It’s 2020, and you live in Chicago. A little bit about yourself: You’re politically active. Not a front-of-the-lines activist necessarily, but someone who cares about race, and income inequality, about the state of policing and the police state. You’re tech savvy—not a hacker or a programmer—but you know your way around social media, and that’s where you get a lot of information about events like readings, birthdays, whatever. You see an event in your Facebook newsfeed one day, a protest against police brutality, let’s say, and you click “attending.”
Here’s what happens next.
You’re already being watched before you leave your house. No one’s eyes are necessarily on you. But you are being tracked, logged, recorded, nonetheless. We’ve all heard about how much data sites like Facebook and Google collect on you, even when you’re not on the sites. They often know your location, what you’ve purchased, and what you’re searching for. Most of us give those companies our data voluntarily, without even knowing exactly how it’s used, either by private companies, or by the police state.
Surveillance has always been legal in the U.S., but before the proliferation of technology, it required manpower. Someone had to be actively surveilling you, driving a car behind yours, clicking a camera, jotting down notes on your every move. Now, tracking people is cheaper and easier than ever.
In 2020, law enforcement agencies are using this data in smarter, more precise, and creepier ways. Technologies were developed long ago to track you and your friends via your Facebook feed. So were databases where pictures of faces are stored indefinitely for use with facial recognition software. Cameras watching our moves on subways and in traffic and on the street have been inconspicuously recording for decades.
Now, technologies work in sync to build a comprehensive profile of every citizen. The state is aware of all your online and offline movements, but that's only the beginning. They can now use all the information they’ve amassed over the years to predict what you’ll do next—where you’ll go, and with who, and why.
Cops use apps like Geofeedia to keep track of your social media feeds. They can see anyone who is attending the protest you’re going to; they can create maps to show where those people live; they can cross-reference the list of attendees with prior events; they can create social webs using this information, to track who interacts with who. And they know who is a dabbler in activism and who is a leader.
Using computer algorithms, your social media information, and data about past protests, cops assign a risk level to you—maybe you’re not a radical, maybe you’d never participate in a riot, but maybe someone you’re Facebook friends with would, or did. And so the cops decide it would be a good idea to keep an eye on you, before, during, and after this protest.
These predictive profiles have been shown to carry the biases of more low-tech policing; being black makes it more likely that cops will predict you’re going to commit a crime. In 2016, predictive policing was in its infancy, but it's 2020, and now it can be used not only to track people, but to intercept them before they act. If the state’s proprietary algorithms decide you are a threat, you could be getting a knock on your door before you even leave for the protest.
Short of the cops showing up at your home, you will not be aware that they’ve decided to track you like this, and there’ll be no way of knowing. For nearly all the surveillance cops do these days, no warrant is needed. And those social networks you post on all the time pass data to companies that work with the cops, slipping by on vague terms-of-service loopholes.
You leave your place, and the tracking continues. If you walk to the protest, there may even be cops assigned to follow and photograph you, another thing they don’t need a warrant for. Regardless, hundreds of cameras are recording overhead, some on light poles, and some on drones—and there’s no distinction made between these different types of surveillance.
It’s impossible to know how many cameras are watching you, but Chicago has the third largest security camera network in the world. Not including the tens of thousands operated privately by property owners, there are over 22,000 government-operated cameras across the city. They’re not just in places like housing projects. Cameras are on the subway you take to work and even your block’s street corner.
If you decide to drive to the protest, your face might not be recorded, but your car acts like a kind of fingerprint. Automatic license plate readers scan every plate that passes. You might pass one on a cop car, one at a tollbooth, one on a pole at a highway entrance. The readers not only pick up the plate, but the names associated with it, the date and time, and your location. This information is then stored, often indefinitely, in data systems that can be shared between several police departments within the region.
At this protest, a prominent figure, a politician of some sort, is set to speak. That means the protest is considered a possible national security threat, and so there will be a data center set up. Every law enforcement agency in the area, from the highway patrol to the FBI, will be able to share all of their data, which include your license plate number, your predictive profile information, your face, and all the people you’re connected to via social networks. In Cleveland during the Republican National Convention in 2016, dozens of law enforcement agencies coordinated in a shared surveillance center to keep protests under watch with over 100 cameras and a wall of video screens. In 2020, these centers don’t even have to be located in the city where you’re protesting. Just like the U.S. military can launch drone strikes from thousands of miles away, the national government or private contractors can be tracking you from essentially anywhere. And there’d be almost no way to know who or where they are.
You park, and arrive at the protest, where it’s nearly guaranteed that cameras have been set up specifically for the event. There’s a mobile operations unit somewhere too–a van of some kind, marked or unmarked, in which police are watching the footage. This is where they’ll be operating their drone technology. These drones are outfitted with a mic, a camera, or maybe both.
