The Age of the Anonymous Protest Is Over

Crowds may provide a sense of shared purpose, strength in numbers, and a physical embodiment of the spirit of collective action. But in the age of digital surveillance, they do not provide anonymity.

Protesters gather in New York City. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Many protesters likely assume that unless they’re arrested, they can exercise their right to protest while keeping their identities private. And they’re wrong.

With the rise of A.I.-driven facial recognition databases from companies like Clearview AI, government agencies across the nation have tools available to rapidly and easily identify anyone participating in a protest using only their photo.

If you’ve attended a protest this weekend — or really any public event over the last several years — you could potentially be identified by name using only an image of your face.

In the age of ubiquitous cellphone cameras and instant publishing via social media, protests are immediately documented and shared worldwide. Before protesters even left the streets on Saturday night, photos had already circulated worldwide and made their way into major news sources. These images now risk compromising the privacy and civil liberties of protesters. Since at least 2018, companies including Clearview have been quietly building face databases of nearly everyone in America using sources ranging from Facebook profile photos to mug shots.

Clearview’s system was revealed to the public in a January 2020 expose in the New York Times. Using Clearview’s system, law enforcement agencies (or even private companies) can upload a photo of nearly any individual and instantly learn their name and identity. The Times said Clearview could “end privacy as we know it.”

I can personally attest to the power of Clearview’s system. Earlier this year, I used the California Consumer Privacy Act to access Clearview’s profile on me. Using only my face, they were able to determine my name, occupation, home city, the identities of my family members, the name of my faculty adviser when I was in college, and much more. If you live in America, it’s likely that Clearview has a similar file on you.

I can also vouch for Clearview’s ability to find a person’s identity using only a low-quality, social media photo. To perform my own search on Clearview, I deliberately avoided sending a high-quality, well-lit photo of my face. Instead, I used a candid shot of myself cooking latkes — the kind of everyday cellphone shot I routinely post on Instagram or Twitter. Clearview found me just the same.

This reveals a concerning reality — any government agency that uses Clearview’s system can likely take their pick of protest photos on social media (including those that protesters themselves share), run them through the system, and rapidly identify every person depicted. The New York Times’ report revealed code for embedding Clearview’s tech in wearable goggles for identifying people in real time, suggesting that its platform is more than capable of scanning a crowd photo and rapidly identifying everyone visible in it.

Several government agencies are reportedly doing just that. According to data obtained by BuzzFeed News, the Minneapolis Police Department (which employed the officer accused of killing Floyd) as well as several nearby departments are either actively using or have trialed Clearview’s system. Collectively, they’d performed more than 400 Clearview searches as of February of this year.

Even if local agencies abstain from using these technologies, that doesn’t mean that federal authorities will do the same.

According to the local newspaper, the Star Tribune, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office (which polices the region that includes Minneapolis) used a facial recognition system on a photo from Instagram in order to identify a suspect on at least one occasion.

The precedent and tools for these kinds of uses are clearly there. And government agencies have a history of using other digital surveillance technologies to allegedly investigate protesters, including those protesting racially motivated violence as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Even if local agencies abstain from using these technologies, that doesn’t mean that federal authorities will do the same. The Department of Customs and Border Protection reportedly flew a Predator drone over Minneapolis this weekend, an aircraft that can readily take high-resolution photos of a crowd from afar, especially if equipped with experimental camera systems. The purpose of the drone’s flight remains unknown.

The ubiquity (and legality) of face-based surveillance tech presents a shocking reality for those who choose to protest in America — if you gather on the streets to exercise your constitutional rights, you need to assume that you can be photographed, identified, and tracked by a variety of local and federal agencies. The age of the anonymous protest is over.

In some cases, this may not necessarily be a bad thing. Many cities have claimed that violence this weekend stemmed not from their own citizens but from out-of-towners who travel to protests specifically to incite rioting. Facial recognition could reveal if this is actually true, potentially keeping streets safer for protesters who are genuinely interested in gathering peacefully.

But it’s a dangerous, slippery slope. The line between policing and oppression is thin — mass surveillance could keep protesters safe, but it could just as easily be used to harass and suppress them. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, governments have surveilled protesters on all sides of the political spectrum for decades and allegedly used surveillance to “break up or jail protesters” for “peaceful dissent from controversial government policies.” The ACLU has pursued multiple legal cases against predatory digital surveillance.

What can protesters do to keep their identities safe? Some have tried to obscure their faces to avoid recognition by systems like Clearview’s. But facial recognition is adaptable — it has reportedly already been modified to detect people wearing Covid-19 face masks, and related technologies can even identify a person from their unique gait and movements whether or not their face is disguised.

The best protection against widespread surveillance is likely legal, not technical. Several cities (including San Francisco) have already banned the use of facial recognition by police agencies. And the state of New Jersey has specifically banned the use of Clearview’s tech.

But the strongest challenges may come through independent advocacy groups. Last week, the ACLU filed a landmark class-action lawsuit against Clearview. The suit is based on an Illinois law that prohibits companies from using citizens’ faces and other biometric data without their consent. Each violation, if proven, could cost the company $5,000. If the suit succeeds, it could make mass surveillance by companies like Clearview financially untenable.

Until clear legislation (and case law) is in place, though, widespread surveillance using facial recognition will remain the norm. This is not a reason to avoid joining a protest. But it’s something all protesters need to be aware of as they take to the streets in pursuit of social justice and other causes.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography.

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