Archive for category: Surveillance
Two officers with an FBI task force showed up at the home of a Michigan state senator’s chief of staff and aggressively questioned her about a draft bill she had discussed on a private legislative Zoom call. The bill would limit the use of tear gas by police against protesters.
The incident happened in Southfield, a suburb north of Detroit, on October 29, days before the presidential election and less than a month after the FBI had foiled a terror plot by far-right violent extremists to kidnap Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and seize control of the Capitol building. The men, an FBI special agent and a local police officer assigned to the task force, knocked on the door of Katie Reiter, chief of staff to state Sen. Rosemary Bayer, a Democrat. They told her that they had received a “report” about an online conversation she had participated in from her home 10 days earlier, in which she had discussed “the use of tear gas during the election,” Reiter told The Intercept. They then pressed her to answer questions about the bill’s substance and timing even after she had told them what her job was and repeatedly warned that the content of the draft legislation was confidential.
“He was very unpleasant,” Reiter said of the special agent, who stood close to her without wearing a mask and combatively asked questions while refusing to answer hers. “I said, ‘Well, you know who I work for, right? And what I do for a living?’” she recalled. “Because I figured they would have Googled before they came to my house. He said, ‘No, we have no idea who you are.’”
Reiter had discussed the proposed ban on tear gas on a private 90-minute Zoom call with Bayer and a handful of other staffers on October 19, part of a package of proposed legislation drafted in response to the George Floyd protests last summer. She believes she might have discussed the election as well, possibly strategizing about whether to introduce the draft bill before or after the November vote. But the conversation was a routine work call — and the FBI’s visit and insistent questioning raised alarming questions about how and why the legislative discussion warranted police scrutiny.
While Reiter says the two officers refused to answer any questions about how they became aware of her private meeting, she noted that an appliance repairman was in a nearby room at the time of the call and might have overheard the conversation and alerted the authorities. “I don’t think it can be ruled out,” she said.
A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on the record, as did a spokesperson for Zoom. Regardless of how the FBI came to know of the call, civil rights advocates argued it was highly inappropriate for the agents to interrogate an elected official’s aide about legislative matters.
Mike German, a former FBI special agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, noted that there are severe restrictions on the FBI’s political activities, including any investigative effort that might impact an election or legislation. “Certainly if there was any intention to intimidate staffers in their deliberations about legislation, that would be highly problematic,” he told The Intercept. “And the police officers or task force officers should have recognized that as soon as the witness said that she was a staffer discussing legislation.”
German also noted that the incident was indicative of a long-standing problem with the FBI’s war on terror-era policy to investigate every tip it receives, no matter how implausible or far-fetched — an effort that he says wastes resources while putting civil liberties at risk and hindering the FBI’s ability to pursue the most credible threats.
“For our safety, we put fire alarms in every building, but we also make it against the law to pull them if there isn’t a fire, because we recognize that responding to false alarms dulls the response time,” he said. “And yet the security apparatus we’ve created post-9/11 creates a massive amount of false alarms.”
View of the FBI building in Detroit.
Photo: Google Maps
Reiter had been in bed when she was woken up by loud pounding on her door and voices yelling “Police!” at around 8 a.m. She threw on a bathrobe and answered the door, where two plainclothes officers first identified themselves as police and then as FBI. Reiter did not recognize their badges, so she went inside to get dressed and called her sister, who lives nearby, her husband, father, and local police, whom she asked to come over. “I didn’t really know if these were FBI agents or not,” she told The Intercept. “I was afraid to open my door.”
When Southfield police arrived at the home and confirmed the agents were indeed with the FBI, Reiter asked them to stay. (She later obtained a police report, shared with The Intercept, confirming that police remained on the scene, at a distance, for the duration of the FBI’s visit. The agents claimed they had been at Reiter’s home a day earlier but found no one there, which she says is unlikely as her husband was working from home that day.) Over the next 10 minutes, they then grilled Reiter, skeptically pressing her about her Zoom conversation and pushing back against her answers as if they didn’t believe her. When she told them about the proposed legislation, they insisted on knowing what it would say, whether it would be formally introduced, and when. When she repeated that this information was confidential business of the state legislature, the agent who had been conducting most of the questioning told her it would have to go in his report, she said.
“Once I said who I was and who I worked for, and moreover, what the meeting was about, the interrogation should have ended,” Reiter told The Intercept. “If they didn’t believe me about the tear gas legislation, they could have easily asked to talk with the senator rather than continue to question me. … It certainly didn’t take that much time for me to tell them who I was and what the Zoom meeting was about. The rest of the questioning was focused on the legislation. To this day, I don’t know why.”
Before the officers left, and at Reiter’s insistence, one of them gave her his business card. The other officer, who said he had no card with him, scribbled his name in the back. The men were Jeff Whipple, a police officer with the Birmingham Police Department and member of the FBI’s financial crimes task force for metro Detroit, and FBI Special Agent Dave Jacobs. The FBI runs dozens of task forces across the country, in which agents from the bureau partner with a host of local and state police agencies to tackle a variety of law enforcement issues, from financial crimes to terrorism. It’s unclear why an investigation into remarks about the use of tear gas would have fallen under the aegis of this particular task force, which typically pursues fraud and other financial crimes.
The presence of local police on FBI task forces, particularly joint terrorism task forces or JTTFs, has long been a controversial issue. Some cities have pulled their officers from these partnerships because the civil rights protections the FBI is required to observe are more lenient compared to those of local police departments. And there have been problematic instances of FBI task forces inappropriately intervening in local political matters. In 2012, for instance, members of a Nevada JTTF aggressively interrogated Native American residents and others who had spoken at a public town hall in opposition to bear hunting, German said.
In the Michigan case, it was notable that local police officers on an FBI task force would seek to investigate legislation that would restrict their own departments’ ability to use tear gas against protesters. “I would imagine that with any sort of legislative effort to restrict the use of tear gas by police officers, local police would have an interest in that legislation,” said German. “It certainly raises questions.”
Reached by phone, Whipple declined to comment, while Jacobs did not return a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Birmingham Police Department, Whipple’s employer, wrote in an email to The Intercept that the officer is assigned full time to the task force and referred questions to the FBI. “The incident you are referring to is a federal matter,” the spokesperson wrote.
State Sen. Rosemary Bayer pictured working on her laptop.
Photo: Rosemary Bayer Caucus Page
Fear and Intimidation
Following the FBI’s visit, Reiter filed a public records request with the city of Southfield seeking more information about the encounter. City officials denied most of her request. One document she received cited a number of exemptions to public records laws, including one indicating that fulfilling her request might help “identify or provide means of identifying an informant.”
