Public Safety & Social Media Spying in Boston

Subject: Testimony regarding a Boston Police ‘Request for Proposals’ (RFP) to purchase social media monitoring software

From: Dan Currie, a South End resident & independent research consultant

To: The Boston City Council Committee on Public Safety & Criminal Justice, Andrea Campbell, Chair

Date: Monday, Dec. 5, 2016

Good afternoon, Madam Chairman. Thank you for hosting this public forum. My name is Dan Currie. There is more information about me @poeboston on Twitter.

If I may first comment on the testimony by Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) representatives earlier in today’s public hearing: It is troubling that they did not answer the committee’s questions about the number and nature of bids they have received for their social media monitoring contract. According to their “Request for Proposals” (RFP, see “References” at the end of this document), the deadline for submission of those bids was Oct. 24, 2016. “Comparative Evaluation Demonstrations” of the bid proposals were scheduled for Nov. 15–17. And the final contract was due to be awarded “on or about” today, Dec. 5, 2016. It would seem reasonable to expect that the least the police spokesmen could have done was to explain whether or not any of those deadlines have been extended, instead of leaving us all in the dark.

In any case, I have read the RFP for the social media monitoring contract. I’ve also reviewed BRIC’s (Fall, 2010) “Privacy, Civil Right & Civil Liberties Protection Policy,” and other reports. I appreciate this opportunity to present five major reasons why I object to the Boston Police’s proposed surveillance program.

I. The program is inconsistent with constitutional principles.

I first object because I believe that the proposed surveillance program could have caused Benjamin Franklin to wish he had never been born — at least not two blocks from where we now meet in Boston City Hall. As the Founding Father warned in 1755: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

I’m also worried that Franklin’s revolutionary compatriot James Otis is rolling over in his grave on Tremont Street as we speak since — in a 1761 court argument entitled “Against Writs of Assistance” which another son of Boston, John Adams, described as the moment the revolution was born — Otis planted the seed of our later “unalienable” Fourth Amendment right to protection against “unreasonable searches” (without specified warrants and probable cause) which provision was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution 30 years later.

Long before American colonies freed themselves from the British in the revolution, Otis described the oppressor’s “writs” (or unspecified warrants) as “the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of law, that ever was found in an English law-book.”

I will not elaborate here for the Public Safety Committee if I may submit amended testimony with explanatory articles attached for the record later. Suffice it now to say, however, that our nation’s Founders instructed us to appreciate that liberty — and freedom from government intrusion in our lives based on unwarranted suspicion — is more important than any public safety risk it may entail.

To put it another way: American civilian citizens need to recognize that the price of freedom is not free — and that it cannot always be guaranteed by our armed forces and first responders alone.

II. The program is not justified by any objective risk assessment.

The second reason why I oppose the social media surveillance RFP is that it contains no risk assessment or data to justify it. The contract offer almost seems to have been cast adrift on emotionally-based, popular — but post-factual — assumptions primarily promulgated by the news and entertainment media to garner viewer ratings by manufacturing the impression that we might all die from terrorist or shark attacks.

But where is the factual, statistical-based evidence of the real and pervasive public safety risks that law enforcement needs to be most concerned about on a daily basis? Is there any data to demonstrate a correlation between the effectiveness of cyber-spying and the number of people convicted of crimes or terrorist acts or intentions already? If there is, I can’t find it in the RFP. I suspect that is because it doesn’t fit the narrative, or doesn’t exist.

The truth is — according to the latest, 2014 government statistics — approximately 56 million people die in the world every year. 2.6 million of those fatalities occur in the United States. 55,000 of them die in Massachusetts.

About 6,000, or 11%, of those total annual Massachusetts deaths involve police work — concerning accidents, suicides, assaults, alcohol and drug-induced causes of death, and firearm fatalities.

In addition, probably every single one of the other 27,000 annual violent crimes in Massachusetts that are not fatal, as well as the 143,000 “property crimes” that take place annually in the Commonwealth, also require the employment of a lot of challenging and difficult police work.

Yet it is a fact that the homicide rate in America is currently at a 51-year low. And if you do not include the murders of September 11, 2001, there have only been a total of 138 American deaths in terrorist attacks throughout the United States in all the years since the Oklahoma City domestic terrorist bombing awakened us in 1995.

138 deaths due to terrorism in America equals an average of one person killed in each state every seven years. Not that any unnatural death or injury is not one too many — but that seven year total is equivalent to the number of people who are killed by spiders in the U.S. in just one year. It equals one-quarter of the number who are struck dead by lightning, one-fifth of the number who are killed by dog bites. The point is: Death as a result of a terrorist attack is a very low-probability event. And there are many more smart, proportional, and justifiable ways to avert them, especially if the police do not become diverted or enthralled by this high-tech proposal.

III. The program will undermine trust in our local police.

The third major reason why I oppose this social media surveillance proposal is that I believe time and money spent from a limited budget by “intelligence analysts” cyber-patrolling in their offices for exciting “shiny objects” on the world-wide web will undermine the ability of the department to perform the real community police work that needs to be done locally in Boston. The proposed computerized, pre-crime investigative approach will tend to dissolve the whole notion of trust that the work of officers in the field build and rely on. It will aggravate negative attitudes toward the police, as well as unbridled speculation about definitions of what police “hackers” consider “reasonable suspicion” or not.

