Documents obtained by the East Bay Express reveal that California police and Counter-Terrorism officials coordinated monitoring of activists associated with the ‘Black Lives Matters’ movement.
For journalists and activists, the monitoring of online conversation is a well-established fact. Not only should surveillance by law enforcement be expected for protests (seeing as the information is usually posted in public on social media) but those consistently involved in activism should be well aware their social media presence is being scrutinized.
What we don’t know about these type of situations is who has access to intelligence gathered on protesters, how exactly police monitor social media and whether any information is stored. However, new emails released through Freedom of Information Act requests shed some light on how police in Oakland recently monitored activists involved in protesting police violence and racism.
The Express reviewed hundreds of emails from the California Highway Patrol and found that Terrorism Liaison Officers with local fusion centers regularly work with the CHP to monitor activists via social media. Other departments listed in the emails include the Oakland Police Department, and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. The TLO was created in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. These officers work within fusion centers – intelligence gathering and sharing centers which were also created after the attacks. The emails show CHP was working with the California State Threat Assessment Center (Cal STAC) in an effort to stay aware of perceived threats related to the Black Lives Matter protests.
The Express reported on an email sent in December 12, 2014 where Elijah Owen, a senior intelligence advisor with Cal STAC tells CHP officer Michael Berndl about an upcoming march. “Just so it’s on your folks’ radar,” Owen writes. Matthew Hopkins the deputy commander of Cal STAC the Express that the center assessed terrorism threats specific to the state of California.
Another email shows officers being advised “Do Not Advise Protesters That We Are Following Them on Social Media.” The internal email says that protesters were warning other social media users that CHP was monitoring them.
“In the posts, protesters are stating that we (CHP) were claiming to follow them on social media. Please have your personnel refrain from such comments; we want to continue tracking the protesters as much as possible. If they believe we are tracking them, they will go silent.”
Several activist related twitter accounts were also being monitored for possible intelligence. The CHP was even monitoring candle light vigils in their search for terrorism. A December 10 email says, “”Supposed to be just a ‘vigil’ but it is occurring in Oakland.”
The monitoring did not end with the internet, however. An email from December 11 reveals that police in Oakland and Berkeley carried out undercover operations involving at least four CHP officers “[e]mbedded with protesters.” The email also reveals that up until that point the TLOs gathered their “intelligence on protesters through social media regarding dates, times, and locations of planned protests and of intentions to disrupt Bay Area freeways.”
This latest example of surveillance from supposed authorities might not be the biggest surprise you have heard recently but what we should take away from this is the fact that all of the activity that is being monitored in search for some terrorist boogeyman is perfectly legal and constitutionally protected. In today’s post-Snowden Era surveillance is a fact of life. When we put our information into the public sphere we open ourselves up to the watchful eyes of Big Brother. We should not let this curtail our free speech but we should remain educated about what we are facing.
After all, when CHP spokesperson Brandie Dressel spoke to the Express she specifically noted that the department has no policy that governs monitoring of social media and the department searches “for any and all ‘open source,’ or publicly available, information related our public safety assessments.” This should be a lesson to those that remain ignorant to the growing surveillance state. Big Brother is watching, listening, following, and tweeting.