Law Enforcement Surveils Recent Protests to Gauge Volatility of the Situation
Since the tragic death of civilian George Floyd in late May, there have been countless demonstrations, riots, and examples of widespread looting. The toxic mixture of a global health pandemic, economic uncertainty, the perception of racially biased policing, and government enforced lockdowns has resulted in catastrophically high amounts of anxiety, depression, and unease. Protests and riots may materialize as a symptom of societal unease during times of severe anxiety and economic uncertainty. To quell the unrest, law enforcement agencies and departments have resorted to utilizing surveillance measures to keep the peace, especially when police agencies are overwhelmed and unable to restore order.
Surveillance Drones and Planes
Given the widespread nature of today’s protests, federal agencies have provided support to local law enforcement. According to a June 2020 New York Times article, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “deployed helicopters, airplanes and drones over 15 cities where demonstrators gathered…logging at least 270 hours of surveillance.” The surveillance footage was placed into a network called “Big Pipe;” this digital network can be accessed by other federal agencies and local police departments in future investigations. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials contend that one of the aircrafts was used to provide “an eagle-eyed view of violent acts and arson. The Predator drone…was neither armed nor equipped with facial recognition technology and flew at a height that made it possible to identify individuals or license plates.” According to Air and Marine Operations officials, the drones “are directed to fly no lower than 19,000 feet. From that height, the ‘electrical optical-infrared ball’ on the drones wouldn’t allow the operators to see faces, eyes or hair color.”
The New York Times article characterizes these drones as “militaristic” and “dominating” while ignoring the justification for their deployment. In fact, the article goes to great lengths to ignore the arson, violence, and attacks on law enforcement and innocent civilian bystanders. To be sure, many of the protestors attend demonstrations with good intentions; however, sometimes these protests are co-opted by anarchists, vigilantes, and extremist groups. It is fair to debate whether or not surveillance drones at high altitudes are appropriate tools in assessing violence committed during protests; however, the alternative is to rely on law enforcement with “boots on the ground.” Is this not the exact qualm that some left-wing protesters have with law enforcement?
Where did policing go wrong?
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Prominent progressive writer Matt Taibbi discusses policing in broader terms in his article, “Where did policing go wrong?” He writes, “police are trained to behave like occupiers, which is why they increasingly dress like they’ve been sent to clear houses in Mosul and treat random motorists like potential car-bombers.” A key point to note in this conversation about law enforcement surveillance is this constant perception that “we have two systems of enforcement in America, a minimalist one for people with political clout, and an intrusive one for everyone else.” When discussing the broader implications of surveillance tactics during these protests, it cannot be understated the degree to which the perception holds amongst a large swath of non-white Americans.
Information Technology and Mass Surveillance Tools
In the digital age, law enforcement agencies have access to novel technologies that expand the realm of investigative tools. Newer tools such as StingRays provide officials with the capabilities of both a pen register and a trap and tracer with enhanced features. In addition, the widespread usage of the Internet has given private entities seemingly unlimited data that can be aggregated and analyzed. For example, facial recognition technologies enhance law enforcement’s abilities to sift through hours of video footage and identify criminal perpetrators.
What Are Stingrays and Dirtboxes?
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Some local law enforcement agencies have access to the StingRay, which mimics cell phone towers and prompts all phones in its vicinity to connect to it. They can be mounted in drones, helicopters, and airplanes. These devices collect “your location along with the numbers of your incoming and outgoing calls and intercept the content of call and text communication.” All of this is done without your knowledge or consent. This method of surveillance is much less well known and only “a handful of states have passed laws requiring police and federal agents to get a warrant before using a StingRay.”
The Intercept reports that StingRays can “inject spying software onto specific phones or direct the browser of a phone to a website where malware can be loaded onto it.” The federal Department of Justice requires agents to “obtain a probable cause warrant to use the technology in criminal cases, but there is a carve-out for national security,” writes Kim Zetter. Given the range of federal law enforcement agencies involved in quelling the civil unrest, it seems conceivable that this surveillance tool could have been used. After all, the New York City Police Department used a facial recognition software tool to “hunt” a Black Lives Matter activist alleged to have caused “pain and protracted impairment of hearing” to an officer.
Modern technology tools have added enhancements to policing, but the addition of smartphone usage and live streaming of protests and looting has been a boon to law enforcement. With today’s mobile phone technology, any individual with a smartphone can film events and stream it to their social media network in real-time. For example, the recent case of 17 year-old Kyle Rittenhouse acting in self-defense against violent protesters was filmed largely on mobile technology.
Live streams of protests have been critical in building social movements. For example, George Floyd’s tragic death was filmed and shared on social media; this simple citizen journalism sparked a movement that has made strides in promoting “anti-racism.” Constant filming of protests or looting may provide positive social effects but it also gives law enforcement potential means of identifying criminals. Unlike the FBI wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr.’s private conversations, individual smartphone users may be potentially implicating themselves in criminal actions. During the brunt of rioting and looting in late May and June, there were countless videos (on Facebook and Twitter) of individuals participating in criminal theft amid the chaos caused by riots.
Citizen journalism and social media live streaming feeds into law enforcement surveillance. At the center of this debate is Clearview AI, a facial recognition firm that has entered into contracts with 2,400 police agencies. Clearview’s databases and technology are meant for law enforcement purposes. According to Business Insider, it identifies individuals by “using images scraped from the web and social media platforms, without permission, to create a searchable database.” Images can be scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo, and other websites according to a New York Times article titled, “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It.” There is at least one example of a demonstrator during the George Floyd protests, who was later identified using facial recognition technology, being arrested for criminal acts against a police officer. Clearview’s CEO Hon Ton-That noted that his company’s technology “is used only for after-the-crime investigations to help identify criminal suspects. It is not intended to be used as a surveillance tool relating to protests or under any other circumstances.”
Mass demonstrations, rioting, looting, arson, and some violence continue in major urban centers throughout the United States. The response by some of our political leaders has been to view these occurrences through the prism of political strategy rather than common sense. Up until around one week ago, prominent members of the Democratic Party were mute in regards to condemning the rioting, looting, arson, and acts of violence towards law enforcement and innocent civilians. Even the mainstream media was hard pressed to address the chaos, instead referring to it as “mostly peaceful protests.”
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Unfortunately for those willing to gaslight the American public, riots and looting are not forms of peaceful protest. These are criminal actions that require investigation but not without limits. The Fourth Amendment notably lays out basic parameters protected by the Constitution: “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized” [emphasis added]. It is imperative that law enforcement adhere to constitutional limits when investigating acts of violence.
The broader conversation about police brutality, law enforcement surveillance, and law enforcement-civilian interactions must address the challenges of the times. First, political leaders’ unwillingness to distinguish peaceful protest or assembly with unlawful violence and anarchy does a disservice to the movement sparked by George Floyd’s death. By separating the two kinds of protest, leaders could investigate and call out the bad actors or agitators while continuing to support the peaceful demonstrators. This failure to accurately report and portray the circumstances may unduly exacerbate political polarization and degrade faith in law enforcement when it is needed the most. Secondly, riots and looting distract everyday Americans from images of emotional crowds gathering during a pandemic to promote a cause they find just. Thirdly, those dissuaded by images of rioting and looting should be more open to listen to underserved and impacted communities to understand why they may feel enraged by racialized policing. Only when there is a broader conversation about policing, community relations, and law enforcement investigative approaches can we actually solve the challenges of the day.