State Sen. Rosemary Bayer, who worked as a software engineer before being elected in 2019, was disturbed by the FBI’s visit to her staffer and alarmed about how the bureau might have learned about the subject of their Zoom call. Bayer said that her immediate concern was whether “they hacked into the meeting,” she told The Intercept, or whether the visit was intended “to cause fear and intimidation.”
“The whole thing feels political, like they were either trying to intimidate a Democratic office before the election or intimidate people working on the side of Black Lives Matter,” she later wrote in an email. “It all feels so Iron Curtain (or maybe J. Edgar Hoover) — men pounding on the door in the dark hours of the morning, incorrectly identifying themselves, purposely intimidating people just to scare them. To keep them from — protesting? Teaching about implicit bias?”
There isn’t any evidence that Zoom provided the FBI or any other law enforcement agency with information about the October virtual meeting, or that any such law enforcement agency somehow has real-time access to the contents of meetings on the platform. But regardless of how the FBI task force learned about the Zoom call, the incident offers a jarring reminder that the degree of privacy and confidentiality afforded by in-person meetings is impossible to achieve through streaming video calls.
The incident offers a reminder that the degree of privacy and confidentiality afforded by in-person meetings is impossible to achieve through streaming video calls.
Bayer explained that before the Covid-19 pandemic, a meeting like this one would have been a closed-door affair in Bayer’s Senate office. She believes that she or other staff on the Zoom call may have talked about “dropping” the tear gas bill before the election, using lawmakers’ shorthand for introducing legislation; the combination of words might have sounded like a threat to an uninformed eavesdropper. She added that the incident had an immediate chilling effect on the work of her staff. “The whole team is intimidated,” she said. “As soon as somebody says something that might be misconstrued, everybody stops … ‘No, don’t say that!’ We’re all trying to eliminate the word ‘drop’ from our lexicon.”
Reiter said that the FBI’s visit left her confused and fearful. “It has impacted my sleep, it has caused me quite a bit of anxiety,” she said. “And it has certainly impacted how we talk. I try not to let it, I’ll just be like, ‘No, we’re going to talk about this.’ But it’s in my mind all the time.”
“It is our job to talk about these issues, it is our job to talk about how can we be keeping our constituents safe, how can we be addressing violence in our community,” said Rosie Jones, who works for Michigan’s Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich and was alerted to the FBI’s visit by Reiter. “To not feel comfortable and talk about those things prevents us from doing our job.”
The incident came at a time of heightened tensions for Michigan legislators, after prosecutors announced terrorism, conspiracy, and weapons charges against 13 men who had plotted to storm the state Capitol building and instigate a “civil war.” Six of the men had also repeatedly met to plan the abduction of the Michigan governor, Whitmer, a frequent target of President Donald Trump’s attacks. And at least two of those arrested had participated in a rally by armed protesters outside the state Capitol earlier in the year, demonstrating against measures aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus. The FBI’s visit to Reiter seemed particularly misplaced in light of those very real threats to the safety of legislators, she noted. “I work for the people who actually were threatened,” Reiter recalls telling the FBI agent who was interrogating her as if she had been the one posing a threat.
As protests against police brutality rocked the country after the killing of George Floyd, the FBI has devoted considerable resources to targeting Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-fascist activists, even though far-right extremist groups have long posed the greatest threat of violence.
But thanks to the post-9/11 exhortation of “If you see something, say something,” the FBI receives an enormous number of tips that it has committed to pursue no matter how absurd.
“These agents have to do hundreds, thousands of these nonsense interviews even if the allegation itself is ridiculous,” said German, the former FBI special agent, noting that task forces regularly assign less experienced agents to these interviews. “It really becomes a game of intimidation, where I’m going to look you in the eye, and make an accusation against you based on this threat I received, and see how you respond.”
“This methodology of intimidation is not necessarily effective for getting at the truth,” he added. “But it’s more obviously inappropriate when the person you’re targeting with such an approach is involved in the democratic system that the FBI is sworn to protect.”
The post FBI Questioned a Michigan Senate Staffer After Zoom Call About Banning Tear Gas appeared first on The Intercept.
St. Louis, MO – Aerial surveillance company Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) negotiated a plan in secret with a member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen with hopes of flying multiple spy planes simultaneously over the city’s metro area in 2021. The plan that PSS…
Despite being spied on and having their privacy invaded by the UC Global firm that targeted Assange, reporters from major US news outlets have said nothing in protest. Meanwhile, new evidence of that firm’s CIA links has emerged. A Spanish security firm apparently contracted by US intelligence to carry out a campaign of black operations […]
The post Mainstream US reporters silent about being spied on by apparent CIA contractor that targeted Assange appeared first on The Grayzone.
“Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.” That same persistent eye in the sky may soon be deployed over U.S. cities.
At the time he made that comment about surveillance drones over Afghanistan, Maj. General James Poss was the Air Force’s top intelligence officer. He was preparing to leave the Pentagon, and move over to the Federal Aviation Administration. His job was to begin executing the plan to allow those same surveillance drones to fly over American cities.
This plan was ordered by Congress in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. It directed the Departments of Defense and Transportation to “develop a plan for providing expanded access to the national airspace for unmanned aircraft systems of the Department of Defense.” Gen. Poss was one of nearly two dozen ex-military officers who, starting in 2010, were put into positions at the FAA to oversee drone integration research. With little public scrutiny, the plan has been moving forward ever since.
If you’re thinking that this is a partisan issue, think again. This plan has been enacted and expanded under Presidents and Congresses of both parties. If you’re uncomfortable with a President Biden having the ability to track the movements of every Tea Party or Q-Anon supporter, you should be. Just as we should all be concerned about a President Trump tracking…well, everybody else.
Along with civil liberties, a major concern must be safety. The military and the drone manufacturers, principally General Atomics, are arguing that the technology has advanced far enough that flying 79-ft. wingspan, six-ton drones over populated areas and alongside commercial air traffic is safe. We have one response: self-driving cars. Self-driving cars present a technological problem that is an order of magnitude simpler than aircraft flying hundreds of miles per hour in three dimensions. Yet they still can’t keep these cars from plowing into stationary objects like firetrucks (or people) at 60 mph in two dimensions. Are we really comfortable with pilotless aircraft operating in the same airspace as the 747 at 30,000 feet that is bringing your children home for Christmas? These drones have a troubled history of crashing and unfortunately, the process for determining whether these drones are now truly safe has been compromised by having the military, which wants this approval, largely in charge of the testing.
Which brings us to San Diego. Last October, General Atomics announced that they would be flying their biggest, most advanced surveillance drone yet, the SkyGuardian, over the City of San Diego sometime this summer. The stated purpose was to demonstrate potential commercial applications of large drones over American cities. In this case, the drone would be used to survey the city’s infrastructure.
