Are protesters surveilling the police or vice versa? Law enforcement agencies use cell phone location-based data to identify and incriminate demonstrators. Yet handheld videosof police violence, shared online, prompted and sustained the ongoing wave of demonstrations.
The recent surge of public support for the Black Lives Matter movement is in part a result of that widespread visual evidence of police violence, according to T. Greg Doucette, a criminal defense and first amendment attorney based in North Carolina and the host of the Fsck ‘Em All podcast.
Yet Doucette warns that privacy laws do little to protect the people holding the camera and caught on tape from being charged. Law enforcement can access much of the third party data originally developed for targeted advertising. Tracking personal data is just one of the many ways that corporations support police surveillance. Even as technology companies like Amazon and Google express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and promise change, many continue making their products and services available to law enforcement, writes Edward Ongweso Jr. for Motherboard by Vice Media.
Host Frank Stasio talks with Doucette and Ongweso about how policing relies on private-public partnerships to make surveillance more invisible and cost-effective. Stasio also hears from Alvin Jacobs Jr. about how photographers balance privacy concerns with the need to expose state-sanctioned violence. Jacobs is a Charlotte-based image activist who has covered mass demonstrations across the country, including in Minneapolis, Standing Rock, Charlottesville and Ferguson.
Are body cameras an effective watchdog technology against police violence?
Doucette: In North Carolina back in 2016, bipartisan super majorities in the legislature — all but a handful of Republicans and Democrats — adopted a bill called House Bill 972. That made police body cams and dash cams footage secret. … If you happen to be in one of those videos, under that statute, you can see the video but you can't make a copy of it. You can't share it with anybody. And in order to have that video publicly released, there's a new, very cumbersome legal process that you have to go through. That really makes it harder for any of that video to come to light. So if you look, for example, at the frequency of news stories where police body camera footage was shared prior to 2016 versus since 2017 — when that law went into effect — you see a sharp drop off.
Does putting your phone in airplane mode prevent police surveillance?
Doucette: So that depends on your device. For most devices, airplane mode will stop the radio signal going out to other towers or using your GPS. But all the phones have to have what's called the electronic 9-1-1 capability. So oftentimes, even though airplane mode is on, the GPS unit still functions. And you can also see that with photographs, because it's part of the metadata of photos — things like your aperture setting and so on. It also logs your location. And to do that, it has to have a GPS unit on. Even though it looks to you like your phone is not doing anything in airplane mode, in the background, some functions are still operating. They can track your longitude and latitude.
Does facial recognition technology prevent racial profiling?
Ongweso: These products are consistently pushed onto the police departments under the pretense that they'll help them combat the public conception that has emerged of police departments being racist and being discriminatory...
If we think about how data for crime is collected, facial recognition, in and of itself, is biased because the datasets that are used are biased and link criminality to race. … That sort of racial disparity gets baked into the data, and it gets baked into enforcement strategies. It gets baked into criminal justice and punishment and sentencing.
And so, in the attempt to rid themselves of that legacy of racial disparities, they end up replicating it, because they're using a technology that purports itself to be objective, but in reality is just carrying the same exact biases as the human beings who are doing the policing work.
Should protest photographers do more to protect the identities of demonstrators?
Jacobs: What's interesting is that some of the narrative [around] the increased responsibility of the photographer does not take into consideration that members of law enforcement are also photographers. We can't say that, well, photographers should blur faces, right? Well, the police definitely aren't blurring faces.