Jun 3, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Ah summer, that glorious time of year, when the kids get out of (home) school and head off to (home) camp.

Today's Login is 1,450-words, a sunny 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The slippery slope of protest surveillance

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump's call to treat antifa supporters like terrorists could be a green light for high-tech surveillance of dissidents, Axios technology editor Kyle Daly writes.

Why it matters: It's unlikely the Trump administration can designate antifa as a terrorist group in any legally meaningful way, but the declaration gives law enforcement tacit approval to use a plethora of tech tools to monitor protesters and left-leaning activists.

The big picture: The move comes as the U.S. struggles with a pandemic and nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and the president's opponents are sounding warnings about Trump's strong-armed approach.

Driving the news: Trump tweeted Sunday that the U.S. "will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization."

  • It wasn't immediately clear what that would entail, as legal experts have noted that there's no existing designation for domestic terror groups, and "antifa" refers to a general commitment to opposing far-right ideology through direct action, not any one organization.
  • Since antifa is so amorphous, the authorities also have a very free hand in who they decide to include in the group.

Even without any official designation, law enforcement could step up the surveillance of progressive activists' activity and communications.

  • Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz suggested acting along those lines in a tweet this week seeking to explain his call for antifa adherents to be "hunt[ed] down."
  • The Justice Department immediately followed up on the president's tweet with a statement by Attorney General William Barr that the FBI's terrorism task forces would investigate participants in the Floyd protests for possible antifa connections.

Where it stands: Police in the U.S. already deploy a variety of tools for conducting surveillance.

  • Law enforcement agencies around the country contract with Clearview AI, a controversial startup that scrapes billions of images posted around the internet to identify people from sources like security videos.
  • Police can also obtain Americans' location data to track their movements over time. Wireless carriers, device makers and app developers all have reams of such detailed records.
  • Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies around the country can also use surveillance devices to track people's location in real time, as the American Civil Liberties Union has long documented.

Of note: Lawmakers and advocacy groups have warned that new contact-tracing technology developed to fight the spread of the coronavirus could be repurposed to track Americans' movements and interactions outside of the pandemic context.

Yes, but: The government still faces some checks on its ability to conduct some targeted surveillance. A 2018 Supreme Court ruling, for instance, found that police need to get a warrant before using cell phone location data to retrace a suspect's steps.

  • Still, warrants may be easy to come by from judges sympathetic to the idea that leftists are terrorists. And the U.S. has a long history of finding ways to skirt limits on government surveillance powers.

Be smart: A message from the country's highest office that some American citizens are enemy combatants is sure to resonate with online vigilantes, too.

  • A New York Times investigation last year showed how easy it is to identify and track individuals using publicly available, ostensibly anonymized data harvested from smartphone apps.
  • Just this past weekend, Aaron Dessner of rock band The National became the target of an online harassment campaign after being misidentified as an antifa riot instigator because he vaguely resembled a man who appeared in footage of an Ohio protest.

History lesson: In the 1960s and '70s the FBI's COINTELPRO program, exhaustively documented by later congressional investigations, conducted large-scale spying on progressive organizations and leftist activists.

The bottom line: The Trump administration is already eager to ramp up government surveillance capabilities in the name of fighting terrorism. That appetite could easily expand when the alleged terrorists are also domestic opponents of the president.

2. Zuckerberg's tense meeting with Facebook employees

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At a contentious online meeting with Facebook staff Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his decision not to act against controversial messages posted by President Trump.

Why it matters: Facebook had gotten a brief reprieve from intense criticism over speech issues as the world grappled with the coronavirus and the platform served as a communications lifeline for many. That reprieve appears to be over — and the divisions of this moment are spreading inside the company now as well.

Driving the news: For a half hour, Zuckerberg explained, again, why Facebook, unlike Twitter, let Trump's post ("When the looting begins, the shooting begins") stand — a choice that led to the "virtual walkout" of reportedly hundreds of employees Monday.

