Boston police walk back social media monitoring plan

The Boston Police Department is going back to the drawing board to redefine a system that can help it analyze social media content.

The Boston Police Department is going back to the drawing board to redefine a system that can help it analyze social media content.

In October the BPD released a request for proposals for web-based “technology and services that support the identification, collection, integration, synthesis, analysis, visualization and investigation of threat information present within real-time open source and social media platforms.”

The contract, worth up to $1.4 million, was also intended to distill “specific knowledge concerning threats, hazards and other conditions related to crime and public safety present on the Internet.”

Civil liberties groups objected to the project, voicing concerns about privacy rights, government surveillance, racial profiling and limits on free speech.  The critics also called for an opportunity to weigh in on the department’s social media monitoring policies. 

On Jan. 10, Superintendent Paul Fitzgerald recommended to Commissioner William Evans that the BPD not award a contract to any of the respondents, adding that “the capabilities proposed by the vendors exceed the services that the Department would utilize.” On Jan. 13, Evans formally announced that the department would forego contracting with any vendors and would solicit feedback from the public to ensure privacy is protected.

“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," Evans said. "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."

BPD received proposals from Dataminr, Uncharted and Terint Technologies, all of which have experience in the public sector.

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 151 counties, cities and police departments have purchased monitoring software. The FBI recently awarded a contract to Dataminr for real-time Twitter monitoring.

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