But when General Atomics first began preparing for the flight, the goal was a very different one: Back in 2017, military technology analysts were predicting that by 2025, drones similar to those used in Afghanistan and Iraq would be hovering above U.S. cities, relaying high-resolution video of the movement of every citizen to police departments (and who knows who else). When there was public pushback to this police department drone use—even a pro-industry reporter called the idea “dystopian”—General Atomics changed the purpose of the flight from providing data to the police to “mapping critical infrastructure” in the San Diego region.
The FAA, which is responsible for granting permission to General Atomics, has kept the process secret. When the Voice of San Diego asked for more information, the FAA refused on the grounds that this supposed commercial demonstration was actually “military.” The Voice of San Diego is now suing to get answers and the ACLU has also expressed concern about the flight. Amid the scrutiny, General Atomics quietly announced that the flight was cancelled, but this is certain to be a small hiccup in their long-term plan.
In fact, General Atomics’ drones are already being used domestically. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) flies Predators over parts of the U.S.- Mexico and U.S.-Canadian borders. Recently, CBP has expanded their reach, using these drones to assist police in Minneapolis, San Antonio and Detroit in the wake of protests against police brutality. Deeply concerned, members of Congress wrote to federal agencies denouncing the chilling effect of government surveillance on law-abiding Americans and demanding an immediate end to surveilling peaceful protests.
The concerns of these members of Congress should be echoed by the general public. What are the possible effects on our civil liberties from having high-tech surveillance platforms circling over millions of Americans, gathering information about our every move? We know from past experience that every government surveillance technology that can be abused has been abused. Allowing this powerful technology to be taken from overseas wars and turned inward on American citizens isn’t something that should happen without a robust public debate. The implications for civil liberties are too profound.
The post A “Persistent Eye in the Sky” Coming to a City Near You? appeared first on CounterPunch.org.
Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
The demands are clear: defund and abolish police. As those calls grow, so will efforts by reformers to propose new rules and regulations that they say will “improve” and restore “legitimacy” to policing. These bureaucratic reforms reflect the failed thinking that built up the carceral state, and they will make policing harder to dismantle. Reforms like this are meant to pacify social movements, replacing community self-determination with the “expertise” of lawyers, academics, and other professionals who are complicit in oppression.
Bureaucratic reforms are not just too little. They are also dangerous. Decades of judicial oversight, transparency legislation, and self-auditing requirements have not reduced the power of the carceral state. To the contrary, they have created a vast punishment bureaucracy giving political legitimacy and social inertia to a system of mass caging rooted in enslavement. Applying this same regulatory framework to the governance of policing will only expand the reach and harm of policing, just as it has helped to make the prison-industrial complex bigger, harsher, more durable, and racist as ever.
The chief proponents of police bureaucracy are typically professionals whose authority depends on working closely with the carceral state. Consider the recent L.A. Times op-ed by University of Texas professor Sarah Brayne, “One way to shrink the LAPD’s budget: Cut costly and invasive big-data policing.” Brayne spent years embedded within the Los Angeles Police Department as a doctoral student at Princeton. Despite the op-ed’s title, it never proposes reducing let alone “cutting” any police surveillance. Instead Brayne writes about the “secrecy” that “shrouds” LAPD’s data systems. She notes that New York City recently required “the NYPD to disclose which technology it uses and what data it collects.” She proposes that “Los Angeles should follow suit.”
Brayne asserts that “surveillance technologies are largely missing from today’s urgent conversations.” That voice is “missing” only if one ignores local activists. Here in Los Angeles, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has fought to dismantle LAPD surveillance since 2011, recently forcing LAPD to end its LASER, Chronic Offender, and PredPol surveillance programs. An abolitionist organization, Stop LAPD Spying has also organized against laws like the one Brayne proposes importing from New York. That law, named the POST Act, tasks the NYPD with writing “surveillance impact and use policies” to post on their website, where the public has 45 days to comment. While police are asked to “consider” the comments, NYPD is not required to make changes or to share the information that underlies their conclusions, which will be framed by NYPD’s army of lawyers.
These laws are also often coupled with efforts to limit use of a particular surveillance technology, like the restrictions on facial recognition enacted by San Francisco and the recently proposed Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, introduced by Senator Ed Markey and others this June. Explaining the bill, Markey acknowledged calls “to dismantle the systematic racism that permeates every part of our society” and noted that face recognition “physically endangers Black Americans.” But at the same time that his bill seeks to freeze police use of face surveillance, it outlines details of the regulatory scheme that Congress would enact to end the moratorium, including “auditing requirements,” “standards for use and management,” and “minimum accuracy rates.”
The idea behind these reforms is that policing can be tamed through paperwork and rules. This whitewashes the harm of surveillance, which will be used for racial domination no matter if it is lawful or unlawful, no matter if “accurate.” The politicians and lawyers behind the POST Act last month celebrated their “tremendous” and “vital” victory. But the truth is that legislation like this is the easiest possible win in this moment, betraying the bolder visions of the mass movement calling to abolish police.
No one is taking to the streets facing down tear gas to demand police bureaucracy. To the contrary, today’s protests originate in the failure of past reforms, which have done little to end policing’s death toll. These protests have made police abolition a serious conversation. Whether and how legislation can be abolitionist are important questions. But if legislation is a goal, that power should be used to ban particular forms of surveillance, not just create a bureaucracy to regulate them. Calls for surveillance oversight ignore the lessons of past struggles against federal national security surveillance and Red Squad repression, which led to the creation of bureaucracies like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the NYPD’s Handschu guidelines. Rather than dismantling policing, reforms like this help police adapt to criticism, to reinvent and rebuild.
When the POST Act was enacted, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition criticized the reform as “surveillance bureaucracy” and observed that laws like this presume “that our communities want to be surveilled, so long as the state follows a heavily stacked process, pretends to consider input, and checks off a few baseline legal requirements.” At the time, it may have appeared odd for activists from Los Angeles to criticize local legislation in another state. But Stop LAPD Spying observed that the “national uprising against police terror will be used to force similar reforms across the country.” We are seeing that now.
To be sure, this isn’t the first time a reformer who worked closely with police has proposed surveillance bureaucracy laws for Los Angeles. In 2015 the ACLU’s local Director of Police Practices sent a proposal for a similar local law that he had drafted to an LAPD deputy chief, asking “if you have any concerns with any of the provisions that are in here” and inviting ideas for “provisions you think should be in here but aren’t.” The ACLU later pushed a statewide version of similar legislation. An ACLU press release announced that the bill would offer “a seat at the table” and foster “public debate” to build community assent for surveillance.
