Deleted Massachusetts State Police tweet raises civil liberties concerns

  • A since-deleted tweet that was posted Thursday by State Police. TWITTER

  • A since-deleted tweet and accompanying photo posted Sept. 13, 2018, by the Massachusetts State Police Twitter account. Visible in the screenshot are the internet bookmarks at the top of the state police computer’s browser, which drew concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union. TWITTER

Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2018 12:13:49 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A deleted tweet from the state police on Thursday is raising concerns of “political policing” with the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter, though the state police say it is just evidence of “common sense” policing.

The tweet in question was posted by the Mass State Police account, and contained a photo of a map of gas explosions in three communities north of Boston on Thursday. But also visible in the photo were the internet bookmarks at the top of the state police computer’s web browser. The bookmarks included the Facebook pages of left-wing activist groups like Mass Action Against Police Brutality, and one was labeled “Facebook 413.”

Those bookmarks raised a red flag for Kade Crockford, the director of the technology for liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. Crockford said the tweet came from the state’s Fusion Center — an information-sharing center that, like others nationwide, was created to “connect the dots” in anti-terrorism efforts after law enforcement agencies failed share intelligence and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Fusion Center’s website says its mission is “to produce and disseminate actionable intelligence... in order to disrupt domestic and international terrorism.” But Crockford said that 17 years after Sept. 11, the center and others like it have strayed far from that initial anti-terrorist mission.

“What has happened since then is that these places that were initially established to join up with the War on Terror have morphed into intelligence centers that basically do two things,” Crockford said. “One is to spy on left-wing activists and organizations... The other one is basically just waging the War on Drugs with new technologies.”

When asked about the bookmarks, a state police spokesman said in a statement that for public safety reasons the agency has a responsibility to know about all large public gatherings, regardless of their purpose of political position.

“We do not collect information about — nor, frankly, do we care about — any group’s beliefs or opinions.” spokesman David Procopio said in an emailed statement. “We, obviously, need to know if large numbers of people, for whatever reason, are going to be on public roadways or public spaces, so that we may ensure the safety and rights of those who have gathered as well as of the members of the public around them. That is a common – and common-sense – function of any police department.”

But on Twitter, some have questioned why only left-leaning groups were bookmarked. The bookmarks appear to include the Facebook page for the Coalition to Organize and Mobilize Boston Against Trump. Another bookmark says “Resistance Calendar,” and one that is cut off says “Facebook MA Activis...”

Crockford said those bookmarks need to be viewed in a larger context. The ACLU in 2012 revealed that the state’s fusion centers have engaged in the surveillance of left-leaning political groups with no connection to terrorism or other crime.

After suing the Boston Police in 2011, the ACLU of Massachusetts obtained documents that showed police assigned to the state’s other fusion center — the Boston Regional Intelligence Center — regularly filed reports on the meetings and protests of anti-war groups. In one instance, an intelligence report on an anti-war meeting at a Jamaica Plain church featuring a former city councilor, historian Howard Zinn and a Gold Star mother was filed under the category “Criminal Act: Groups-Extremist.”

“Unfortunately nothing has changed since then,” Crockford said. “I’m not surprised, I have to say, that the Massachusetts State Police has an intelligence analyst at the Fusion Center with bookmarks on their browser to direct them expeditiously to the Facebook pages of left-wing activist groups in the state… That doesn’t mean it’s OK.”

Rose Bookbinder, a local organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center in Northampton, said she too was unsurprised by the deleted tweet. She said she knows that local police, and perhaps other law enforcement, monitor whatever her organization posts to Facebook.

“We are very conscious about every action that we take through social media or through Gmail or anything, knowing that everything we do is being watched,” Bookbinder said. “I think that’s just part of the reality for us. But we are very, very careful about the ways we share sensitive information.”

But just because it is unremarkable doesn’t mean it is not concerning, she added.

“I wish that we didn’t have to feel like, utilizing our First Amendment right to protest, we’re being watched in that way,” Bookbinder said.

Crockford pointed to a 2012 report from the U.S. Senate subcommittee on investigations, which found fusion centers’ reporting was “often flawed” and “unrelated to terrorism,” and that it sometimes endangered citizens’ civil liberties.

In addition to potentially violating civil liberties, Crockford said that any fusion center spying on activists groups is a waste of taxpayer money. First-responder institutions should be spending more of their time training and responding to terrible events, like the gas explosions that were the original focus of the tweet, Crockford added.

“Move some of those funds into climate response,” Crockford said, noting that climate change is leading to stronger storms hitting the east coast. “These fusion centers could conceivably be transformed into climate action centers.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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