“In footage from drones hovering above, the nighttime streets of Hong Kong look almost incandescent, a constellation of tens of thousands of cellphone flashlights, swaying in unison. Each twinkle is a marker of attendance and a plea for freedom. The demonstrators, some clad in masks to thwart the government’s network of facial recognition cameras, find safety in numbers.
But in addition to the bright lights, each phone is also emitting another beacon in the darkness — one that’s invisible to the human eye. This signal is captured and collected, sometimes many times per minute, not by a drone but by smartphone apps. The signal keeps broadcasting, long after the protesters turn off their camera lights, head to their homes and take off their masks.
In the United States, and across the world, any protester who brings a phone to a public demonstration is tracked and that person’s presence at the event is duly recorded in commercial datasets. At the same time, political parties are beginning to collect and purchase phone location for voter persuasion.
“Without question it’s sinister,” said Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism at Columbia University and former president of Students for a Democratic Society, a prominent activist group in the 1960s. “It will chill certain constitutionally permitted expressions. If people know they’ll be tracked, it will certainly make them think twice before linking themselves to a movement.”
A trove of location data with more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans obtained by Times Opinion helps to illustrate the risks that such comprehensive monitoring poses to the right of Americans to assemble and participate in a healthy democracy.
Within minutes, with no special training and a little bit of Google searching, Times Opinion was able to single out and identify individuals at public demonstrations large and small from coast to coast.
By tracking specific devices, we followed demonstrators from the 2017 Women’s March back to their homes. We were able to identify individuals at the 2017 Inauguration Day Black Bloc protests. It was easy to follow them to their workplaces. In some instances — for example, a February clash between antifascists and far-right supporters of Milo Yiannopolous in Berkeley, Calif. — it took little effort to identify the homes of protesters and then their family members.
Satellite imagery: Microsoft and DigitalGlobe
The anonymity of demonstrators has long been a contentious issue. Governments generally don’t like the idea for fear that masked protesters might be more likely to incite riots. Several states, including New York and Georgia, have laws that prohibit wearing masks at public demonstrations. Countries including Canada and Spain have rules to limit or prohibit masks at riots or unlawful gatherings. But in the smartphone era — masked or not — no one can get lost in a sea of faces anymore.
Imagine the following nightmare scenarios: Governments using location data to identify political enemies at major protests. Prosecutors or the police using location information to intimidate criminal defendants into taking plea deals. A rogue employee at an ad-tech location company sharing raw data with a politically motivated group. A megadonor purchasing a location company to help bolster political targeting abilities for his party and using the information to doxprotesters. A white supremacist group breaching the insecure servers of a small location startup and learning the home addresses of potential targets.”