How Location is Tracked During Protests

After protesters gathered in at least 140 cities across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd on May 25, many activists began calling attention to the privacy risks to demostrators posed by location tracking technologies in the current surveillance age. Mobile location tracking techniques designed to monitor the spread of COVID-19 were applied to April protests in Michigan, and could be deployed to monitor recent demonstrations around the country. EthicalGEO collected the following reports to explore methods of location data collection, risks to vulnerable communities, and advice from analysts for those looking to ‘geomask’ their location during protests:

How does law enforcement collect location data on protesters?

  • Geofence Warrants: Law enforcement agencies may be granted ‘geofence warrants’ to collect data from any device that has been in the vicinity of a crime. CNET reported this week that geofence warrants, also known as reverse location searches, have been issued in response to previous demonstrations and protests. 

A geofence warrant issued in 2019 looking for people within 150 meters of a bank robbery, United States v. Chatrie. Source: CNET

  • Geo-tagged Social Media Posts: In 2016, the ACLU of Northern California found that companies were engaged in providing analysis of geo-located tags on social media to monitor protests. Using machine learning techniques, analysts can perform semantic analysis on social media posts and match content with geo-tagged data to provide law enforcement agencies with protester’s locations and other demographic information.
  • Facial Recognition: Using traffic and body cameras, personal and commercial security systems, and social media postings coupled with facial recognition software, law enforcement agencies can identify demonstrators and their locations, the Washington Post reports. 

What are the impacts to vulnerable communities?

  • Although freedom of assembly is protected by the U.S. Constitution, location tracking at protests could negatively impact some people gathered at demonstrations. According to Evan Greer, Deputy Director of Fight for the Future, quoted in WIRED: “Remember that taking [steps to protect your privacy] isn’t just about protecting yourself, it’s about protecting others who may be more at risk than you because they are undocumented, have a criminal record, [or] have an underlying health condition that would make an arrest life threatening.”

What can you do to protect your privacy?

Katherine Cann manages the EthicalGEO Initiative for the American Geographical Society. As a geographer, she uses geospatial tools to better understand the world around her. As a citizen, she engages with geotech privacy debates. Become a part of the EthicalGEO conversation, follow us @EthicalGEO or email info@ethicalgeo.org.