A Massachusetts State Police tweet appears to have inadvertently revealed law enforcement surveillance of certain political groups.
Last month, multiple natural gas explosions rocked three towns north of Boston. As the disaster unfolded, the state police tweeted an update from the “MSP Watch Center” that included a screenshot from a computer plotting the location of the explosions. Bookmarks on the browser were also visible, including links to certain progressive organizing and activist groups in central Massachusetts.
The MSP removed the tweet and replaced it with one that did not show the open browser tabs, but the ACLU of Massachusetts obtained a screenshot of the original. According to the ACLU, bookmarked groups included Mass Action Against Police Brutality, Coalition to Organize and Mobilize Boston Against Trump (COMBAT), 413 Action, MA Activism, and Resistance Calendar. In addition to the organizations, the bookmarks bar in also showed links to a surveillance drone company called AeryonLive and a site about “Open Source Intelligence Techniques.”
“What was meant as an innocent enough disaster response tweet had become damning evidence that law enforcement in Massachusetts continues to engage in questionable surveillance of left-leaning political organizers.”
According to the ACLU of Massachusetts, the MSP Watch Center is part of the Commonwealth Fusion Center.
Fusion centers serve as clearinghouses for all kind of information shared between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The Department of Homeland Security funds and ultimately runs 79 fusion centers across the U.S. The DHS describes homeland security intelligence/information fusion as the…process of managing the flow of information…to support the rapid identification of emerging terrorism-related threats…requiring intervention by government and private-sector authorities.”
Fusion centers make up part of a broader federal program known as the Information Sharing Environment (ISE). According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of surveillance data, including information gathered without a warrant.
Fusion centers were created to “combat terrorism,” but as the ACLU pointed out, a bipartisan congressional report found:
“They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”
The Massachusetts State Police released a statement once the screenshot of the browser tabs went public, saying the agency has a “responsibility to know about all large public gatherings of any type and by any group, regardless of their purpose and position, for public safety reasons…We do not collect information about – nor, frankly do we care about – any group’s beliefs or opinions.”
But as the ACLU of Massachusetts noted, “it’s odd that the bookmarks bar in the tweeted image only contained links to progressive and left-wing organizing/activist groups.”
And then we have the link to the surveillance drone company.
Police in Massachusetts have a history of surveilling groups based on their political ideology. In early 2018, the ACLU of Massachusetts released a report chronicling the Boston Police Department’s used a social media surveillance system called Geofeedia to monitor individuals expressing constitutionally protected free speech on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
Some people will blow off this revelation, rationalizing that police need to watch “these kinds of groups.” But who determines which groups or individuals deserve warrantless surveillance? And what’s to stop them from focusing in on you or an organization you belong to?
The ISE and fusion centers help facilitate federal efforts to track the movements of, and obtain and store information on, millions of Americans. This includes monitoring phone calls, emails, web browsing history and text messages, all with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.
The Massachusetts State Police “oops” provides further evidence of the pervasive nature of government surveillance.