And then there are the body cams on the cops, ostensibly there to hold police accountable when they use force. But because they now come with facial recognition software, body cams are also used to surveil anyone the cop comes in contact with. As an officer approaches the group you’re standing with, his body cam takes a live-feed of your face.
Pretty much immediately your “faceprint” is matched with everything else that’s on file.The government has an ever-growing database full of information about you, complete with pictures, tweets and Facebook status updates. In 2020, algorithms do much of the work that once had to be done by humans. Officers are now roving surveillance machines, ones who might be able figure out exactly who you are without even asking for an ID.
By 2016, 117 million Americans–nearly half the country–already had images of themselves stored in facial recognition databases used by local, state and federal authorities. Because people of color, especially black Americans, are arrested so much more frequently than whites, they're more likely to be in a facial recognition database. And it doesn’t matter if they were never convicted of a crime.
At this protest they’ll also be trying to get a look at what you’re saying, who you’re in communication with, and where you’ll be going next. In a parked van somewhere, or perhaps hooked up to a drone, will be a “stingray,” which mimics a cellphone tower in order to trick your phone into connecting to it. The stingray picks up your phone number, your name, a list of who you’ve been talking to, and might even record calls. Once the police have your unique cell phone ID, they can locate your phone anywhere, anytime, without needing a stingray nearby.
They may also use your phone to intercept video you’re recording, in order to use your phone as their own private surveillance device. And you using your cell phone at all, if you plan on doing something illegal at the protest—like spray painting or blocking traffic—can be considered a criminal act. Following Ohio's lead, in many states you can now be arrested, even before you pull out the paint or step foot into the street, just for using your phone to plan a crime.
Cops can also shut down cell towers in order to prevent protesters from communicating with each other (they already did this in 2011 in an attempt to shut down a San Francisco protest). And they’ll push out a blaring emergency alert to your phone, the kind you sometimes get about weather and terrorist suspects, this one telling everyone to disperse.
Of course, not all the surveillance employed is going to be high-tech; it’s 2020, but the cops are still up to their old tricks. Police for decades have pretended to be protesters, dressing in plainclothes to convince activists they’re one of them. During the Civil Rights movement with COINTELPRO the FBI infiltrated black radical movements in order to not only track them, but throw them off balance, disrupt their mission, distract. This happened as recently as 2016, during Black Lives Matter rallies in New York and Washington D.C.
Let’s say you make it through the protest unscathed. You’re not arrested, not dispersed via sound cannon, a device that emits a noise so loud and disturbing that it can cause deafness, or an Active Denial System, essentially a microwave that heats you up until you’re too uncomfortable to stand in one place. The crowd starts to dissipate naturally, and you’re ready to go home.
The police are ready too.
The FBI regularly flies surveillance planes over protests. And as cameras have gotten better, those planes are now able to see exactly who you are from thousands of feet above. Local police departments are also using a tool called Persistent Surveillance, where with one plane, they can keep track of 30 square miles of activity, flagging specific people and cars to track from the sky. Persistent Surveillance maps will alert the cops when you’ve left the protest, and create a route, like Google Maps directions, to wherever you’re going next.
After watching you from the sky, scanning your face and license plate number, analyzing your tweets and Facebook connections, the cops decide you are a risk. So, like they did in Cleveland before the 2016 Republican National Convention, they stop by your house just to check in. The police can’t arrest you, because they can’t prove you’re conspiring to do something illegal. But they can still knock on your door.
Maybe it doesn’t mean that much to you. Social networks and credit card companies have been tracking what you buy for years; security cameras in building lobbies already know who your friends are. Perhaps you have just come to accept that the state will watch you too. And so when you answer the door you greet the cops respectfully, answer their questions about the protest, and then send them on their way.
But what if all the surveillance has a more subtle effect over time? Each layer that makes up your profile in the database—the hours of footage, multiple years worth of tweets—just adds more and more difficulty to the already challenging activity of protest. After a couple of protests, you come to realize that rallying around a cause isn’t only about the issue at hand, like the latest war or animal rights. In 2020, protest is also inherently about the surveillance state. And because you’re starting to feel tired of always being watched, next time, you stay home.
The protest described above was based on interviews with Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the ACLU, Mariko Hirose, staff attorney at the NYCLU, Jocelyn Rosnick, assistant policy director at the ACLU of Ohio, Micah White, author of The End of Protest, activists and artists Xuedi Chen and Pedro G. C. Oliveira, Shahid Buttar, director of grassroots advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Andrew G. Ferguson, professor of law at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, Jeffrey Welty, professor of law and government at the UNC School of Government, and Kevin Blowe, coordinator at the UK Network for Police Monitoring.
Peter Moskowitz is a writer based in New York. He's writing a book about gentrification for Nation Books/Perseus.