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The long, ugly history of how police have tracked protesters

From lanterns to mail monitoring to Wi-Fi, surveillance technology has long been used as a means to find and combat dissent—particularly dissent by communities of color.

The long, ugly history of how police have tracked protesters
[Photos: Bernard Hermant/Unsplash; Mike Von/Unsplash]

The death and destruction of recent days has been chilling, as police departments across America turned on the public they swore to protect and serve. While much of our attention has rightfully been focused on the violence used against our fellow Americans, most of whom are simply exercising their constitutional right to dissent, many have overlooked how technology is fundamentally reshaping how demonstrations are monitored. Police have used everything from Predator drones to facial recognition to track protesters, relying on tools developed for overseas wars to police dissent here at home.

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But while policing protest this way may once have been unfathomable, none of us can claim it’s unprecedented. American police have used technology to combat dissent—especially dissent by communities of color—since before there was a United States of America.

The scene will sound familiar to many: Black and Brown New Yorkers are eyed suspiciously as they walk the city streets, with police using technology to see where they go and who they meet with. But the technology in this scene isn’t a drone or cell phone data—it’s a simple lantern. Back in the 18th century, colonists, fearful that those who they sold, imprisoned, and killed might turn against them, required every slave and Native American to carry a lantern with them after dark. In 1791, they passed the oldest surveillance law in New York City, a time long before the state had declared independence or eliminated slavery.

These lights became a tracking beacon, a way to prevent slaves and Native Americans from coming together to fight their bondage and oppression. Technology served the same function then that it does today in policing marginalized communities: It makes it cheaper and easier to monitor dissent.

As technology evolved, so did the police’s power to track and combat protesters. During New York’s Civil War draft riots, government officials relied on the cutting-edge communications technology of the day—the telegraph—to coordinate their response, allocating officers and sharing intelligence on the suspected leaders of the protests.

As Gilded Age titans became fearful of revolts throughout the late 19th century, they not only erected the massive, fortress-like armories that dot major American cities to this day, they built up networks of informants and monitoring to track those who might resist the status quo. The infrastructure only expanded during the early 20th century, as a growing fear of anarchists, socialists, and just about anyone other than full-throated capitalists led to new powers for monitoring the mail. Under the Sedition Act of 1918, the Postmaster General was empowered to block the delivery of any letter containing “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States.”

But with the 20th century came an inflection point in the criminalization and monitoring of dissent: electronic communications. Empowered by wiretaps, eavesdropping bugs, and then-cutting-edge recording devices, it became routine for police to monitor those who would dare to dissent. For the FBI, a fear of “communist ties” was the pretext for wiretapping and recording Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he fought to end the terrorism of Jim Crow. The recordings were never used to arrest the champion of nonviolent civil disobedience, but the FBI sent them as a threat, along with a crude note urging King to take his own life.

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In this earlier age of analog surveillance, there were clear limits to just how far technology could go in monitoring protest and dissent. Even after wiretaps and telephoto lenses became commonplace in the mid-20th century, undercover police officers and informants remained central to monitoring protests on the ground.

But the digital era changed everything. Today, police departments in America and around the world are able to deploy tools to track protesters with greater precision than ever before. But, just as important, these tools make it much cheaper to keep tabs on far more people than could ever have been followed in the analog age.

During modern protests, IMSI catchers, cell phone logs, and Wi-Fi hotspots can transform our mobile devices into government tracking tools. And the same Bluetooth chips that Apple and Google hope to transform into contact tracing tools for COVID-19 can also track your political activity.

New forms of biometric surveillance, such as facial recognition and gait detection, can identify thousands of protesters from a single video feed. And data analytics firms such as Palantir, which drew international condemnation for supporting ICE’s deportation efforts, can help agencies assemble masses of data from all of these sources, as well as one of the most powerful sources of information that law enforcement has: our own social media accounts.

Thousands of unredacted photos and videos from protesters in recent days give the government an arsenal of surveillance beyond even what its own systems provide. For many, these videos and images are a way of magnifying the power of protest, but they can also amplify the power of the police.

While tracking is nothing new, tracking on this scale is unprecedented, and it risks undermining some of the most fundamental aspects of democracy. When potential protesters know that every action they take is being recorded, it can chill many from joining. Fearful of losing a job, a scholarship, or even their immigration status, many will feel forced to stay silent at the very moment that their voices are most needed.

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But there’s hope on the horizon. Across the country, cities and towns have started putting civilians in charge of police surveillance through Civilian Control over Police Surveillance ordinances. In New York, where some of the most brutal policing tactics and surveillance have unfolded, a bill called the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act would force the NYPD to reveal to protesters how they are being tracked, for the first time in history.

Left unchecked, protest surveillance will transform this ultimate act of populist political expression into something that is dangerous for all but the most privileged among us, creating the ultimate perversion of democracy. But if bills such as the POST Act are enacted, they can start to transform surveillance technology from something that tracks the public into something accountable to the public.


Albert Fox Cahn (@FoxCahn) is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group, and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at NYU School of Law. Zachary Silver is a legal fellow at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center.

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