ACLU: Boston Police Spied On Protesters Using #MuslimLivesMatter Hashtag On Twitter, Facebook

Eric Lieberman | Associate Editor

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts released a report Wednesday describing the extent in which Boston police spied on people who used the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter on social media.

The authorities collaborated with Geofeedia, a social media monitoring startup that originally also worked with companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, before ultimately being barred from special data access by those firms. With Geofeedia’s services, law enforcement officials in the city were able to surveil people who used what they referred to as “Islamist Extremist Terminology” between 2014 to 2016, according to the ACLU.

Geofeedia empowers police with the ability to sort through the massive amount of social media content by browsing for specific words, hashtags, images, and even location. Boston authorities tracked people posting #MuslimLivesMatter through Geofeedia, even if they had location data services turned off on Twitter or Facebook, according to the ACLU. The company would send the Boston Police Department (BPD) alerts for other targeted keywords like “smoke,” “backpack,” “Islamic state” and “ISIS.”

Location information at that specific time weren’t the only personal details, as Geofeedia could provide such data for tweets made several weeks before.

Sometimes it wasn’t just the people posting the keywords or content that were spied on, as friends or associates of the original user or account were also sometimes scooped up in the surveillance apparatus, says the ACLU.

The ACLU does not clarify if the technology was used to make arrests, or led to long-term probes, in this situation. The program cost the city $26,698.

“If the Department plans to buy such a system in the future, it should first consult with the public, elected city officials, and civil liberties and civil rights groups,” Nasser Eledroos and Kade Crockford of the ACLU wrote in the report. “But before even considering expending public resources on a system like this, BPD must make a clear and compelling case detailing how and why social media surveillance benefits public safety. These BPD documents strongly suggest it does not.”

The BPD adamantly refutes ACLU’s allegations and findings.

“The report is based on uninformed assumptions, and the department does not deem it worthy of a response,” Officer Rachel McGuire of the BPD office of media relations, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Lt. Det. McCarthy already spoke to the AP on this matter, and we will not indulge the ACLU further.”

Inspections of people’s social media accounts and activity have gone up in recent months and years — a trend likely stemming from former President Barack Obama’s administration’s vamped up monitoring processes, especially at the border, and intensifying in President Donald Trump’s administration.

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U.S. border authorities conducted a substantially higher amount of electronic device searches in 2017 when compared to 2016, according to the agency.

Many foreign travelers on the visa waiver program have reportedly been asked if they want to “enter information associated with your online presence,” like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Google+, according to Politico. Others are compelled to do so.

Part of the Department of Homeland Security, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said, in 2016, 19,051 international travelers were forced to go through an electronics search. In 2017, 30,200 people underwent an official inspection of some device, marking a 58.5 percent increase in just one year.

The new policy drew large amounts of criticism in mid-2016 when the procedure was first discovered by privacy advocates. A coalition of 28 different organizations, many civil liberties-oriented, urged authorities to drop the policy. (RELATED: FBI Signs Key Contract For Social Media Surveillance)

This post has been updated with comment from the Boston Police Department. 

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