What he said: According to an account in The Verge, Zuckerberg told his staff he knew leaving Trump’s post up would "lead to a lot of people being very upset inside the company and a lot of the media criticism we're going to get ... Likely this decision has incurred a massive practical cost for the company to do what we think is the right step."

  • Per The Verge, one Facebook employee asked Zuckerberg, "Why are the smartest people in the world focused on contorting or twisting our policies to avoid antagonizing Trump instead of driving social issue progress?"

Between the lines: Zuckerberg noted that the dissatisfaction among workers marked a change from just a short time ago.

  • "It felt to me that over the last couple of months there was this brief moment of unity with our response on COVID, where it felt like we were all in this together,” he said on the call, per the New York Times' Mike Isaac.

The bigger picture: Scrutiny of Facebook is not, in fact, going away. Even amid the pandemic, the site was under pressure to act more effectively against coronavirus misinformation, including information shared by Trump and other world leaders, such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

What's next: That pressure can only grow ahead of the U.S. presidential election. And now Zuckerberg appears to be fighting critics inside the company as well as those outside.

Meanwhile, as Axios reported yesterday, there is a new ad campaign by an activist group using Zuckerberg's own words to encourage Facebook employees to push the company toward keeping harmful content off its platforms.

3. Group sues Trump over social media executive order

The Center for Democracy and Technology sued Trump on Tuesday, alleging his executive order on social media violates the First Amendment, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Driving the news: The nonprofit advocacy organization argues Trump was retaliating against Twitter for labeling his tweets, and asks a federal court to declare the order unlawful.

  • The lawsuit says the order "seeks to curtail and chill the constitutionally protected speech of all online platforms and individuals — by demonstrating the willingness to use government authority to retaliate against those who criticize the government."
  • "The President has made clear his intent to use threats of retaliation and future regulation to intimidate intermediaries into changing how they moderate content, essentially ensuring that the dangers of voter suppression and disinformation will grow unchecked in an election year," CDT President Alexandra Givens said in a statement.

Background: The executive order, signed last week by the president, targets the legal protections online platforms have from liability over content their users post.

4. Charted: Police scanner apps see record downloads
Data: Apptopia; Note: Apps counted are Scanner Radio - Fire and Police Scanner, Police Scanner, 5-0 Radio Police Scanner, Police Scanner Radio & Fire, Police Scanner +; Chart: Axios Visuals

Five of the most popular police scanner apps are experiencing a combined record number of downloads, as thousands of protesters take to the streets across American cities, according to new data from Apptopia.

Details: The apps allow users to listen to live audio from fire and police scanners, weather radios, air traffic and marine radios, etc. in real time around the world.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • The TED conference is having a special session on race at noon ET today, for registered 2020 attendees. Speakers include Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.; Phillip Goff of the Center for Policing Equity; Color of Change's Rashad Robinson; and ACLU head Anthony Romero. TED has also curated a section of past talks on race, accessible to all, found here.

Trading Places

  • PagerDuty named Manjula Talreja as its first chief customer officer. She was most recently senior VP of customer success at Salesforce.
  • Twitter named former Google CFO Patrick Pichette as board chairman.


  • Zoom earnings and revenue soared last quarter as the pandemic led the video conferencing company to record business. (Axios)
  • Facebook said it has taken down some accounts tied to white supremacist groups after they advocated bringing weapons to events. (Reuters)
  • A new lawsuit seeking class-action status accuses Google of tracking Chrome users even in private-browsing mode. (New York Times)
  • The Trump administration is launching investigations into digital taxes imposed or proposed in several countries, which could result in retaliatory tariffs. (New York Times)
  • SoftBank is launching a $100 million fund to back companies led by people of color. (Axios)
  • Zoom plans to roll out end-to-end encryption to paying users only. (TechCrunch)
6. After you Login
Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

Yesterday was the last day of first grade for Harvey, so we had a backyard celebration and pizza party.

Ina Fried