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How Authorities Can Use The Internet To Identify Protesters


Social media has played a pivotal role in social movements, most recently the protests over police violence here in the United States. Organizers use it to plan rallies, spread videos and build coalitions. But it's also become a tool used by federal and local authorities to identify protesters. Allie Funk has been tracking this. She's a senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House. And she joins us now.


ALLIE FUNK: Happy to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So can you elaborate what we mean when we say Internet surveillance - what we saw in Philadelphia where a protester's shirt was tracked through Etsy to identify and arrest her? How does that work, exactly?

FUNK: Yeah. So Internet surveillance or social media surveillance is really when authorities collect and process all of this personal information that's up on Facebook and Twitter about us. And it's often through automated technology that really allows for real-time access to and storage of our locations, our images. It can be who we're talking to and what we're talking about. And then there's also this more manual monitoring of platforms that's happening where police may be making fake accounts to actually friend activists on Facebook and then get access to more private information.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is this public information? Are these sort of big media surveillance operations a breach of constitutional rights?

FUNK: Our take is, you know, just because something is public doesn't mean that it's really, like, a free-for-all. This sort of information is some of the most intimate details of our lives. You can find out what somebody's religious belief or sexual orientation is online. And really, you know, democracy sort of requires that you have these vibrant public spaces where people can talk and collaborate and organize, you know, freely so that then they can - when they want, they can protest and, you know, let the government know that they might not agree with a certain policy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess law enforcement would say these tools are necessary because they allow them to be able to pinpoint people who might be committing crimes and to use sophisticated modern technology to track them down in a way that allows them, you know, to do so perhaps more efficiently.

FUNK: Yes, they would. I think that's the argument for why they're using these tools. And I think what we really need is just robust oversight and transparency. We don't even know what is really happening and what tools they have. What we find out is through Freedom of Information Acts or court documents.

So really, if we think that the same protections that we all have offline over our personal property in our homes, which means law enforcement need to get a warrant or have reasonable cause, should be also the same safeguards protected online over our online speech and our online communications.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are the implications in particular for the use of surveillance for people of color, specifically?

FUNK: So, you know, these tools can entrench racial discrimination because a lot of the AI or sophisticated technology that's being used for social media surveillance and also, you know, facial recognition are built upon biased data. So they're just reinforcing the racism that is sort of already within our policing system. And then on top of that, the ways in which they're being deployed by local and federal law enforcement are disproportionately impacting racial and religious minorities and also people who are undocumented.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I've seen this argument made about specifically social media, which is that ultimately, there's an understanding that when we use social media, it is, in a sense, public speech and that if you don't want the government to, you know, judge you on it, you shouldn't be saying things that could be potentially inflammatory or put you at peril. What would you say to that argument?

FUNK: I think today, especially if you think about the pandemic we're in, these platforms are really fundamental to our everyday life. So we need Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Zoom to even go about our workday. We need it to communicate to the people that we love and to get access to, you know, accurate health care information.

So I don't think - I think now that these spaces are so important to our everyday life, they are fundamental in order for us to exercise free expression, exercise access to information and, you know, our First Amendment rights to protest. So I think that these public spaces are necessary to keep free from constant surveillance in order for us to have a full realization of those First Amendment rights.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Allie Funk, senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House.

Thank you very much.

FUNK: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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