Police departments in Massachusetts have new software at their fingertips that can search and monitor social media activity, but its rollout is raising concerns among some free speech advocates.
The tool, made by a company called ShadowDragon, searches public information from dozens of social media networks, using digital clues to identify who’s behind online accounts and to visualize networks of suspected “bad actors,” according to the company’s website.
But those search capabilities can also facilitate sweeping digital surveillance, said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. Crockford argues such new technology should be subject to public debate and stronger oversight.
“People shouldn’t be afraid to voice their political opinions or speak out against the police themselves because they fear the police are watching them,” Crockford said.
Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Nathaniel Mendell told NBC10 Boston the technology will be used to focus on the most violent criminals. He emphasized the software makes it much easier to sift through the vast landscape of what’s already publicly available online.
“I expect it will be extremely valuable,” Mendell said. “What used to take you a week or a month might now take you a day or a few hours.”
The NBC10 Investigators learned about the new search tool in a batch of emails we obtained from the former Boston police commissioner through a public records request.
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One message, received Jan. 8, 2021, describes the purchase of new social media analytics software. It’s unclear who received the message, since most email addresses are redacted, although three officials from the U.S. attorney’s office were copied on it.
Funding to use the software came from the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative, a federal program that aims to reduce violent crime. The six communities targeted by the federal program are Boston, Lawrence, Brockton, Worcester, New Bedford and Springfield, according to information available on the state’s website.
The Jan. 8 email message says many police teams expressed a need for social media analytics software that could assist in “combating gang activity and disrupting gang networks throughout the state.”
It goes on to announce that departments would receive sublicenses for a three-year contract of ShadowDragon, paid for with money from the fiscal 2019 Project Safe Neighborhoods budget.
Training sessions were to be scheduled in the spring, and open to two analysts from each of the police departments.
"We hope this software helps in your fight to reduce gang violence in your cities," the email reads.
A separate invoice obtained by NBC10 Boston shows Massachusetts State Police paid a software reseller $147,870 for the rights to access ShadowDragon’s SocialNet product for three years, running from March 2021 through March 2024.
David Procopio, a state police spokesperson, said several of its crime analysts can access ShadowDragon’s product. The department hosted a training session inside the auditorium of its general headquarters for its analysts and others from local police agencies picked by the Department of Justice, according to Procopio.
Springfield police confirmed two of their analysts trained to use the software, though the department had not put it into use as of last month, according to a spokesperson.
Police in Boston and Brockton also said they’re not currently using the software.
Investigators in Worcester declined a request through a police spokesperson to answer questions about the program.
A spokesperson for New Bedford police did not provide responses to questions about ShadowDragon. A police official in Lawrence did not return calls and an email seeking comment.
Efforts to reach a representative of ShadowDragon to discuss the company’s software were also unsuccessful.
Massachusetts State Police did not respond to follow-up questions about whether the agency has a policy that spells out how the social media technology can be used.
Federal prosecutors recently announced charges related to a drug bust along the North Shore. According to court documents, social media posts from the suspects helped provide clues for investigators.
Mendell said the intelligence gathered in that case by social media analysts used more of the “Dark Ages” tactics of painstakingly searching individual accounts and online posts. The acting U.S. attorney told NBC10 Boston the newShadowDragon technology would accelerate the process in future cases.
“Gangs use social media to talk about their disputes and to sort out their affiliations of who’s in and who’s out,” Mendell said.
But Crockford, with the ACLU, said the software’s relationship mapping features could produce overly broad results, linking innocent people with criminal suspects based on casual connections on the web.
“Our concern is that will be done and is being done to monitor people who are engaged in political speech, 1st Amendment-protected speech,” she said.
In Boston, City Councilor Michelle Wu is pushing for an ordinance that would require Boston police to bring new surveillance technology before elected leaders for approval before it’s deployed.
“We need to be ahead of it and not trying to deal with mishaps that happen or violations of rights after the fact,” Wu said.
Even though Boston police said they’re not using ShadowDragon, Wu pointed to another recent example of why she believes more oversight is needed.
Mayor Kim Janey paused an agreement in June that would have created a regional network of surveillance cameras, allowing law enforcement agencies around greater Boston to tap into a network of cameras in nine communities.
“We need to know when this would be deployed, what the protections are, who would be involved, and who would have the authority to push back,” Wu said.