Interactive online forums such as Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter, which have become the modern-day equivalent of the town square, have become a perfect storm for citizen surveillance. An example is the national network of “fusion centers” created to gather and share intelligence on the activities of American citizens among federal agencies, local police departments, and the private sector.
Law enforcement agencies that operate this national network of fusion centers realized the enormous potential to monitor citizen activities and have created expansive datamining to do just that. “In our heightened political moment, the fact that now every single public gathering is being surveilled by local, state, and federal government is incredibly concerning for civil liberties,” stated Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst focused on surveillance and policing at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Austin Regional Intelligence Center (“ARIC”), a fusion center operated by the Austin Police Department, was at the center of “BlueLeaks,” as reported by The Intercept news organization. BlueLeaks is a “release of 19 gigabytes of data hacked from fusion centers around the country” that proved just how far beyond monitoring for “incitement rhetoric” it has gone. ARIC monitored announcements for, and discussions about, every protest or social gathering or other events, such as those by Black Lives Matter and the South by Southwest festival, The Intercept reported. Investigators were instructed to “Please include the location, number of protesters, whether or not there are any signs that it may be violent, and any other information you feel may be relevant.”
This information was shared in updates to local, state, and national law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and even the CIA. In an email, Ron Phillips, deputy director of ARIC, wrote that, “We at the ARIC completely understand concerns as they may relate to ‘monitoring’ protest or events. We do not continually monitor protests or events.” Phillips added that, when ARIC does take an interest in events, it is only out of a concern for “safety of our community.”
At best, these assertions are disingenuous. The BlueLeaks documents contain disclaimer notices acknowledging that legally protected events are being surveilled. The disclaimer is titled “First Amendment Acknowledgement” and reads that ARIC “recognizes” and “safeguards” citizens’ First Amendment rights and reports only “those activities where the potential use of incitement rhetoric could be used to instigate acts of violence.”
Guariglia calls the disclaimer a “fig leaf” over the reality being “police feel a need to have situational awareness over any event, based on politics and race of the people participating.” While the Constitution is not intended to specifically cover acts within the public sphere, law enforcement appears to stretch the spirit of the document: that the government is to refrain from encroaching on protected activities.
It is hard to imagine that so many events, such as a meditation event or a “Stay Black and Live” event – an entirely virtual event, a funk music parade, and even a pro-police rally require such extensive surveillance.
The proverbial “war on crime” has become a much too literal exercise against the American people. When all people are viewed through the lens of suspected criminal activity, it inevitably leads to the abuse of civil rights. Law enforcement is for protecting the functioning society, not deciding what qualifies as acceptable protected activities. One ARIC primary policy advisory committee member summed it up by saying, “My problem is this. I get sometimes nervous making decisions about how something’s going to go to a police department, when I don’t know what the hell they do with it.”
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