This relates to the deeper issue with reforms like the POST Act, reflected both in who is advancing these proposals and in what these laws will create. Reform like this is pacification: it takes power away from the people, directing opposition into a bureaucratic process that marginalizes community voices, while elevating voices that support police or – at most – compromise with them. And at the end of the day, these reforms allow police to say that the community “controls” surveillance (“community control” is even in the title of the ACLU’s model surveillance bureaucracy legislation, curiously named CCOPS) when the truth is that police set the agenda and violently hold the power. After securing “public” approval, police continue their harm with a claim of legitimacy. This is nothing like abolition. It’s not even de-policing, reducing the scope of what police do. It’s police preservation.
Abolition is decolonization. More than just ending policing and prisons, it’s a practice of building a new world. Those institutions are weapons of settler colonialism and racial capitalism, but they aren’t the only ones. Abolition requires dismantling all the weapons made using those ideologies. It requires dismantling universities, which colonize and hoard knowledge while credentialing experts who work to maintain oppression. It requires ending imperialism, whose wars, borders, and extraction are police violence on a planetary scale. And it requires dismantling the legal bureaucracies that legitimate and sustain a system of mass torture and killing.
Far more than dismantling and defunding though, abolition requires building the autonomy and self-determination that the carceral state denies. This begins with advancing the political vision of those who policing harms. Academics like Brayne aren’t the only people with ideas about how to address the harm of surveillance in Los Angeles. Brayne is using her authority to argue against the views of movement organizers who are working to dismantle LAPD surveillance. No matter her intentions, Brayne’s expertise comes from riding around in police cars and helicopters, shadowing police as they hunted people. In contrast, grassroots organizers speak from working to empower the communities harmed by policing.
Academics and lawyers don’t need to get in the way of liberation. Instead of solely thinking about social problems, they can think with movements struggling to transcend those problems. They can defer to the deep expertise of communities marginalized by the state and participate in the daily work of building political power, advancing self-determination, and dismantling oppressive structures. They can amplify community leadership in an effort to ensure lasting social change, contributing their “expertise” to collective liberation rather than being another cog in the technocratic management and bureaucratic rationalization of structural violence.
The positive task of surveillance abolition – building a world without mass suspicion and supervision – poses questions that need deep attention. Surveillance extends beyond the hard social control and violence of police and prisons. “Surveillance,” writes Simone Browne, “is the fact of antiblackness.” Its purpose is to harm communities and administer an oppressive social order. Rather than settling for “community control” of this violence, communities that are resisting surveillance from the perspective of liberation are creating a new historical horizon, where at first light these important questions can be confronted and then in the fuller light of a new day can help new ways of life built around democratic self-administration to bloom. Advocating for reforms like the POST Act keeps us lost in the darkness of our present condition.
Abolitionists have long known that the purpose of policing is to violently maintain an oppressive social order. New rules and criteria will not end that violence. Instead, they will just lead police to invest more resources and expertise into monitoring and avoiding compliance with the latest rules. This will make our system of mass suspicion, incarceration, and banishment harder to dismantle. If academics and lawyers wish to play a role in advancing liberation, they need a radically different approach to expertise as well as deference to those working to build a world without policing. Reforms that build police bureaucracy go in the opposite direction, placing more authority in elite hands and giving police new footing to expand their violence.
The post Police Bureaucracy and Abolition: Why Reforms Driven by Professionals will Renew State Oppression appeared first on CounterPunch.org.
In August, 40 federal agents arrived in Memphis. Some were already on the ground by the time U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant announced the onset of Operation Legend and the city became, along with St. Louis, the seventh to be targeted by the Justice Department’s heavy-handed initiative to reduce violent crime. Many of the agents are on temporary assignment, working in collaboration with police; nearly half will relocate by November. But they will leave behind a city flush with grant money for local police — and heightened surveillance capabilities.
In Memphis, organizers have long battled police surveillance. The fight came to a head in 2017, when a lawsuit against the city of Memphis revealed years of close surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists and union organizers. “We knew we were being watched and monitored and surveilled,” said Hunter Demster, an activist who was tracked on social media by MPD. The suit was successful, and in 2018, a federal judge ordered an independent monitor to oversee policing in the city. Now, activists there say that Operation Legend is a serious blow.
Operation Legend and its December precursor, Operation Relentless Pursuit, are both funding surveillance technology in cities across the country. Through Operation Legend, Memphis and four other cities received grants for gunshot detection technology, which lines cities with sensors to detect gunfire, despite longstanding concerns about its efficacy. Other more opaque grants from the Justice Department, like a $1.4 million grant to Shelby County, which surrounds Memphis, in April and a $1 million grant in July to the city of Cleveland, are to be used in part for “technological solutions” or “support” for investigations.
Awash in these federal funds, cities have doubled down on their surveillance investments, even as they face general budget shortfalls in the tens of millions. On August 4, two days before Operation Legend was formally announced in the city, Memphis signed a new contract with Cellebrite, an Israeli forensics manufacturer popular with law enforcement, whose products can hack and extract data from smartphones. The estimated $65,000 contract would double previous annual spending on the technology, per city procurement records. The Memphis police declined an interview request for this story and did not respond to several additional inquiries about the purchases.
Through Operation Legend, Memphis and four other cities received grants for gunshot detection technology, despite longstanding concerns about its efficacy.
On August 12, the city of Detroit — another of the nine cities targeted by Operation Legend — also placed a $100,000 order with Cellebrite to acquire the company’s “premium” software package and, two weeks later, renewed an older Cellebrite license for another $22,000 — more than tripling 2018 and 2019 expenditures.
Chicago, meanwhile, announced on August 14 that it would employ “enhanced” technology for “around-the-clock” monitoring of social media to identify looters. One hundred federal agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives were sent to Chicago through Operation Legend in late July. Though Mayor Lori Lightfoot at first assumed a hostile attitude toward the initiative, in August she also announced a new task force on looting in partnership with the FBI. “This Task Force is already reviewing video camera footage and other evidence to identify perpetrators and develop strong cases against them,” she wrote.
Just the presence of federal agents can undermine longstanding efforts for accountability on police surveillance. In Memphis, a unique consent decree from 1978 prohibits law enforcement from engaging in “political intelligence” — collecting information on individuals for political purposes. This decree was the backbone of the 2018 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, which held that Memphis had violated the law. City law enforcement has lobbied to amend and strike the decree, but so far, it has held.
Yet the Memphis law does not apply to federal law enforcement. “That’s the harsh truth. The decree only covers the city,” explained Tom Castelli, legal director for the ACLU of Tennessee, though per the decree, the city cannot collaborate on unlawful surveillance with outside agencies.
Still, Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings has alluded to partnering with the FBI to get around some of the decree’s restrictions, later confirming through a city spokesperson that he “told [federal officials] that we are restricted by the consent decree and depend on them to catch threats articulated on social media.”
