In February, the ACLU of Massachusetts released a damning report detailing prejudice in social media surveillance efforts by the Boston Police Department (BPD). The report revealed that between 2014 and 2016, the BPD had tracked keywords on Facebook and Twitter in an effort to identify potential terrorist threats. The BPD labeled as “Islamist extremist terminology” keywords like “ISIS” and “Islamic State,” but also phrases like #MuslimLivesMatter” and “ummah,” the Arabic word for community.
Christopher Raleigh Bousquet (@chrisrbousquet) is a researcher at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, a think tank out of Harvard Kennedy School.
These practices by the BPD reflect a growing trend in law enforcement called social media mining. Using natural language processing tools, police departments scan social platforms for keywords they believe indicate danger. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, all large cities, and many smaller ones, have made significant investments in social media monitoring tools. A 2016 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Urban Institute revealed that 76 percent of officers use social media to gain tips on crime, 72 percent to monitor public sentiment, and 70 percent for intelligence gathering.
Until recently, companies like GeoFeedia, SnapTrends, and Media Sonar peddled their products from city to city, advertising their ability to prevent crimes and catch perpetrators. However, a 2016 report from the ACLU of California presented a major setback for these companies, revealing that cities were using their products to target words like “#blacklivesmatter” and “police brutality” following the killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Grey.
And the way