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Police surveillance, biometric data collection threatening right to protest

Police surveillance, biometric data collection threatening right to protest

Police surveillance is threatening people’s right to protest according to Privacy International as it publishes a practical guide to reducing the risk of being identified at a protest. This comes as police across North America are found to be abusing footage collected at demonstrations, while the director of identity at Unisys Asia Pacific argues that it is not mass surveillance and the use of biometrics is simply an update to old-fashioned policing.

“The right to protest is facing threats across the world, even in democratic countries where it is supposed to be a bedrock of our essential freedoms,” writes Harmit Kambo, Campaigns Director at Privacy International, in a NetPol post to introduce the organization’s new practical guide ‘Free to Protest: The Protester’s Guide to Surveillance and How To Avoid It’.

The guide, a colorful step-by-step PDF, is targeted at the UK where protests have been threatened with Covid-19 restrictions and government plans to literally restrict demonstrations to peaceful protest by imposing noise level limits. In the UK, “people can find themselves labelled as ‘domestic extremists’ or more recently as ‘aggravated activists’ just for attending the ‘wrong’ kind of peaceful protest,” writes Kambo. Privacy International intends to produce versions tailored to other countries.

The motivation comes from the growing array of police technology as well as powers. The mix of biometric surveillance strategies and poor protections around what police do with surveillance materials collected leads not just to a risk of being identified during legal protest, but a strong disincentive to participate.

Kambo describes the effect as making protests “a modern panopticon, whereby even if you’re not actually being watched, you act as if you are being watched, and modify your behaviour accordingly. Indeed, perhaps you might think twice about even attending a protest because you don’t want to trade your right to protest with your right to privacy”.

The guide explains the problems of and “what to think about” when facing a range of surveillance techniques including mobile phone extraction, cloud extraction, facial recognition, gait recognition, location tracking and predictive policing.

Examples of police surveillance continue to appear. Rabble.ca reports that people gathering in Ottawa at the Every Child Matters walk to mourn the Indigenous children who died in Canada’s residential schools were subjected to aggressive police actions when they attempted to block police cameras with placards.

Public records requests by South Florida Sun Sentinel (for readers outside the US, see the TechDirt summary) and Pulitzer Center journalists revealed that South Florida law enforcement used facial recognition software on photographs and footage collected at gatherings in March 2020 to protest police violence following the death of George Floyd.

The investigation found that police departments submitted images of protestors for checking without referencing any crimes. Searches were run on Florida’s Face Analysis Comparison and Examination System (FACES) database despite guidelines forbidding such searches for subjects engaged in First Amendment activities such as legal protest.

Meanwhile, former South Australia Police Force surveillance photographer and current director of identity and biometrics for Unisys Asia Pacific, David Chadwick, argues that current police surveillance techniques are simply an update to his covert photography in the 1990s.

In an interview with ZDNet Chadwick compares his undercover photography and sending of photos to detective agencies in search of a name for the subjects, with using large databases today. He says it is still a case of a probable match, that it is a lead generation and never a hundred percent accurate.

Chadwick also diminishes potential issues of bias in the Australian passport dataset, calling it “wonderfully diverse” in comparison to the US version “filled with correctional datasets, which is overrepresented by people of colour”.

Chadwick calls on the government to improve the way it communicates about its own biometrics projects such as the myGov system for accessing public services and criticizes industry for allowing inaccurate perceptions of the powers of surveillance technology to pervade.

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