Documents on Fed Surveillance of BLM Protests Spark Privacy Concerns

Documents shining a light on the extent of federal surveillance of Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd's death have sparked concerns of just how far the government is willing to go to surveil protesters.

Hundreds of emails and documents obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information Act request show how federal agents monitored social media for "intelligence" on planned Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and other cities.

In at least one case, they showed that authorities used social media posts in an effort to identify protesters who may have witnessed a Molotov cocktail being thrown at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, which had its location redacted in the documents.

A May 28 email to the Federal Protective Service (FPS), the service tasked with protecting federal infrastructure, mentions a "video on Twitter that does not show the Molotov cocktail being used but does show the faces of some protesters."

The email goes on to state that "a hashtag on the post indicated the protest was in support of George Floyd."

While it is not uncommon for social media to be relied upon for information during an investigation, the surveillance does raise concerns around how the information gathered will be used.

Speaking with BuzzFeed, David Greene, the civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, acknowledged that "in some ways, maybe most ways, it's routine police work to search for publicly available sources of information about crime—so it's not unexpected when they are investigating crime."

"But we don't want to see it for what looks like monitoring of participants in a protest," Greene said. "And we'd be concerned if there were an indication that they were collecting images or social media information of peaceful protestors—really, even if non-peaceful, just not associated with criminal activity—and creating dossiers of protestors to use for future undefined investigations or potential crime."

Similar concerns had been aired in July in an article for The Conversation, Anjuli R. K. Shere, a doctoral researcher in cyber security at the University of Oxford, and Jason Nurse, an assistant professor in cyber security at the University of Kent, laid out how the "technology-driven" surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters could set "a dangerous precedent."

"There is a risk that the power this gives to police to target protestors could be abused and have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and assembly," they wrote.

"This is particularly true in the case of Black Lives Matter, given alleged evidence of the infiltration of U.S. law enforcement agencies by white supremacists," they said, citing a Daily Beast article on the alleged presence of white supremacists in policing.

According to BuzzFeed, the documents obtained by the news site showed only one instance of documents directly mentioning white supremacist or far-right groups in connection with unrest in the wake of Floyd's death.

While protest networks were monitored on social media, with screenshots shared of Facebook pages and online fliers, the outlet said there was a significantly less strong effort to track members of the so-called "boogaloo boys," a right-wing extremist group.

The group's only mention in the documents was found in a quoted social media post that was included in a debrief on "recent incidents," with the social media post saying: "If someone really wanted to kick off the boogaloo, now would be the time to fire some shots and frame the crowd around you as responsible."

The quote was not accompanied with any context, but was simply listed alongside reports of vandalism, looting and civil rights activists calling for demonstrations over racial injustice to continue.

Newsweek has contacted the FPS and cyber security experts for comment.

A demonstrator shouts in a megaphone during Black Lives Matter protest against racial injustice and police brutality in La Mesa, California, on August 1, 2020. BING GUAN/AFP/Getty