As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana Josh Minkler said, as he announced Operation Legend’s expansion to Indianapolis, federal agencies contribute “not just manpower, but technology that can help identify and arrest the individuals. And then they have access to federal courts.”
For Joia Thornton, an organizer with Decarcerate Memphis, a group that formed in response to Operation Relentless Pursuit, the initiatives form part of a longer legacy of federal support for policing. “We believe this mirrors the three-strikes laws, the war on drugs — all of these types of tactics to drive up mass incarceration,” she told The Intercept. “We are on the front lines to resist that.”
Indeed, U.S. Attorney General William Barr has frequently defended Operation Legend by noting that it is a continuation of federal policing efforts, rather than a radical departure from the norm. These are “traditional crime-fighting activities” he told reporters in Detroit — just now “ratcheted-up.”
Attorney General William Barr talks to the media during a news conference about Operation Legend, a federal task force formed to fight violent crime in several cities, on Aug. 19, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo.
Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP
The Department of Defense’s 1033 program is perhaps the best-known example of federal investment in policing. In 2014, footage of military vehicles rolling down the streets of Ferguson drew national outcry, bringing scrutiny to the program. 1033 continues provide bayonets, grenade launchers, and other leftovers from U.S. wars overseas to police precincts across the country.
But the Homeland Security and Justice departments also fund law enforcement to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The DOJ’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, which emerged in the post-9/11 era of rapidly inflated federal spending on policing, is one of the major grant programs for police and has been criticized for, in effect, funding mass imprisonment. Its grants also fund sophisticated policing technology.
Memphis is a prime example: Over the last decade, the city’s license plate reader system, its “real-time crime center” — which houses a “video wall” of live surveillance camera feeds — and its gunshot recognition cameras were all funded, at least in part, through Byrne JAG grants.
Years of federal investment in surveillance have resulted in what Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, calls a “layering” effect: “These things don’t come all at once. They build up,” she said. “And when you start feeding one surveillance technology after another into a database, you give police departments the ability to track what people are doing very closely.”
Technologies popular with federal agencies tend to make their way down to the local level. Take, for example, the new popularity of phone-hacking technology with police: The technology was first picked up more than a decade ago by federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI. Now, a growing number of cities and state law enforcement have access to some kind of mobile data extraction software. “You’ve got cops and cruisers using it. The tools always trickle down,” a forensic scientist told Motherboard in 2016.
Yet the federal government, for years, has funded phone-hacking tools directly. The Bureau of Justice Assistance, which has offered generous grants to Memphis, Detroit, and other cities through Operation Legend this summer, has previously funded Cellebrite products for police departments in Florida, Maryland, Kansas, and Idaho. It has also funded artificial intelligence-based data repositories, predictive analytics, and social media monitoring tools.
“Much of this equipment and technology is given under the guise of either narcotics, policing, or counterterrorism. Ultimately, a lot of it gets used to monitor protests.”
In turn, the grants have created an industry of policing technology dependent on federal funding. ShotSpotter, the largest gunshot detection provider in the country and a major beneficiary of Operation Legend, illustrates this well. The company has spent nearly $2 million lobbying legislators over the past decade, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics — most recently, on a bill that would permit the attorney general to dole out grants for gunshot detection tech.
That legislation remains stalled in the House, but for ShotSpotter, Operation Legend proved a windfall. Five cities — Memphis, Cleveland, Albuquerque, Milwaukee, and Detroit — will receive grants to purchase or expand their gunshot detection through the program. Milwaukee already has a ShotSpotter system in place, and Detroit now plans to deploy it again, after piloting the technology in 2014.
Yet there is little evidence that ShotSpotter reduces gun crime. A study published this year on ShotSpotter in St. Louis found that the system, whose microphones detect and alert police to gunshots, had no impact on violent crime whatsoever: “The results were, essentially, it doesn’t work,” said Dennis Mare, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who co-authored the study, though he admitted that it is difficult to extrapolate the results to all cities. Why, then, is St. Louis still receiving federal grants to expand the technology? The company points to other investigative benefits overlooked by the study. “ShotSpotter spends a lot of money,” was Mares’s answer.
ShotSpotter does, however, increase police presence in the neighborhoods where it is used — “disproportionately in minority neighborhoods,” according to Mares. In response, a company representative told The Intercept that the system’s placement is “not based on who’s living in the community. It’s based on, ‘where are the shootings?’” Still, for Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that has serious consequences.
“This is yet another surveillance technology that has the potential to victimize people based on their proximity to crime and overpolicing,” he said. “If you live in a neighborhood that has a gun violence problem, not only are you subjected to that, you are also subjected to the surveillance regime that comes along with it.”
As cries to “defund the police” resound in the streets and cities fly surveillance planes low over demonstrations, Operation Legend is the latest reminder of the magnitude, and consequence, of federal police spending. Advocates have long called for federal grant funding reform, with some results, but the government has continued to grow its police budget; just two Department of Justice grant programs, Byrne JAG and the Community Oriented Policing Services program, give out about a collective $750 million annually to law enforcement.
“Much of this equipment and technology is given under the guise of either narcotics, policing, or counterterrorism,” Guariglia said. “And, ultimately, a lot of it gets used to monitor protests.”
The post Operation Legend Is Bringing Surveillance Tech to Cities appeared first on The Intercept.
White House manipulation of US intelligence on Russian and Chinese interference may rival WMD fiasco that led to Iraq war, say experts
Two months before the presidential election, the US intelligence agencies are under increasing pressure from the Trump administration to provide only the information it wants to hear.
After installing loyalist John Ratcliffe at the pinnacle of the intelligence community, the administration is seeking to limit congressional oversight, and has removed a veteran official from a sensitive national security role in the justice department
Almost two weeks after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd while he was handcuffed face down in the street, a hacker began exfiltrating 19 gigabytes of documents from the poorly secured Northern California Regional Intelligence Center website. The NCRIC (pronounced “nick-rick”) fusion center shares information between federal agencies, local police departments across northern California, and private industry partners, including Silicon Valley companies. It also provides local cops with analytical and technical support services such as monitoring social media or helping break into locked smartphones, and it hosts events and law enforcement-related courses.
The hacked data from NCRIC, provided to transparency collective DDoSecrets by a source identifying with the hacktivist collective Anonymous, was part of a larger breach of 251 police websites across the country known as BlueLeaks. German authorities, acting on behalf of the U.S. government, seized the server DDoSecrets was using to distribute the BlueLeaks data, though the data itself is still publicly available on the internet using the peer-to-peer file sharing technology BitTorrent. (Note: I’m a member of the DDoSecrets advisory board.)
