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Privacy & Surveillance During the Recent Black Lives Matter Protests

Technology has become ubiquitous in modern life, especially for young people. Yet the recent Black Lives Matter protests have exposed just how extensive surveillance technology truly is, and how it is being misused by police and the private sector in ways that endanger people’s rights to privacy and protest.

In short: Police and private sector surveillance of recent Black Lives Matters protests raises a difficult question for all of society: should profit and convenience take precedent over privacy and security?

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Surveillance Technology at Protests: Advances in technology have been used to track and surveil protest movements worldwide for the past several years. Surveillance is not just being conducted by police and governments, but also by political organizations and the private sector.

Geofencing, where data on all electronics in a given time and place is gathered up and traded without individuals ever knowing about it, has been used at recent Black Lives Matter protests in the United States.

  • Political groups are using geofencing to target people at protests with political messages and advertisements. This information is also frequently bought and sold in the private sector without people’s knowledge.
  • Police geofencing warrants have been used for blanket data gathering on hundreds of innocent people without their knowledge.
  • Geofencing warrants have been misused to accuse people of crimes simply because they biked by the crime scene.

Facial recognition software is also known to be used by hundreds of police services worldwide and is seeing increased use at peaceful protests.

Protests are frequently targeted by police using IMSI catchers, also known as “StingRays” or “Crossbows”.

Why should I care? Mass surveillance at protests threatens not only privacy rights, but broader rights to peaceful assembly and the presumption of innocence as well.

The lack of accountability of police and private entities that indiscriminately gather data at protests raises serious questions about the abuse and misuse of people’s data.

  • The use of facial recognition software by police poses serious problems for the Black Lives Matter movement:
  • The software is known to be 10 to 100 times more likely to misidentify people of colour.
  • The software has also shown gender bias.
  • Given these inaccuracies, this raises serious questions about how people’s rights to protest, privacy, and to be innocent until proven guilty are being respected.

A lack of transparency about their use of surveillance technology has been shown by police services across Canada and elsewhere.

  • Public information on police use of IMSI catchers is limited at best,
  • All while the RCMP and police in Vancouver and Toronto have all denied using surveillance technology at various times, only to walk back on their statements after the fact.

The Bottom Line: The use of surveillance technology at previous and current protests raises serious questions about people’s rights to both privacy and assembly.

  • The police and the private sector continue to develop and use surveillance technology with little to no accountability or transparency.
  • Progress is being made, with provincial and federal privacy commissioners launching an investigation into police use of Clearview AI, and Amazon and IBM announcing they have both ended police use of their facial recognition software for at least the next year.

Yet, questions need to be asked about what role surveillance technology has in democratic societies, how to balance the needs of criminal investigations with people’s rights, and what role, if any, the private sector should play in the field of surveillance technology. This reveals the uncomfortable truth that as the Black Lives Matter protests continue, people are being spied on with little knowledge and little accountability.

~ How to stay anonymous and avoid surveillance at demonstrations ~

  • Wear a mask to avoid COVID-19 transmission, try not to wear clothing that makes you stand out from your peers.
  • Avoid bringing your phone. If you do, place it on airplane mode.
  • Consider how you will get to a protest. Transit cards can lead back to you so riding a bike or walking is the safest option.
  • If you post photos at a protest, make sure you scrub the metadata from the image before sharing online.