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The gal-dem guide to protecting yourself from tech surveillance at protests

In times of upheaval, we take to the streets – but how can we outwit the tech tracking us?

06 Sep 2021

Mass surveillance is a global issue. From the UK to Japan, the improvement of data-gathering technologies is to the detriment of civilians the world over. Through methods like social media monitoring, GPS tracking, Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) and Gait Recognition Technology, states track and trace the lives of private individuals – especially those who may be involved in anti-state actions, like protests.  

But while surveillance has evolved, in many instances, our methods of protesting haven’t. The question is, how can we protect ourselves from state surveillance tech? And can we ever turn the technology to our advantage? 

Privacy International is a global organisation that works on advocacy, policy, legal and technical issues relating to privacy, with an aim to protect democracy and demand accountability from institutions. gal-dem spoke to Harmit Kambo, Privacy International’s campaign director, about their recently launched ‘Free to Protest’ campaign to learn more about who’s watching us – and what steps we can take to shield ourselves from view. 

gal-dem: Hi Harmit. What does your role at Privacy International entail? 

Harmit Kambo: [Alongside colleagues], I work across the organisation, on advocacy, policy, legal and technological issues related to privacy and why privacy matters. There is an intersection of technological growth and privacy violations in modern realms. We support people with self-defence strategies while also advocating for better protection for people and their data. What we want is a future of technology that enables people rather than exploits them.

What surveillance technologies have emerged in recent years? 

FRT is Facial Recognition Technology and GRT is Gait Recognition Technology. FRT [systems which collect and process data about a person’s face] has been increasingly used in the last few years. In effect, it is turbo charged CCTV. This data can be stored up on watch lists. 

Gait recognition [biometric analysis which identifies people by their movements] is about how people walk and move, almost like your signature. Everyone’s movements are unique. Theoretically, if your face was covered, you can be identified by your movement. The capabilities are extraordinary. 

We don’t know when it is being used and there is no justification [for] when it is used, or what kind of system is being used [within], so it creates a power asymmetry. In effect, if you don’t know if you are being watched it can create a panopticon effect because the fear of being watched controls a person’s behaviour. 

It is important for people who go to protests to be aware what tools are being used and how they are being used. FRT is often being used at protests without clear reason as to why [the authorities] are using it.

What about things like my smartphone? How is data taken from our devices?

There are two categories of surveillance: one is surveillance of face and body, the other is surveillance of devices. Just by attending a protest, you may end up on a watchlist because of the technological capability [possessed by the state] and the lack of regulation. As people become increasingly aware of the risks it creates a chilling effect, which essentially could be what police want. This way, the police may be discouraging people’s right to protest which squeezes their rights. 

Your phone is more than a device and a number. It’s hard for us to disassociate ourselves from our phones now we have ‘the Cloud’. Changing our device or using airplane mode won’t necessarily protect you; devices can be hacked remotely, and mobile extraction devices can be used. Mobile phone extraction devices are used by the police, [which is] a total download [of its contents] and can include data that has been deleted.

Does Privacy International believe that there are groups that are more likely to be targeted? 

Yes, it depends on where you are. With facial recognition there is a lot of research that shows how much black people are misidentified by FRT. 

There’s a historic problem of the over-policing of certain communities, new technology is not balancing this, but can only increase the issue.

When looking at stop and search regulations, statistics show the nature of stop and search powers and enable us to campaign against it. If this was never recorded or regulated it would still be a huge problem, but we wouldn’t know the scale of it. Which is like the problem we face now – the lack of statistics on surveillance means we are unable to scrutinise these powers.

Are we protesting blindly and unaware of the risks of surveillance?

That’s exactly why we have produced the Free to Protest guide. There is a lack of knowledge about the issue. We talk about the ‘chilling effect’ although people are unaware of surveillance, it is important to raise awareness about the risk without creating a fear of protesting. 

How can we then find a medium between vocally showing support for a cause while protecting ourselves from our data being exploited? 

Resistance isn’t really the answer. It is useful to be aware of how to reduce the risk, but ultimately it is not fair for people to have to defend themselves against unnecessary police overreach. The regulation should be effective enough and in place so the police should not be able to access our data without reason. It is very easy to capture data at scale; face data is an example. 

How can we best inform others of the dangers of police surveillance?

We need a public debate around policing technologies. Facial recognition is getting some scrutiny as many organisations all over the world are increasingly complaining. 

Part of the public debate is acknowledging that we should expect privacy even when in the public sphere. Just because surveillance is less visible doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – police tend to rely on it subtly. By considering what information is ‘routinely’ gathered, more people will be aware [of it].

How suppressed will protesting become?

It is very hard to tell. When considering the UK, the new policing bill may have devastating effects on our rights to protest. These measures are a direct response to Black Lives Matter protests and Extinction Rebellion protests. 

[However, this] indicates that the Government may be worried that protest is effective – there should be something inspiring taken from this. It should be a sign of hope for movements. 

The existential battle is if policing surveillance continues to be unchecked and develops without regulation, as more technology becomes available, ultimately 10 years from now it could close these spaces and our ability to use them for protest.

In a democracy, we cannot have this kind of asymmetry of power. A democracy cannot give our institutions and our police forces so much power and us with so little. The police cannot have access to this technology without regulation, to ‘protect’ us. Surveillance can deeply entrench power, [making] the ability to overturn regimes extremely difficult.

I am not pessimistic – there is a risk of this, but we have a healthy protest culture of positive, aspirational protesting on a wide range of issues. Protesting is often met with a response from the authorities; attempts to shut down people’s rights to protest is not new. In 2021 I hope and expect protesting to continue for decades to come.