May 24, 2024 - Technology

States turn against public masking amid pro-Palestinian protests

Illustration of face mask pattern with one highlighted

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

State officials are increasingly targeting public mask-wearing in new legislation and prosecutions in an attempt to crack down on pro-Palestinian campus protests.

Why it matters: Wearing a mask can help protesters evade facial recognition cameras that police and campus officials use to identify participants in a campus demonstration.

  • Campus protesters are facing ramifications beyond possible arrest: Some faculty members have been fired and students face suspensions.

State of play: A handful of states are pursuing new legislation to ban public mask-wearing in most situations. Others are reviving old laws that they hadn't enforced in years to target protesters, experts say.

  • Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU's speech, privacy and technology project, told Axios that law enforcement argues that police officers should be able to identify everyone who's participating in a protest in case it turns violent.
  • But privacy experts and activists argue that the new moves are a tactic to help investigators and school administrators unjustly target protesters who want to protect themselves from COVID-19 and doxxing.

Driving the news: The North Carolina Senate passed a measure last week that would repeal a pandemic-era law allowing people to wear masks in public for health reasons.

  • N.C. Republican lawmakers have argued that the "Unmasking Mobs and Criminals" legislation would help police crack down on pro-Palestinian protesters who are using masks to hide their identities.

The big picture: The N.C. statehouse isn't the only political body that's started targeting protesters' face coverings, according to the ACLU.

  • In New York City, a state lawmaker introduced legislation this month to ban face coverings while protesting, rallying or participating in any other public assembly.
  • Ohio's attorney general sent a letter to the presidents of the state's public universities warning that students who wear a face mask at protests could face felony charges under a 1953 law that has seemingly never been enforced before.
  • Some protesters arrested during demonstrations at the University of Florida are facing charges for wearing a mask in public.

Catch up quick: States created their old anti-masking laws for a variety of reasons, including identifying Ku Klux Klan members.

  • During the initial years of the pandemic, many states added exemptions to these laws to allow people to wear masks to protect against COVID.

Zoom in: At UNC-Chapel Hill, organizers say many participants in demonstrations are immunocompromised and wouldn't be able to participate in the protests without a mask.

  • "We are still trying to be as COVID-conscious as possible and making sure that by masking, we are able to keep the broader community safe," Sophia Brown, a member of UNC Students for Justice in Palestine, told Axios.
  • Organizers told Axios they have noticed more cameras on campus in the last month of demonstrations, and UNC leaders sent an email in March asking students not to wear masks because the practice "is a violation of UNC policy and State law."

Facial recognition technology has gotten better at identifying people who are wearing a face covering, Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told Axios.

  • Yes, but: "The more expansive facial recognition becomes in these situations, the more errors that are going to be made," he said.
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