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How to Spot Surveillance at Protests

by Anthony Accurso

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (“EFF”) Senior Investigative Researcher Dave Maass has posted a 25-minute video titled “How To Observe Police Surveillance at Protests.” In it, Maass explains the visible and non-visible tools deployed against protesters.

First and foremost, anything with a camera can be used by police to collect information on protesters. This includes cameras on fixed positions (like light poles) and on mobile equipment like cruises, drones, and bodycams. Depending on the type of bodycam though, these may be obvious (square box on an officer’s chest) or partially hidden (attached to sunglasses or with only the lens exposed through a vest).

Drones can take many forms as well, ranging from small quadcopters to the full-size predator drones that were used in wars in the Middle East and deployed during the protests in Portland, Oregon, this past summer. These are often quiet, and can stay in flight for longer than standard helicopter units. It should be noted that protesters may also deploy drones as counter-surveillance, so drones (especially smaller units) may not always belong to police.

The cameras can record photos and video, which may be livestreamed to police command in real time or uploaded later. While bodycams were initially seen as a tool for police accountability, back-end analysis tools such as facial recognition and automated license-plate readers (“ALPRs”) have made these tools even more useful for state surveillance. Especially as ALPRs may be deployed throughout the area, which allows police to track everyone from their homes to the protest, and back again, as well as identifying any out-of-state vehicles that attend.

Many of these tools may be located together on towers. The Terrahark M.U.S.T. is van-mounted, while the Wanco tower has an extendable pole and is often truck-mounted. These will be more recognizable as they are often equipped with cameras, spotlights, and speakers, and sometimes include a small space for an officer.

Cameras may also be able to sense heat, which allows police to track protesters at night or in other low-visibility conditions.

Another non-obvious police surveillance tool is an IMSI catcher, which is also known as a Stingray or dirtbox. These masquerade as cell towers and intercept text messages, web requests, and user info from cell phones nearby.

Surveillance tools are not limited to the actual protests, either. Citizens who are arrested may be subject to biometric scanning of their face or hands to facilitate identification. And police may gather this information to identify and follow citizens long after the protest ends. Police have been caught using fake names on popular social media sites to digitally spy on targeted citizens. The EFF and other civil rights groups have long called on social media companies to prohibit police from using “covert” accounts in this manner.

Protesters should be able to gather peacefully and be heard by their governments, even or especially when their voices are inconvenient. The tools used by police to surveil protesters work to intimidate, and therefore, silence legitimate citizen activities. Any large-scale criminal justice reforms must surely address the expansion of police surveillance if we ever hope to rein in the worst of police abuses and create a system of true accountability.



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