Police and federal agents, including FBI and Customs and Border Patrol officers, are increasingly subjecting activists, protesters, and journalists to improper and sometimes illegal surveillance. With an array of clandestine tactics and powerful technology available to law enforcement to monitor First Amendment protected activities, in public and online, ordinary Americans have almost no way of knowing when or how they are being tracked and how that data is being used.
While images of officers using batons and shields to manhandle peaceful demonstrators spark widespread outrage, surveillance happening behind the scenes receives far less scrutiny. Facial recognition technology, drones and social media monitoring are routinely incorporated into policing of protests with little transparency and despite mounting evidence that such methods interfere with the right to assemble and disproportionately targets marginalized groups.
These examples are only the tip of the iceberg and it could be years before the myriad of ways local and federal law enforcement track free speech activities is known. Here’s what we do know: technology-driven surveillance of protest and movements is ripe for abuse. This is particularly true for racial justice protestors, who have been disproportionally arrested in higher numbers and subjected to harsher penalties since the murder of George Floyd.
Further troubling is the essentially unconditional support of lawmakers who see everything through a “law and order” prism, and are reluctant to hold police officers accountable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent wave of anti-protest laws that over half the states either passed or considered. It’s not a coincidence that Florida’s “anti-riot” law includes provisions that specifically prohibit “defunding the police” and increase penalties for protest-related activities. Lawmakers in North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin supported bills with similar language.
Police departments cooperate with and look to one another for strategies and tactics, and mass surveillance without oversight fosters a dangerous dynamic that invites impropriety. Combined with officials who willfully ignore police misconduct, this toxic template threatens our right to protest and must not go unchallenged.