How Protest Movements Can Hijack Surveillance Tech for the Public Good
Around the world, social movements are turning drones, wearables, and other surveillance tech against the state
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick is associate professor at University of San Diego & University of Nottingham, whose work focuses on social change as it relates to society, politics, and technology.
It was nine o’clock in the evening and I was on the curb with a Hungarian police officer, who was asking for identification. Specifically, he was asking to see the papers of my graduate student, Tautvydas Juskauskas. In a former life, Tautis was a levelheaded lobbyist in his native Lithuania. In a future life, he would work for the world’s largest drone manufacturer and later lead drone operations in Malawi for the United Nations Children’s Fund. That evening, however, he was a suspect, wondering what he’d gotten himself into.
Tautis and I were in the process of documenting the largest street protests seen in Hungary since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The government wanted to raise revenue by taxing the internet traffic of every business and individual, whether at home or on a digital device. The officer was perplexed by our technology and by our role in the event. We explained that we were conducting research. He demanded our papers. We stalled (I’d forgotten to give Tautis the first lesson in Protest Fieldwork 101: Ditch the ID!), and finally I agreed to give the officer my name. I scribbled Austin Fitzpatrick, my legal name.
“Should we stop flying?” I asked the officer. He thought for a minute, looked at us, looked at our drone, shrugged, and waved us along.
The entire exchange lasted five minutes and drew a crowd of people, some of whom pulled out their mobile phones to document our conversation with the police. Perhaps the presence of citizen journalists bearing witness gave the officer pause. Perhaps he was going to let us go anyway. Whatever the case, we jogged off in an attempt to get ahead of the throng and set up our equipment in time to get aerial footage of the event.
As we arrived in the square, Tautis’ phone rang. It was our contact at the local independent journalism shop. The crowd was…