Anonymous: Chicago Police Surveilled Activists, Including Politician's Daughter

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edited December 2014 in The Social Lounge

During Black Friday protests, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) may have slipped up and discussed their secretive cellphone surveillance capability over public police radio, according to a video released Friday, December 5, by the “hactivist” group Anonymous.

One apparent surveillance target was Kristiana Rae Colón, daughter of Chicago alderman Rey Colón. Kristiana told us that she was the main organizer behind a Black Friday demonstration in Chicago, and identified herself as such to police when asked who was leading the protest.

In a two-minute audio segment, police can be heard alluding to their ability to intercept a female protest organizer’s cellphone traffic.

“One of the girls is kind of an organizer here, she’s been on her phone a lot,” an officer says. The officer identifies his location as the intersection of North Avenue and Damen Avenue in Wicker Park, which Kristiana confirmed to us was her location as well. The officer continues: “Are you guys picking up any information [on] where they’re going, possibly?”

“Yeah, we’re keeping an eye on it,” replies someone identifying himself as being from the CPIC – the Crime Prevention and Information Center. The CPIC was established to facilitate interagency collaboration in detecting terrorism and criminal activity. The FBI repeatedly told local police departments to keep mum about the capabilities of their cellphone surveillance equipment.

Colón asked us: “The question is, should you have a warrant before you track or tap my phone?”

“What’s happening ... is a template for how civil liberties can be stripped from citizens in any moment of social unrest,” she said. “Police forces are more concerned with protecting retail and commerce … than they are with protecting the rights of people.”

The protest that Colón organized – a Black Friday Boycott march – drew in hundreds of participants. The activists appeared in front of stores on the shopping holiday to link heavy corporate influence in government with police violence against black communities. The event was referred to as #BrownFriday in social media.

One of the cellphone surveillance tools at the CPD’s disposal is commonly known as a Stingray. The American Civil Liberties Union describes Stingrays as “invasive cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell phone towers and send out signals to trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information.”

Freddy Martinez, a Chicago activist, obtained a copy of an invoice, via a Freedom of Information Act request, showing that the CPD has purchased Stingray devices. Mr. Martinez has filed a lawsuit against the CPD in an attempt to gain more information about the department’s purchase of Stingrays.

If a Stingray was the surveillance tool used to intercept Colón’s phone calls, the CPD may have violated privacy laws.

Kade Crockford, a privacy activist and director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the Massachusetts branch of the ACLU, directed us to a case called NAACP v. Alabama, a 1964 decision in which the government tried to subpoena the NAACP’s list of members. The court put a stop to that, reasoning that it would be violation of NAACP members’ privacy. Crockford insists Stingrays are no different.

“Police can simply take the device out of the equipment locker and go to town,” Crockford told us. “You fire it up at a protest and you effectively have a list of all the cell phones, all the identities, of the people there…. If a police department is ever caught doing that, it could be challenged on constitutional grounds.”