Ethnic minorities at greater risk of oversurveillance after protests

Past protests show a pattern of systematic, selective tracking of protesters from racial minorities after participating in anti-racist protests. If nothing is done individuals taking part in the current wave of protests are at a higher risk of being over-policed for no other reason than exercising their right to protest.

Key points
  • US government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have selectively surveilled protesters after a protest
  • Protesters who are selectively surveilled for nothing more than taking part in a protest belong to racial minorities and poor communities that are already over-policed
  • There is need to put in place limitations that prevent abusive predictive policing of people who exercise their right to protest
News & Analysis
woman at protest

Photo by Étienne Godiard on Unsplash

For the past few weeks, people across the world, starting in the US, have taken to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd, a victim of police brutality. The protests, which are organised by and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have also become a platform to protest against state sponsored violence and systematic racism against black people.

The majority of articles and media focus have so far focused on what happens during the protest, namely an increasingly militarised police force, the various surveillance technologies used by the police to monitor protesters as well as the use of excessive force against protesters.

Most recently, we have seen companies including IBM and Amazon rushing to make public declarations against the use of facial recognition as a response to the racist implications of their own technology. These companies are hoping that we will forget that they are the ones that lobbied for the police to buy and use this and other surveillance tools in the first place.

Selective surveillance of protesters after the protest

Very little attention has been paid to how participation in a protest leads to unwarranted, continued surveillance for some of the protesters long after the end of a protest, and more importantly the fact that such post-protest surveillance activities usually affect black people and other racial minorities the most.

In 2015, The Intercept relied on the US Freedom of Information Act to obtain hundreds of documents from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The documents revealed that the DHS had followed members of the Black Lives Matter movement who participated in protests that took place in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 following the death of Michael Brown, who was murdered by a police officer.

The documents revealed that the DHS continued to collect information, including location data, on Black Lives Matter activists from public social media accounts for several months without providing an adequate justification for targeting them.

This tracking extended even to non-protest events such as prayers, silent vigils, a walk to raise breast cancer awareness, and a music parade. According to The Intercept, “[t]he reports confirm social media surveillance of the protest movement and ostensibly related events in the cities of Ferguson, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and New York.”

No reason was given by the DHS for this continued surveillance; these people were surveilled just because they participated in protests. The unjustified surveillance of black people linked to anti-racist protests was not isolated to just the DHS.

In July 2016, a similar Freedom of Information Act request was jointly filed by two US organisations, Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Documents and emails released in response to the request show that the FBI targeted the movements, homes, and cars of individuals who organised or participated in the Ferguson protests of August 2014. The FBI also did not have any adequate justification that their surveillance was necessary. Similarly, individuals targeted by the FBI were predominantly black.

The FBI along with the Baltimore police departments have even received surveillance information from private entities such as ZeroFox, a cybersecurity firm which is on record for surveilling organisers of anti-racist protests. The same firm labeled Black Lives Matters organisers as “threat actors” even in the absence of any criminal activities or records to support that claim. The New York police department reportedly hired ZeroFox to carry out the surveillance of protesters during protests sparked by the police killing of Eric Garner in July 2014.

Why is this problematic?

The continuous surveillance of people linked to protests is done under the guise of predicting crime and potential offenders. However, participating in protests is not a crime. It is our prerogative and our right to participate in protests without retribution.

In practice this is a form of predictive policing that feeds on over-policing, in this instance individuals from minority and ethnic communities who organise or participate protests.

Black communities in the US, the UK and elsewhere are already over-policed, and it’s an ongoing reality that will become worse as the data is integrated into their lives, e.g. in welfare, employment, and other decisions.

Despite years of promises to change, the problems of over-policing continue. For instance, an analysis of 2018 policing figures in the United Kingdom showed that London’s black population, was disproportionately targeted compared to the white population when it came to stop and search procedures by the Metropolitan Police. The London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime’s 2018 statistics show that 43% of searches carried out were of black people, while 35.5% were of white people even though black people only make up 15.6% of London’s population while white people make up 59.8% of the city’s population.

Even more concerning is that this disproportionate policing has continued despite the fact that searches on black people were less likely to detect crime than those conducted on white people, and most stops found no wrongdoing.

This is very similar to findings from July 2016, which showed that 87% of the people recorded in the London Metropolitan Police Service Gangs Violence Matrix were from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. 78% of those listed were black - even though black people only made up 13% of London’s total population at the time.

Research from the US reveals that black adults are about five times as likely as whites to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity.

In a similar way, poor communities are more likely to experience over-policing when compared to more affluent communities. In Sweden, police targeted poor suburbs when they used blanket facial recognition to target criminal gangs in a bid to decrease shootings. The poverty and exclusion that characterise these poor communities are seen as the basic factors of the criminal activities the police are trying to reduce.

Victims of abusive over-policing and selective surveillance have a harder time accessing public services, funds and even job opportunities. For example, service providers and prospective employers in the UK are less likely to assist, provide services or hire someone who is listed in a criminal database such as the London Metropolitan Police Service Gangs Violence Matrix. Even though 2016 data shows that at least 35% of the individuals listed on the criminal database at the time had never committed any ‘serious offence.’

What must be done

  • Government authorities need to stop surveilling those that participated in protests if there is no reasonable suspicion that they have committed a crime.

  • They also must ensure that people of black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are not disproportionately impacted by new surveillance tools and tactics.

  • There is an urgent need to limit the surveillance powers and systems that are prone to abuse by state authorities.