On January 13th, 2017, the Boston, Massachusetts Police Department announced that it was not going to go forward with their plan to spend up to $1.4 million to acquire software to monitor social media, the darknet, and the deep web for criminal activity and threats to public safety. In a statement posted on the Boston Police Department’s web site, Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said, “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.”
The software would have been funded in part by a $14.2 million grant the Boston Office of Emergency Management had received from the federal Department of Homeland Security. Some members of the Boston City Council were concerned about the proposal, and about the fact that they had not been informed about the police department’s plan to purchase the internet surveillance software. At a Boston City Council meeting in November 2016, Councilor Andrea Campbell, chairwoman of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee said that, “The council should very much be briefed on everything including anything regarding potential privacy concerns.”
Boston Police Superintendent Paul Fitzgerald said in a letter to Police Commissioner Evans that, “The capabilities proposed by the vendors exceed the services that the Department seeks to utilize.” Police Superintendent Fitzgerald also recommended that Commissioner Evans seek new proposals that, “better identify technology that will fit the department’s needs.” In November of 2016, Commissioner Evans said in an interview with Boston Public Radio that the software the department was seeking is, “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.” Previously, the Boston Police Department had contracted with Geofeedia to monitor the internet from January 2015 until May 2016.
While activists and the media have primarily focused on the social media monitoring aspect of the internet surveillance software that the police department was seeking to purchase, one of the proposals that was received from three companies revealed that their software would also provide surveillance of the darknet and the deep web. In a proposal from Verint, the company stated that their software could “reveal new user identities, and generate alerts regarding suspect activities or users,” and provide “Sophisticated search tools support access to Deep Web and Dark Web data, overcome anti-bot measures, and mimic human access behavior, to ultimately reach data that is otherwise blocked to search engines.” Verint also claimed to be able to access password protected websites.
Although Verint’s proposal did not detail if their software also had the capability to monitor cryptocurrency transactions and users, their proposal did mention that virtual currencies raised new technical obstacles for investigators. Documents received by The Boston Globe showed that the software would have allowed police to create geo-fences, allowing them to identify in realtime content published online from within a certain geographic area. Police would also have been able to create and hide behind virtual identities with the software.
The Boston Police Department’s plan to monitor the internet was opposed by a dozen civil liberties groups, civil rights groups, and religious organizations. The diverse coalition of organizations called on city officials to stop the plan to purchase the internet surveillance software. While many activists and organizations who opposed the police’s plan see this as a victory, Boston Police Commissioner Evans hasn’t ruled out purchasing such software in the future. “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,” Commissioner Evans said in a statement on the department’s website.
Civil liberties organizations and activists remain vigilant and will continue to oppose future attempts by the Boston Police Department to buy internet surveillance software. Local public opinion also appears to remain strongly opposed to any plans by the police department to obtain internet surveillance software. Alex Marthews, Director of Digital Fourth and Restore The Fourth Boston, a non-profit opposing mass surveillance in Massachusetts, said in an e-mail that, “Boston PD encountered unanimous and vehement public opposition, and we welcome the decision to hold off on acquiring social media surveillance software. Boston PD should spend the money on solving actual unsolved crimes, instead of figuring out how to monitor the thoughtcrimes of innocents.” Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement that, “We are very happy the Mayor and the police commissioner heard the people of Boston, over three thousand of whom raised their voices against this dangerous proposal. This is a victory not only for privacy and transparency but for the democratic process. The people flexed their muscle and the powers that be listened. That’s how our system is supposed to work.”