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In Plain Sight: Cops and Protesters Have Vast Systems to Spy on Each Other 

Tuesday, Dec 16 2014

The defining image of last week's anti-police brutality protests — an undercover California Highway Patrol Officer brandishing his gun at a small crowd in Oakland — speaks volumes about the erosion of trust between law enforcement and activists. The CHP officer says he feared for his life as a mob advanced toward him; protesters, meanwhile, were distraught to find a plain-clothed cop among their ranks.

But it turned out that cop was only one cog in a vast spy network, which, CHP Golden Gate Division chief Avery Browne says, is partly a defense against the protesters' own surveillance technology. The confrontation happened on a rainy night, which prevented CHP from deploying its stakeout helicopter. Instead, the agency dispatched armed personnel to wander among the crowd and gather intelligence.

Apparently, many police departments use undercover patrols to monitor demonstrations. Many also launch dummy Twitter accounts to follow the main organizers, which could be as effective as a wiretap, but don't require court orders. According to Browne, all such tracking methods are necessary. Protesters now download police scanner apps to their smartphones, meaning "everything we transmit over the radio, they play over their Twitter lines," Browne says.

So, Little Brother is following Big Brother, too.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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