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Debate on surveillance and privacy heats up as U.S. protests rage

by Umberto Bacchi and Avi Asher-Schapiro | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 1 June 2020 18:09 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A security camera hangs from the roof of the Secretariat Building at the United Nations headquarters with the East River and Queensboro Bridge in the background in New York City on September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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Chaotic protests over race have fueled a debate over growing use of surveillance technology by security forces

By Umberto Bacchi and Avi Asher-Schapiro

MILAN/NEW YORK, June 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Chaotic demonstrations over race and policing that swept through the United States over the past week have fuelled a debate over the growing use of surveillance technology by security forces in protests worldwide and its impact on privacy.

Peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis last week, swelled into scenes of violence in the United States over the weekend and also broke out in London and other world cities.

The unrest has drawn a large response from security forces in the United States, raising concerns from privacy groups about the use of new surveillance tools that activists say risk stifling people's right to protest.

"All the technology we have been warning about for a while are starting to come to fruition in these protests," said Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

"They're bringing out the whole range".

Here is what you need to know about surveillance and privacy during protests:


While monitoring protests is nothing new, authorities' ability to potentially identify those in attendance from distance and without detection has increased in recent years.

Among new technologies deployed by police forces in countries like Germany, the United States and Britain, are real-time facial recognition cameras, phone tracking tools known as IMSI catchers and drones, according to privacy groups.

Last Friday, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agency flew a surveillance drone normally used for border patrols over Minneapolis, the city at the hub of the last wave of protests.

The CBP said the drone "was preparing to provide live video to aid in situational awareness at the request of our federal law enforcement partners" but was diverted back upon reaching the city as authorities realised it was no longer needed.

Kuda Hove, a policy officer at Privacy International, said the use of the drone was an example of how easy it was for some governments to repurpose military grade surveillance equipment to monitor and discourage the exercise of civilian rights.


Privacy activists worry that by making it harder for protesters to remain anonymous, surveillance technology deployed by authorities around the globe could have a chilling effect on demonstrations, dissuading people from participating.

From facial recognition cameras to phone tracking devices, monitoring tools could also be abused to prosecute activists and dissenters and target vulnerable groups and minorities, according to Privacy International.

"Planning and participating in protests requires us to communicate freely and confidentially without unlawful interference," said programme director Ilia Siatitsa.

"New surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of authorities to monitor protests. They are already capable of conducting generalised, invisible, real-time surveillance of protests, from a distance, without people knowing or consenting."


Face masks have become increasingly common at protests across the world, particularly in Hong Kong where anti-government demonstrators have also resorted to tearing up "smart" lamp posts equipped with surveillance cameras.

Artists and fashion designers have come up with other wearable devices, like sunglasses and decoy T-shirts, promising to cheat cameras and provide people with a veil of anonymity.

Some privacy groups have also been advising would-be protesters to ditch smartphones and cars when going to a demonstration to avoid GPS tracking and automatic plate readers.

A "surveillance self-defence" guide by EFF provides other tips, such as putting mobile devices on airplane mode and using encrypted messaging services to communicate.

Activists in the United States have also warned protesters against filming fellow demonstrators and sharing the footage online to avoid providing security forces with additional information.

"We must consider the value and danger of cellphones during these protests which is why we encourage people to only film the police, or leave their phones at home," said Jacob Crawford, the founder of WeCopWatch, an organization that trains communities and activists to monitor police.

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(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi and Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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