The NCRIC documents, from a 13-day period between George Floyd’s killing on May 25 and the evening of June 6, when the latest information was exfiltrated (judging from time stamps found in the leaked material), provide an unprecedented window into the internal workings and priorities of Northern California’s police intelligence agency during the recent waves of anti-police brutality protests.
One way that NCRIC shares information is by sending bulk emails to its partners. Since the protests began, these have included vague, fear-inducing memos from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI about the threat of violent civil unrest, as well as more specific information, including emails sent at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day to more than 14,000 police officers across Northern California with updated lists of Black Lives Matter protests. During the 13-day period covered in the hacked files, over half of the bulk emails NCRIC sent were related to monitoring and policing the largely peaceful protests.
Local police and other partners send information back to NCRIC by submitting “Suspicious Activity Reports.” Of the 21 civil unrest-related “suspicious activities” during this period, most were local police posting information about upcoming protests, screenshots of tweets and Instagram posts about looting and rioting, as well as two instances of people threatening to shoot and kill Black Lives Matter protesters.
Another way local police interface with NCRIC is by requesting support. Of the 20 civil unrest-related support requests during this period, most were providing information about upcoming protests to be added to the daily protest emails as well as requesting help monitoring social networks for information about the protests. Two of the requests asked for help identifying threats against white female teenagers who were facing doxxing or harassment after making racist statements and using anti-Black racial slurs.
Daily Lists of Black Lives Matter Protests
Notably, a substantial portion of the intelligence on Black Lives Matter protests flowed through NCRIC’s Terrorism Liaison Officer program, whose purpose is to keep the intelligence center’s members “engaged & knowledgeable about current terrorist tactics, techniques & trends, regional crime trends & threats, and Officer safety information.” The terror-info program became a clearinghouse for information on upcoming demonstrations.
The weekend after Floyd’s killing, when Black Lives Matter protests were erupting throughout the country, NCRIC’s TLO sent an email to its 14,406 subscribers — mostly local police officers across Northern California — with a PDF containing a list of upcoming protests, their times, locations, and sometimes links to more information. “We will be providing a list of local protests twice daily at 1000 and 1800, until further notice,” the email said. “This information is for Situational Awareness only. Agencies may use this information for planning/staffing purposes or as they see fit,” adding, “Some of these events involve criminal activities such as planned looting, vandalism and threats of violence.”
Between May 31 and June 6, NCRIC sent these emails out every morning, and again with an updated list every evening.
June 5’s evening email listed 46 protest events scheduled for June 6 in San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Oakland, and other Bay Area cities, as well as 36 other events scheduled for the following days. For example, the “Noe Valley Police Violence Protest With Social Distancing” was scheduled for June 6 at 11 a.m., and the “SF Kids Peace March” was scheduled for June 7 at 2 p.m. While the vast majority of the events were Black Lives Matter protests, some had different topics, such as a “6 Feet and Grieving COVID 19 remembrance” event in Oakland.
“The fact that fusion centers are sending out lists of protests and other activities that are protected by the First Amendment is constitutionally suspect,” Vasudha Talla, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told The Intercept. “They may try to justify it by attaching text alluding to the potentiality of certain criminal activity, but it’s clear from the documents that you showed me that there is no reasonable suspicions attached to any of these events.” She added, “Really what we have here is overbroad collection and dissemination of people’s protected First Amendment activity, and it’s untethered to any basis in the law.”
“Sending out lists of protests and other activities protected by the First Amendment is constitutionally suspect.”
Mike Sena, NCRIC’s executive director, told The Intercept that the fusion center no longer distributes daily lists of protests. “During that period of time we had just had an attack on the Ronald Dellums Federal Building,” he said, referring to the May 29 killing of Dave Patrick Underwood, a private security officer guarding the federal building in Oakland. Steven Carrillo, a far-right extremist and member of the so-called Boogaloo movement, who “came to Oakland to kill cops” according to the FBI, was charged on June 11 in the murder of Underwood. When asked at what point NCRIC stopped distributing lists of protests, Sena said, “I believe it was after the suspects were taken into custody, from that attack. At least the known suspects were taken into custody. We don’t have that going on anymore.”
Sena also claimed that NCRIC was keeping track of Black Lives Matters protests in order to make sure that they remained safe. “We weren’t keeping track of the protests themselves, but we were identifying where we were gonna have gatherings of people,” he said. “That’s our concern is, we want to make sure the events are safe. And if there are any threats that come up that may be associated with any of those events that we’re able to get that threat data to whatever agency may have protection responsibilities.”
Talla disagreed. “At the end of the day what you have is federal agencies, not only DHS but the FBI, monitoring people’s constitutionally protected activities without any reasonable suspicion,” she said. “Even though the agencies may include in some of these documents a disclaimer that they are not targeting First Amendment activities as such, if you actually look at what they’re doing, it’s clear that there is no criminal activity that they can point to to justify the overbroad collection and monitoring of protests. They have no basis to do that.”
Beginning with the second protest list that was emailed out, the footer of each PDF says: “This document is not subject to the California Information Practices Act and contains information that may be exempt from public release under exemptions provided by the California Public Records Act,” and “This information is not to be released to the public, the media, or other personnel who do not have a valid ‘right and need-to-know’ without approval of the NCRIC.”
Sena claimed that the reason these documents were exempt from public records requests, and were not supposed to be released to the public or the media, is because they could be used as a target list by someone who wanted to attack the protesters.
“Simply attaching a tagline to a document saying ‘This is exempt from the California Public Records Act’ does not make it exempt from the California Public Records Act in and of itself,” Talla said. “The document you sent me can’t be characterized as criminal intelligence because there’s no articulation of any criminal activity associated with these activities, these protests, marches, demonstrations. Really, what is confidential about this document? There’s nothing.”
Days after the Floyd killing, someone in the FBI’s Los Angeles division noticed a tweet from the Long Beach Anarchist Collective that read, “see a blue lives matter flag, destroy a blue lives matter flag challenge”:
see a blue lives matter flag, destroy a blue lives matter flag challenge https://t.co/1IgudD82lK
— Long Beach Anarchist Collective (@AnarchistLB) May 27, 2020
At the time, this tweet had four retweets and 26 likes. In response, the FBI analyst typed up a Situational Information Report describing the tweet, as well as the other tweet that it referenced, with the title, “Civil Unrest in Response to Death of George Floyd Threatens Law Enforcement Supporters’ Safety, as of May 2020.”
NCRIC got a copy of this document and forwarded it to its more than 14,000 subscribers. This is far from the only fearmongering memo from the federal government that NCRIC forwarded to thousands of local cops; DHS and FBI consistently fed local cops a diet of scary-protester anecdotes and internet rumors, potentially frightening them into believing their lives were in danger during protests and thus helping feed the often brutal and violent response to peaceful protests.
