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Surveillance Society Meets Political Protest

You are being watched.

And in these trying times of COVID-19 and major political protests, surveillance matters.

It seems everyone is making judgments about whether we protect ourselves or society when we leave the house, and how we register outrage or dissent in public. And now those judgments can be made by city, state or federal governments that many do not trust. We will be fined or imprisoned for our actions? We may not know until later, once the video is reviewed.

How much has the situation changed since the last major act of civil unrest? We now live in a surveillance society with GPS tracking on our cars and phones, and cameras wherever we look.

Business Insider reports that in two years the world may have 45 billion cameras while the video-surveillance industry is likely to be worth $64 billion.

Should we simply allow the surveillance society to grow unchecked with few, if any, rules restricting police and government use of these tools? We once relied on public anonymity to protect our movements.  Are we ready to write off such “security by obscurity” as a relic of a distant past?

New York City not only has 9000 surveillance cameras linked to a “Domain Awareness System” that includes facial-recognition and is monitored by police. The system includes both public and private cameras offering law enforcement access that is, as New York police themselves boast, “one of the world’s largest networks of cameras, license plate readers, and radiological sensors, designed to detect and prevent terrorist acts, but also of great value in criminal investigations.”

This does not count the cameras on smartphones that nearly everyone carries now, nor other private camera security systems that the police would need special permission to access. These could include your new doorbell camera or other private building security. In short, unlike the world 20 years ago, cameras are everywhere in our major cities, and the government not only has access to millions of them, but can use A.I. and other software to identify people caught in the pictures, to identify or predict troublesome behavior, and to simply sort people into categories.

If this makes us safer, why would we care? Aside from the essential societal and personal value of our privacy, there may be specific concerns as you travel on your daily route. As stated in a special report from the New York Civil Liberties Union, “HAVE YOU EVER ATTENDED A POLITICAL EVENT? Sought treatment from a psychiatrist? Had a drink at a gay bar? Visited a fertility clinic? Met a friend for a private conversation? Might you have felt differently about engaging in such activities had you known that you could be videotaped in the act—and that there would be no rules governing the distribution of what had been recorded?”

With society more polarized than at any time in recent memory, every act seems like a political act that is likely to offend at least 35% of our fellow citizens. Will surveillance result in social or governmental penalties for failing social distancing rules, evading curfews, or expressing frustration in a peaceful manner? Will someone in power want to punish you for your actions? We do not yet know.

But we do know that you will be captured in the act.

And identified as performing the act by new technology. A recent Washington Post article states, “Facial-recognition technology is another concern. The tools have become more commonly used as law enforcement agencies purchase face-detection software, including Amazon’s Rekognition and Clearview AI. They are typically used to match sometimes low-quality images of faces grabbed from security cameras, social media, or smartphone photos with vast databases of mug shots or images scraped from the Internet to find a person’s name and contact information.” So the technology is not just looking, it is placing names to faces in the crowd.

On the other hand, official cameras caught the violence that led to these protests, and cameras can also protect the protestors. The Post story wrote, “Smartphone camera footage of crowds of protesters peacefully marching and resisting police officers’ advancements has spread on social media, bolstering supporters’ cry that most people are gathering nonviolently. Phone cameras also record scenes that become rallying cries for protesters, including the moment when a police car drove into a crowd of protesters in Brooklyn on Saturday. Some videos from protests have led to disciplinary actions against officers, including firings.” Slate just reported on video capturing Minnesota police officers slashing tires of journalists’ rental cars. So the vast network of cameras can also protect your rights.

The always-excellent Wired published an article on how to protect yourself from surveillance when attending protests. Consider switching your phone to airplane mode and turning off wifi and Bluetooth connectivity – or better yet, placing your smartphone in a Faraday bag or leaving it at home altogether.  If you need to communicate on a device while you protest, consider using an end-to-end encryption app like Signal or Wickr. Masks and glasses protect you from the novel coronavirus, but also may thwart facial recognition systems.

Right now, the surveillance society grows unchecked with few rules. The U.S. Supreme Court has limited police ability to simply inspect the content of smartphones without warrants and limited warrantless tracking of vehicles for an extended time. Yet no legislature seems interested in restricting the placement and use of extensive surveillance camera networks – even law enforcement access to private camera systems. No legislature limits police use of facial recognition software in a politically motivated crowd. And, although the Florida Supreme Court has held warrantless cell tracking to be unconstitutional, no legislature has reduced the ability of police to use Stingray technology to capture private cell phone traffic and simply listen for something to act upon.

Why are our elected politicians unwilling to place limits on government use of surveillance tech? States like Washington, Texas, and Illinois passed laws restricting businesses from using biometric identification technology without the subject’s permission, but isn’t the risk of government intrusion greater than the risk of business intrusion? The police have the authority to lock your body in jail. Business has only the interest in selling goods or services to you (or selling your data to others).

Is there a tipping point where the cameras used for restraining wrong-doers and catching criminals are more dangerous for intimidating peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights? How many unrestricted police cameras do we need? Is anybody counting? Do any of our policymakers care?

I believe that reasonable laws could be passed requiring warrants to surveil peaceful protests and to keep records of who attended. 70 years ago, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment right to freely assemble includes the right to restrict state access to the list of participants in political gatherings. Without defining the limitations on the use of the current explosion of cameras and/or the software that turns video into a sharp-edged surveillance tool, we are slouching towards a country where any statement, act, or visit can be politically evaluated and judged. Just read 1984 or watch the movies Brazil or The Death of Stalin to see how that turns out.

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