ Director of Technology Kade Crockford said she was glad city leaders listened to residents and put the brakes on the program. The ACLU intends to remain active in the committee hearings ahead, she said.
But she said she has concerns with how Boston police treat citizens’ privacy that extend beyond the debate on the social media-monitoring program.
“I’m eager to have a conversation that goes beyond individual technologies and looks at Boston Police Department privacy policies more generally, particularly policies governing how they collect data at the Boston Regional Intelligence Center. The policies need work,” she said.
Officers at the city’s regional intelligence center engage in what Crockford calls “suspicionless surveillance,” where citizens do not need to be accused or suspected of a crime in order for police to collect and share information on them.
“I hope the outcry against this Boston Police Department attempt at invasion of privacy opens the door to larger conversation of the role of government to respect the balance of power in terms of privacy in the 21st century,” she said.