Request Submitted To: Boston Police Department

Category: Surveillance

Year Filed: 2016


In October 2016, the Boston Herald reported that Boston Police Department (BPD) had published a $1.4 million request for proposals (RFP) to purchase a social media surveillance system. In response, companies submitted proposals detailing social media monitoring systems that claimed to enable advanced surveillance and tracking. Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told local media the police wouldn’t use such a tool to track anyone but serious criminals. “We’re not going after ordinary people,” Evans told WGBH in November 2016. “It’s a necessary tool of law enforcement and helps in keeping our neighborhoods safe from violence, as well as terrorism, human trafficking, and young kids who might be the victim of a pedophile.” But when faced with public backlash after the ACLU of Massachusetts and Bostonians raised public concerns about BPD’s plans, the police commissioner scrapped the RFP and, at least for now, has publicly stepped away from plans for a new social media monitoring system.

In fact, this was not BPD’s first foray into automated social media surveillance. Documents obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts show that BPD’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) used a social media monitoring tool called Geofeedia during the years 2014, 2015, and 2016.

But Geofeedia was soon to come under intense public scrutiny. In September 2016, the ACLU of Northern California published records showing that Geofeedia marketed itself to law enforcement as a tool to keep track of dissidents. In October 2016, the ACLU obtained records showing Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook were making user data available to the company. Ultimately, as a result of the ACLU’s advocacy, all three of the social media giants kicked Geofeedia off their platforms altogether. Since Twitter posts made up a majority of the content Geofeedia scanned and made available to its customers in law enforcement and marketing, this move effectively killed the social media monitoring company.

While Geofeedia may be history, BPD’s use of the tool in 2014, 2015, and 2016 tells an important story about BPD’s approach to social media monitoring. To uncover that story, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a public records request with BPD, requesting information about how BPD used Geofeedia.

Read our report, Social Media Monitoring in Boston: Free Speech in the Crosshairs:

View documents on Privacy SOS:

Privacy SOS

The email alerts that were received as part of this public records request were extracted into a dataset for aggregate and detailed analysis.

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