Another document from the multi-agency National Explosives Task Force that NCRIC distributed claimed “a variety of incendiary and explosive devices were used against civilian and law enforcement targets in civil unrest demonstrations” with photos of Molotov cocktails and fireworks. NCRIC also distributed an FBI Situation Report which described cherry-picked messages posted by unnamed social media users, including an Instagram user who allegedly posted about a “purge” planned for June 6, saying that “anyone stopped by police should follow the only rule, to kill law enforcement first, then continue destroying property.” Without any context, there’s no way of knowing how many followers this account had, or if it was run by an internet troll.
FBI Situation Report from June 6, 2020.
Screenshot: The Intercept
NCRIC also forwarded a series of “Intelligence Notes” from the Department of Homeland Security to its members:
- One document from May 29 claimed that the ongoing unrest related to the killings of Floyd and Breanna Taylor — a 26-year-old emergency medical technician who was shot eight times by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers as they were breaking into her apartment late at night without announcing themselves — “could motivate some domestic terrorist actors to engage in violence against law enforcement and others protesting lawfully.”
- Another document from May 30 stated, “We anticipate armed individuals will continue to infiltrate the protest movement. We assess with high confidence during the period of darkness from 30 to 31 May the violent protest movements will grow and [domestic violent extremists] and others will seek to take over government facilities and attack law enforcement.”
- A document from May 31 described protesters monitoring and disrupting law enforcement communications. Police in Portland “reported that they assessed that well-coordinated groups had potentially compromised law enforcement radio communications,” and police in Minneapolis “were forced to switch to cell phones for tactical communications after learning their communications were being monitored by individuals using publicly available police scanner apps.” Police scanner apps, which allow anyone to listen in on police radio communications, have seen record downloads since Floyd’s killing. The document also states that “unidentified individuals” in the Chicago area saturated police radio channels with music.
- Another May 31 document states, “We have also noted several incidents of potential violent opportunists traveling to protests with milk or other liquids in anticipation of mitigating the effects of pepper spray or other crowd control agents.”
- A document from June 1 states, “As the protests persist, we assess that organized violent opportunists—including suspected anarchist extremists—could increasingly perpetrate nationwide targeting of law enforcement and critical infrastructure.” It went on to say that an NYPD official “had strong evidence that suspected anarchist groups had planned to incite violence at protests, including by using encrypted communications.” Using encrypted communications is not only perfectly legal, but an important measure that individuals can take to protect their personal cybersecurity. The document also warns of “Foreign Influence Activity,” stating, “Russian state media outlets particularly emphasized themes alleging excessive police brutality, police attacks against journalists, and claims of systematic racism.”
Prioritizing Spying on Protests
NCRIC’s tracking of BLM protests sometimes interfered with work targeting actual criminal suspects. Shortly after 5 p.m. on May 29, an FBI analyst submitted a support request to the NCRIC website. “FBI San Francisco is concern [sic] about possible criminal activity; including mass causality attacks, vandalism and destruction of property, violence towards law enforcement and participants, and ideologically motivated attacks; near or about constitutionally protected activities in Oakland in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis,” he wrote. He requested NCRIC provide [Real-Time and Open Source Analysis] “and appropriate analytic resources.”
On June 1, the day after NCRIC began distributing lists of protests, NCRIC sent a bulk email to its subscribers saying that it was “actively monitoring potential planned criminal acts, acts of violence, and civil unrest” and asking for help. “Please submit upcoming events or concerns related to planned events by logging into ncric.org, clicking on the ‘Request Support’ tab, and submitting a ‘Request for Investigative or Equipment Support.’”
The following day, NCRIC sent another bulk email announcing that an upcoming class would need to be postponed. “Due to operational needs necessitated by the protests in our [area of responsibility], the Chasing Phones class scheduled for June 3-4, 2020 has been rescheduled for June 17-18, 2020.”
According to a flyer, the Chasing Phones class “will explore the methods of exploiting a suspect’s cellular phone, phone company records, and third-party data sources records” and “will increase law enforcement officers’ awareness and appreciation of the evidence and intelligence located in a mobile device and provides students with the tools and training to prepare search warrants to legally obtain that evidence.” At the time the NCRIC data was exfiltrated, the class was scheduled to happen over Zoom, and 356 people had registered for it. But this training would have to wait; monitoring protests was higher priority.
Black Lives Matter Protests as “Suspicious Activity”
Local police connected to NCRIC used the intelligence hub to repeatedly flag BLM-related protests, vigils, and cultural events as suspicious. On May 31, a sergeant in the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office posted a Suspicious Activity Report, or SAR, requesting “intel if any is observed regarding violent civil/criminal unrest in the county of San Mateo, specifically the cities of Redwood City, San Mateo and East Palo Alto,” adding, “It is believed that protests will occur this coming week in these cities – want intel as to #’s of participants and any illegal activities being transpired.”
Later that same day, another officer from San Mateo Sheriff’s Office posted another SAR about a local protest. “Peninsula Progressive Action Group holding a vigil/protest for George Floyd,” he wrote, referring to a local Bay Area progressive citizens group. “Requesting NCRIC intelligence gathering/monitoring of social media, etc. Although the event is promoted as peaceful, similar events in the region devolved into violence. Unknown attendance at this point. Agitators are known to promote suburban targets next.”
The next day, PPAG posted to its website that the planned vigil in San Carlos was postponed over to safety concerns, citing “right-wing extremists groups that are using events, particularly evening events, as an excuse to instigate violence and cause damage.” Even though the vigil was canceled, “about 100 people” showed up anyway with masks and signs, according to a follow-up post.
On the night of June 2, 20-year-old San Jose hip-hop artist Simon Vertugo tweeted about an upcoming event called “The Black American Experience,” a “discussion on the Black experience and how we can take steps to prevent future civil injustice, police brutality and reform our judicial system,” to be held in a few days at the Olympic Black Power statue at San Jose State University.
SAN JOSE. PLEASE JOIN US THIS SATURDAY JUNE 6TH AT SJSU WELCOME TO…“THE BLACK AMERICAN EXPERIENCE” pic.twitter.com/1YihcmXNgl
— simon vertugo (@simonvertugo) June 3, 2020
After an officer with the university police department saw this tweet, he logged into NCRIC’s website and posted a SAR under the category “Radicalization/Extremism” with the event image from the tweet. “Possible meeting spot for protest activity at SJSU,” he wrote. “Has been seen on Twitter under the name @simonvertugo. Date is 6/6/20 at 1300 hours. Has been retweeted about 300 times. No data on possible attendance.”
