Updated May 5, 2024 - Technology

Surveillance looms over pro-Palestinian campus protests

Illustration of surveillance cameras surrounding a protester.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As college students reckon with weeks of pro-Palestinian protests and police activity on their campuses, experts warn they might spend their summer breaks feeling the impacts of ongoing campus surveillance.

Why it matters: Law enforcement is known to lean on facial recognition and social media monitoring tools when investigating campus protests and arrested protesters.

  • But these technologies are far from perfect. People could be misidentified and officials could abuse the technology.

The big picture: It often takes months — sometimes years — for the public to fully learn the extent of how law enforcement and universities use social media monitoring tools and facial recognition technologies to surveil protesters.

  • For example, it took two years and a court order for Amnesty International and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) to get the New York Police Department to release public records about its use of surveillance during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

Driving the news: More than 1,900 people on at least 43 college campuses have been arrested at pro-Palestine protests in the last two weeks.

  • Protesters on each campus are calling on their schools to divest investments in businesses that have direct ties to Israel or that are supporting the war in Gaza.

Catch up quick: Police and universities have a long history of cooperation on campus safety issues — and that's often meant sharing campus video footage, protesters' geolocation and publicly available social media posts, Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of S.T.O.P., told Axios.

  • University police departments also bought more surveillance tools during the pandemic, citing a need to monitor campus safety issues like potential shootings.
  • Some installed automated license plate readers on campus, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Others have publicly discussed using state law enforcement's facial recognition databases in their own investigations.
  • At least 37 colleges have used Social Sentinel, a social media monitoring tool that's reportedly been used to surveil student protesters, since 2015, according to a 2022 news investigation.

What they're saying: "It's a lot easier to start using surveillance technologies than it is to stop using them," Justin Sherman, a privacy researcher at Duke University, told Axios.

  • "You can't 'control-Z' so easily on police starting to surveil students' social media accounts and campus activity on protests when there's not a lot of disclosure, there isn't a lot of accountability and there's very little incentive to stop doing it."

Between the lines: There's now a fear that students who participated in on-campus demonstrations could face increased law enforcement surveillance even after they've graduated.

  • "There's still an elevated risk that they could be subjected to more surveillance by the police because the police are tracking them now," Sherman said.

Yes, but: It has not been confirmed that Columbia University and other college campuses used facial recognition or other surveillance technologies to specifically monitor the ongoing pro-Palestine protests.

Zoom in: Students at Columbia University — which has become the national hub for pro-Palestine protests — have been the target of both campus police and other law enforcement surveillance before.

  • The NYPD reportedly surveilled websites run by Muslim student groups back in 2006, according to an Associated Press investigation.

Zoom out: Facial recognition tools are known to misidentify people of color, especially, because of the bias in the algorithms they're trained on.

  • Many law enforcement offices have a history of disproportionately deploying surveillance technology against marginalized people, Sherman added.

The intrigue: Many protesters have become cognizant of the surveillance technologies they're up against, Cahn said.

  • During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, many people found that the masks they wore to prevent the spread of Covid-19 could also make it harder for facial recognition cameras to detect them.
  • Many participants at the past month's pro-Palestine protests also wore face coverings to avoid identification.

The bottom line: Privacy advocates recommend that protesters bring only burner phones, put internet-connected devices on "airplane" mode and disable any biometric logins on these devices.

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