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Boston Police Delay Picking Vendor For Social Media Monitoring Program

Boston Police Headquarters. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
Boston Police Headquarters. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
This article is more than 2 years old.

Boston Police will not be contracting with a vendor for a social media surveillance program — for now — the department announced late Friday.

The police department's plan to spend $1.4 million on software that will help officers scan social media websites has drawn heavy criticism. And last month, several civil rights groups called on the department to drop the program.

In a Friday evening post on BPDnews.com, the department said under recommendations from Police Commissioner Bill Evans and Superintendent Paul Fitzgerald, Commander of the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, it has decided not to select a vendor "at this time."

The department will instead re-draft its request for proposals "to ensure that the Department acquires the appropriate level of technology, while also protecting the privacy of the public." The department's news release includes proposals from three possible vendors — Dataminr, Uncharted and Verint Technology.

In a statement, Evans said he felt the technology presented in the proposals the department received "exceeds the needs of the department."

Here's Evans full statement:

After reviewing the submitted proposals I felt that the technology that was presented exceeds the needs of the department. I met with Mayor Walsh and with his support we have decided not to enter into a contract at this time. 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," said Commissioner Evans. "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.

According to the release, Evans has also asked City Councilor Andrea Campbell to initiate a public process to solicit feedback from the community about the social media surveillance plan. Campbell heads the Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice and held a hearing in December where advocates criticized Boston police for what they saw as a lack of transparency over the plan.

Campbell told WBUR's Newscast Unit Saturday that a new hearing on the social media monitoring program will occur once the Boston Police Department receives new proposals.

Campbell said there should be a "robust, transparent community process" on social media surveillance plans similar to what occurred with the development of a body camera pilot program for Boston police.

The councilor said that her constituents have said they understand the need for some type of social media monitoring, but they just want their privacy concerns addressed.

"There is crime that is taking place in this virtual space," Campbell said. "Whether it's on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — there are folks engaging in illegal activity. So how do we make sure that our officers and police department have equipment and technology to not only monitor that but to fight that crime?"

Boston police already monitor social media platforms manually which they say takes up time and man power. Campbell said people believe there should be a way to use software to free up that burden while still keeping privacy as a main concern.

Civil rights groups and advocates have said they're concerned about privacy rights and that the technology might be used to unfairly target minorities and dissidents. Boston police have said the department will focus on people driving crime, and the technology will be used to monitor criminal activity and threats made online.

Social media surveillance software is already being used by other police departments. In October, a report by the ACLU found that police tracked protesters in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri using a surveillance program. Police got social media data through Geofeedia, a company that analyzes social media data. Following the report, some of those social media companies cut off GeoFeedia's access to their user data.

With reporting by WBUR's Bob Shaffer and Newscast Unit

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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