Vertugo felt this was an example of police overreach. “Truthfully I think the university cops were completely overreacting to a speech being held on a college campus,” Vertugo told The Intercept. “Nobody was inciting any riots, no plans of breaking windows, destroying property. It was just a speech held by some Black kid and his peers. I think it’s a huge joke what they choose to focus on.” Nearly 300 people showed up at the speaking event.
Officers from San Benito County Sheriff’s Office and Novato Police Department also posted SARs of local protests they heard about. Local cops from across the region logged into NCRIC to request support related to upcoming protests in their cities, sometimes asking for social media monitoring. These police departments all posted support requests about Black Lives Matter protests to NCRIC:
- Walnut Creek Police Department
- Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety
- Antioch Police Department
- Fremont Police Department
- Napa Police Department
- Healdsburg Police Department
- Palo Alto Police Department
- Golden Gate Bridge Patrol
- Contra Costa College District
A sergeant with the Oakland Police Department posted a support request asking for “analysts to monitor open source media to track crimes that are about to occur or have just occurred during the protest.” And an officer with the San Francisco Police Department posted an equipment request to NCRIC asking for surveillance cameras in “high volume locations.” “We have several more planned demo’s this week and these cameras would greatly enhance our situational awareness and public safety during these incidents,” she wrote.
Police were also paying close attention to any social media posts that mention looting, rioting, or violence against law enforcement. One SAR describes a Twitter user who tweeted, “Are we having a protest in Napa I low key wanna layout a cop.” Another describes a Twitter thread mentioning looting Target stores in Walnut Creek, Emeryville, and Bayfair. Another describes receiving a “threat via social media” threatening to loot stores at Sun Valley Mall in Concord. And another included a photograph of a phone displaying instructions for a “San Mateo County Looting Night” with a “hit list” of corporate chains.
On May 31, a paramedic at a gas station that rents U-Hauls in Napa said he “observed an estimated two dozen people dressed in black (hoodies, masks, shirts pants) in their twenties most white as far as he could tell, several of which were wearing masks,” with “another half dozen people wearing the same clothing” in the store, and he overheard them asking if they could rent vans for one day and leave them in San Francisco. He considered this suspicious behavior, so he called his off-duty friend in the fire department and said “they looked like a ‘ANTIF[A] or Black Bloc’ group.” His friend called the department’s Homeland Security operations officer, who posted this secondhand information as a SAR to NCRIC’s website.
And on June 2, a hardware store employee called the Novato Police Department to report that a woman “purchased all their helmets, hard hats, hammers, bolt cutters and goggles,” and that she mentioned the goggles were for tear gas. The Navato police officer posted this as a SAR, with a description of the woman and her vehicle.
Threats Against Protesters’ Lives
The large majority of civil unrest-related suspicious activity reports during this period were about Black Lives Matter protests, but a few were about people who believe that Black lives don’t matter.
A middle-aged white man called a California Constituent Affairs employee on June 2 and described his plans to shoot and kill protesters, according to a June 3 SAR posted by an officer with the California Highway Patrol. “The subject said he will shoot and kill protesters he perceives as a threat,” the employee described. “He believes all protesters are thugs, and says this has nothing to do with race. The subject said he has multiple firearms, including an AK 47 and he has no problem blowing off their heads if they get near his house, start a fire, or begin looting in his city. He said he will take actions into his own hands because politicians are not doing anything about it. He added that all his friends and neighbors have guns and are not afraid to use them. The subject made it very clear that protesters are not welcomed in his neighborhood and threatened to kill protesters.”
In another instance, the FBI’s threat operations center found a tweet that said, “Everyone please be careful out there! I don’t know if this person is genuine or fucking with me but I’d rather be safe than sorry! Apparently his businesses were looted and he is now threatening to shoot protesters.” It included a screenshot of a direct message conversation in which the alleged San Francisco business owner wrote, “I will start shootings tomorrow,” and “Anyone from this bullshit [enters] my store I’m gonna [shoot] them.”
Screenshot of a conversation with an alleged San Francisco business owner threatening to shoot protesters, taken from a tweet.
Screenshot: The Intercept
On June 3, an officer at West Valley-Mission Community College Police Department posted a SAR that included a video from Snapchat, writing, “Subject has been reported as to have made a video of himself on [Snapchat] wearing a KKK style hood and [making] a white power hand gesture with the slogan ‘Burn crosses not buildings’ likely in response to the ongoing riots related to the George Floyd protests.”
Protecting Racist Teenagers From Online Harassment
“For ‘Black out Tuesday’, a 16 year old female changed her social media profile picture to all blue, in support of law enforcement, instead of all black, in support of Black Lives Matter,” a detective with the Walnut Creek Police Department typed into a Cyber Security Assessment request to NCRIC on June 4. “The family has been receiving death threats/property threats on social media, by phone and text.” He requested that they “search/review social media to obtain potential threats to family, as well as the identities of persons making such threats.”
The attached documents — a Microsoft Word document and a series of emails between Walnut Creek police officers — show much more than changing her avatar to blue to support law enforcement. They include screenshots of the teenager’s TikTok videos where she wrote messages like, “Tbh the kkk should come back. Oh and I wanna move to Georgia bc they have segregated proms,” and “I don’t talk to niggers.”
On June 6, a lieutenant with the Moraga Police Department posted a similar request to NCRIC. “The Moraga Police Department became aware of a video clip circulating on social media that depicts 3 Campolindo High School female teenagers using racist and offensive language, including the N-word,” he wrote. “We are requesting open source internet checks and overall social media monitoring analysis for the presence of threats, especially threats of violence or retaliation to occur in the Town of Moraga.”
When asked if it’s their policy to provide proactive protection to racists, the Walnut Creek and Moraga Police Departments did not respond to a request for comment.
“Any time there’s a potential threat where they’ll harm somebody, or someone’s indicating that they’ll harm somebody, we do support local agencies with those types of requests,” Sena, NCRIC’s executive director, said. “And we can’t base our support based on what the person says, or their ideologies. We have to treat everyone in the public the same, and our goal is to protect lives.”
Cyber Attacks Against Law Enforcement
In addition to sending bulk emails to thousands of local police, NCRIC sometimes sends bulk emails to its list of over 3,700 industry partners.
One June 2 mailing included a prescient warning from the FBI’s Cyber Division: “Due to ongoing civil unrest, hacktivist groups are actively threatening and endorsing cyber attacks against law enforcement and state government networks,” the FBI wrote. “Groups such as ‘Anonymous’ are actively leveraging societal and political unrest to encourage global cyber action against law enforcement and government computer networks, outward facing web pages, and social media accounts.”
Four days after NCRIC sent this email, the BlueLeaks hacktivist — who identified with Anonymous — began exfiltrating data from NCRIC’s server.
The post How Northern California’s Police Intelligence Center Tracked Protests appeared first on The Intercept.