How Police Spy on Protesters 


According to Gallup, in 2018, about two-thirds of people worldwide had confidence in their local police. Given the law enforcement response to the protests in the U.S., this number will probably be quite different in subsequent reports. But batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas aren’t the only tools for the job.

In this piece, we look into digital surveillance measures police can use to track people, the efforts to curb excessive use of authority on the legislative level, and the ways to protect one’s own right to privacy as much as a law-abiding citizen can.

Tools for the Job

Law enforcement agencies have been using digital surveillance and analytics tools for a while and on multiple levels.

There are preventive measures that involve complex algorithms crushing data on past crimes and spitting out information potentially useful in preventing future crimes. One of those is a pattern-recognition system called Patternizr introduced back in 2016 NY police to dig through the department’s archives. Although, the public announcement about the new tech took until 2019 to come through. It turned out that such “robotic detectives” can be as racist as some of the regular officers of flesh and bone.

Another aspect is street-level surveillance, explored by the EEF’s namesake project. This category encompasses the eyes and ears of the law enforcement, as well as the back-end systems interpreting the collected data:

  • officers’ body cameras
  • CCTV networks
  • gunshot detection networks
  • automated license plate readers
  • spy drones
  • face, tattoo, and iris recognition systems
  • electronic monitoring
  • cell-site simulators and IMSI catchers

Some entries from this list may seem more familiar than others. People are generally used to security cameras, both wearable and mounted, automated speeding tickets, small wearable monitoring devices that tell authorities one’s location or blood alcohol levels, and even spy drones laden with sensor arrays. Other systems are a bit more curious.

As such, acoustic gunshot detection networks sport sensitive microphones typically planted high above the ground, in a way similar to security cameras. These microphones are meant to register gunshots and alert police responders, but can also overhear a thing or two if people talk near them.

Cell-site simulators, on the other hand, can completely hijack cellphone calls by posing as a normal cell-tower. Basically, when such a system can fool the target’s phone into connecting to it and then relay the information to and from the actual cell network. Whatever data goes through this channel, as well as the phone’s location and metadata, would be accessible to the system operator. In addition, it is hard to tell if a phone is connected to a legitimate cell-tower or a cell-site simulator run by the police. There are other somewhat simpler methods, such as obtaining the log of one’s calls and movements from their service provider.

“Every day, the threats to our rights expand as police use surveillance technologies to compile enormous databases filled with our personal information. On top of the damage to our Fourth Amendment rights, these technologies can be used to spy on citizens engaged in First Amendment activities or deployed disproportionately against marginalized communities,” the Street-Level Surveillance project introduction reads.

Importantly, it is near-impossible to see the full extent of the surveillance measures utilized by the authorities, as illustrated by Recode’s efforts to learn about digital spying tech serving the NYPD. Not journalists, nor privacy advocates could shed light on what’s going on behind the scenes, aside from a glimpse at predictive policing tools, facial recognition, and some other bits of information.

A vast pool of advanced surveillance technologies doesn’t go too well with the lack of transparency, at least for the public. This is a problem that becomes especially apparent in times of crisis.

Efforts to Limit Surveillance And Make It Accountable

On the bright side, there are calls for a change.

The Civilian Control over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) effort launched in 2016 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) aims to push laws that empower people to decide “if and how surveillance technologies are used.” According to the ACLU website, Maine and California have sponsored state-level CCOPS legislation.

Another initiative that gets the spotlight amid the current crisis in the U.S. is the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act or the POST Act introduced by New York City Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson. The bill is meant to make the New York police tell the City Council about the surveillance technologies they use, as well as “close the appropriations loophole that lets the NYPD purchase unlimited surveillance equipment with federal grants and private donations while circumventing local oversight.” The debates about the necessity of such legislation are still on.

As facial recognition technologies (FRT) got good enough for law enforcement agencies to consider, several states opted to ban the use of this particular tech. In May 2019, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to put a limit on FRT use making it out of limits for all city agencies, including the police. A couple of months later, the City Council of Somerville, MA also banned the use of FRT by city agencies. The city of Oakland, CA did the same. In October 2019, California introduced a three-year state-wide ban on the use of FRT on videos from officers’ body cameras.

Organizations like the ACLU and S.T.O.P., as well as state legislators, continue to push for transparency and privacy safeguards, but changing the laws and, most importantly, the calcified habits and biases present in the system will take time. Unfortunately, societal crises tend not to wait for people to prepare.

Keeping Privacy In Protesting Crowd And Otherwise

It isn’t easy to protect one’s own privacy in normal times when those who are after our personal information are mostly trying to sell us kayaks or shoes. When instead of advertisers it’s the police with all the spy tools at their disposal, the task gets quite a lot harder.

As highlighted in the recent Wired story, the main vulnerability of a person involved in a protest march is their smartphone. For that matter, anybody walking outside in the U.S. has the same vulnerability and nearly the same chances of being “looked into” by law enforcement.

Smartphones can hold all sorts of personal information on their owners and their contacts: messages, calls, browsing history. Without many hi-tech gimmicks, a police officer may be able to access one’s phone and therefore the information in it, even though they would need a warrant for that. Whether or not the information is directly incriminating, it can be used against the phone owner or someone they know. The best precaution against such scenarios is not to have a smartphone when there’s a risk of facing police. An old-school cell phone can be used as a substitute for communication.

Aside from the information inside, a smartphone transmits information over to the carrier. As mentioned before, authorities can hijack the channel and see whatever unencrypted data it lets through. Encrypted messaging services may help in this scenario, but things like location data and calls will still be accessible to police. In fact, in this scenario, any sort of a cell phone will be giving away its owner’s position, unless it is entirely shielded from radio waves.

Since the protests get a lot of online coverage by journalists and protesters themselves, it is also critical to be cautious of what gets posted.

Importantly, ACLU published a set of guidelines for taking photos, videos, and audio recordings during such events.

Being suspected of taking part in a protest can present risks. Hypothetically, local authorities may use information obtained through digital surveillance to target people from the crowds or find those who documented cases of police misconduct. Sadly, it is not unheard of for police to seek revenge when someone shows their crimes to the world.

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