by Casey J. Bastian
The actions and eventual trial of Derek Chauvin were at the center of multiple protests. The people had had enough of police brutality and a lack of accountability in Minneapolis; they were angry and wanted everyone to take notice. Law enforcement took notice and responded by initiating a surveillance program called “Operation Safety Net” (“OSN”). What OSN was, and what its supposed purpose described by law enforcement as being, are two very different things.
In theory, OSN was an operation by the Minneapolis Police Department (“MPD”) to “preserve and protect lawful First Amendment nonviolent protests and demonstrations.” What it became is a massive surveillance dragnet of those expressing their First Amendment rights to protest, specifically against the MPD and police in general. The MPD used OSN to identify and track civil rights activists and journalists, apparently needing to know who exactly is “against” them, even though such knowledge probably doesn’t increase public safety or accountability in law enforcement. What it does do is provide law enforcement with targets.
OSN wasn’t a small, short-term operation either. According to documents obtained by MIT Technology Review, OSN was created by the MPD and then quickly expanded. Supposedly running between February 2021 and January 2022, the OSN operation involved nine agencies in Minnesota, including the MPD and the Minnesota State Patrol (“MSP”). OSN also involved 120 out-of-state officers, the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, 3,000 National Guard soldiers, and six FBI agents – four of whom were on the “executive operation team.”
Drones and helicopters were used to create a “watchlist” shared through a fast-moving data network called “Intrepid Response.” In this way, the enormous law enforcement apparatus had at their immediate disposal “a wealth of information about journalists and peaceful protesters officers might encounter while policing protests.” Based on these documents, it is doubtful OSN’s only purpose was to maintain public order.
While OSN was ostensibly ended, and the public OSN website now dormant, the surveillance program appears to be alive and well. Obtained law enforcement emails reveal executive and intelligence teams referring to “OSN2.0” during regular planning meetings. Although other trials have been conducted since Chauvin’s, these documents beg the question: Why was it necessary to continue these regular OSN planning meetings at all? More concerning than the answer to such a question is that the information has not been publicly disclosed about OSN’s continuing goals or the extent of its involvement in future protest surveillance. Officials actively deny that the program is even being formally continued or renewed beyond the Chauvin trial.
More evidence of likely permanent OSN activity is that Minnesota law enforcement officers have received permanent pay bumps and powers related to OSN. Wholly new positions and titles within the MPD and the MSP were created that leverage new surveillance technologies and methods.
These details are unsavory, and more are likely to be revealed in the future. A free country cannot have surveillance programs exclusively created to monitor the public’s response to severe police misconduct when the information gathered is not used to impose accountability on law enforcement. When the information is instead used to vilify those demanding accountability, the public’s distrust of law enforcement deepens.
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