What would be much more productive would be for the leadership of Boston and its police department instead to redouble efforts to curtail the availability of firearms. We would be better off if they increased their focus on fostering dialogue with communities and particularly with their distressed members, if they would hold more candid meetings, develop policing strategies related to the stresses of poverty, and programs that help give radicalized individuals and others more to live for.

In the meanwhile, it would be especially helpful if government leaders — especially the mayor — should rejected the mindset that stipulates: “No matter how much your truth hurts, I’m not going to discuss it with you if your testimony reflects hostility and emotionality.”

IV. The program evades executive responsibility.

Fourth, although I’m grateful to the chair for this public safety public forum today, there is obviously something wrong when the city has not held its first hearing about this matter until the day the contract is scheduled to be awarded (according to the RFP document).

But potentially for better or worse in terms of respect for our democracy, its original framers did provide a way around the will of the people, or the Congress, and other legislative bodies such as the Boston City Council, especially in times of war or other grave crises. And that was by equally empowering a federal executive branch in Article II of the U.S. Constitution, that is modeled at every subsidiary level of government.

So I believe it is inappropriate that the mayor of Boston is apparently evading what I believe is his executive responsibility to explain his position on this crucial matter and related constitutional issues here today. Much as I respect the police commissioner’s duty and the lobbying efforts of police department staff, no one elected them to front for the mayor. Real civilian leadership would put it the other way around, without regard for political consequences.

V. The surveillance program could be abused at the flick of a switch.

Finally, I worry about the application of this social media surveillance program, even if the chief executive were to attempt to justify it now. And I would like to explain by relating a somewhat personal story.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was the supervisor of the office at UMass-Boston that processed all requests for applications for admissions, which usually came to us by telephone. Within 48 hours of the events of that day, the names of the 19 hijackers were made public, as was the fact that some of them had entered the country on student visas, and stayed at hotels in Boston and Cambridge before hijacking American 11 and United 175 at Logan Airport.

So it occurred to me that these assassins were probably not stupid enough to apply for their student visas by trying to get into Harvard or MIT. So I checked the UMB database. And sure enough, I discovered two records under the name of the hijacker Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, including a residential address and an address for a printer’s business in Saudi Arabia, and additional information.

After then determining that no innocent person shared the same name, and that no one with it had ever attended the university, my boss told me to do what I had to do which, under the circumstances, was to contact representatives of both the FBI and the Office of Naval Intelligence immediately.

I was later scolded by UMass higher-ups for allegedly disregarding student privacy concerns in the course of my initiative (which I had not). And I have since come to believe it might have been smarter for me to tip the Boston press in addition to the feds (which I never did). I trusted and expected that Saudi Arabia would have a lot to answer for forthwith. But as we all know, it didn’t turn out that way. America embarked on a counter-productive search for justice in Iraq instead.

The point I’m trying to make is that any intelligence apparatus constructed by data tracking or surveillance capitalists will probably only be as good as the people controlling it. It will always be possible to abuse its original intentions, or to misdirect it, with simple flip of a switch.

VI. Conclusion

I hope the Boston City Council, upon a recommendation from the Committee on Public Safety & Criminal Justice, will support Councilor Tito Jackson’s Dec. 5, 2016 request for additional public hearings on this matter involving the participation of the Boston Police Department; and that, at the conclusion of those meetings, you will oppose the Boston Police Department’s proposal to acquire additional social media monitoring software. Thank you.


City of Boston/County of Suffolk Police Department “Request For Proposals to Acquire Technology and Services That Support the Identification, Collection, Synthesis, Analysis, and Investigation of Threat Information Present Within Real-Time Open Source and Social Media Platforms” (RFP available Oct. 5, 2016)

Boston Regional Intelligence Center [BRIC] “Privacy, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Protection Policy,” Fall 2010

“Founders would be repulsed by U.S. surveillance,” Providence Journal, June 23, 2013

“Lessons from our nation’s Founders on the bulk collection of U.S. phone records,” Constitution Daily, Oct. 7, 2014

“America’s founders would be horrified at this United States of Surveillance,” The Guardian, July 2, 2013

“If George Washington Were Alive, He’d be Reading Your Email,” Foreign Policy, Jan. 29, 2014

“START Factsheet: American Deaths in Terrorist Attacks, 1995–2015,” The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), Sept. 2016

‘Deaths: Final Data for 2014,” National Vital Statistics Reports, June 30, 2016 (see especially pages 92–93)

“Uniform Crime Reports Statistics,” U.S. Dept. of Justice/FBI (see especially Massachusetts data)

“The Odds of Dying,” Live Science, Feb. 9, 2016

“Inside Twisted Terrorist Minds — Where Is the Empathy?” Live Science, April 16, 2013

“New Database Debunks Terrorism Myths,” Live Science, May 24, 2007

“New Counterterrorism Program in Los Angeles: Suspicious Thought Reporting?” Just Security, Dec. 1 2016

“Constitution at stake in police surveillance of social media,” Spero News, Dec. 4, 2016

“ACLU Testimony Against Proposed Boston Police Social Media Surveillance Program, ” PrivacySOS/ACLUm, Dec. 5, 2016