High-Tech Spying Undermines Democracy

Merely pass by a protest, tweet about it, and you could end up in a police database.

by Michael Schwalbe 

In the fall of 2017, students protesting the presence of the Silent Sam statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus discovered a spy in their midst. The spy, an undercover cop with the campus police department, infiltrated the activist group by lying about his identity and politics. University officials said the spying was justified by the need to “protect the safety of people on our campus.” No threat to anyone’s safety was found, though the civil liberties of activists were certainly damaged.

Two years later, in December, 2019, an NBC News investigation exposed another UNC-Chapel Hill police spying operation. This time the police were found to be using a high-tech method called “geofencing,” which is a form of cell phone tracking that captures social media posts and other information from phones that enter an area where a protest is occurring. Between November, 2016, and October, 2019, the university paid $73,500 to Vermont-based Social Sentinel Inc. to provide the geofencing service.

According to NBC News, UNC confirmed that it is still using the geofencing technology. But when asked what it was being used for, a university spokesperson would not say. Reporters also sought comments from UNC police officials, UNC police “intelligence chief” Jake Kornegay, and former chancellor Carol Folt. They all clammed up. Nor did UNC police respond when asked if they had obtained a warrant to geofence the Silent Sam protest area.

In response to reports about the geofencing, antiracist activists have asked, What else are the UNC police doing that we don’t know about? That’s a good question, and anyone who cares about civil liberties—our rights to speak and gather lawfully with fellow citizens, free from the eyes and hands of the state—should want an answer.

At a January 15, 2020, meeting of the UNC Campus Safety Commission, UNC police chief David L. Perry explained his department’s use of geofencing. “We are scanning in advance to hopefully stay ahead of the bang … the bad incident—the bad thing that we do not want to happen,” Perry said, according to the Daily Tar Heel. Scanning in advance means monitoring social media posts for words and images that are related to “wellness, harassment, harm and sexual violence,” according to the Daily Tar Heel report. A social media post that triggers an alarm could result in a visit from the police, Perry said.

Perry’s statements about geofencing suggest that it is used more broadly than previously reported. Not only are those in a protest area monitored, but so are people in the wider campus community who post about UNC. Despite the additional information from Perry, we still don’t have a complete picture. If the pattern holds, we will find out only later, after the fact, what police are doing and the extent to which people’s civil rights are being violated.

Part of what allows this secrecy and unaccountability is a lack of strong civilian oversight. The absence of such oversight was painfully clear in 2017 when the undercover cop was found out. Then-chancellor Folt, when asked to comment on the spying, told a Daily Tar Heel reporter, “I look to our officers—to our police force—to determine the best way to keep people safe.” It would be fair to call that an abdication of responsibility. Exposure of the geofencing operation suggests that university administrators are behaving no differently today. No university official who does not carry a gun has stepped forward to speak to the civil liberties implications of spying by campus police.

Since 9/11, administrators and police at all levels have used the rhetoric of safety to justify ever more invasive snooping. Concerns for civil liberties and privacy have been submerged by authorities who claim to be watching the bad guys to keep the rest of us safe. That message might comfort children, but it ought to worry citizens in a democracy.

The UNC police are just a small part of the picture. According to NBC News, UNC police were “tipped off by the FBI” to monitor Silent Sam protesters. Documents obtained by NBC News also showed that information derived from geofencing was shared with Orange County law enforcement, the SBI, and the local Joint Terrorism Task Force.

All this police attention was not focused on a group of suspected criminals. It was focused on a group consisting mostly of college students engaged in lawful political activity aimed at combatting racism. If there are bad guys in this story, it’s those who treat with contempt the constitutional rights that are supposed to protect such activity. Ensuring the safety of those rights is what demands continual vigilance.

To be sure, joining public protests entails some sacrifice of privacy. But this ought not mean acceptance of spying tactics that corrode trust and make people reluctant to assemble to petition government for a redress of grievances. To stop police overreach, we need stronger civilian control and better means for holding police accountable. Bad publicity when unsavory behavior comes to light has never been enough to stop police from intruding on legal political activity.

Civilian oversight also needs to be democratized. Civilian overseers—those who are supposed to ensure that police act as public servants, not as warriors or spies—must be accountable to the public. Perhaps we can’t expect the police to prioritize civil liberties. But when those who are supposed to watch the watchers fail to do this, they should be replaced.

People who don’t join in public protests might imagine that they needn’t worry about being spied upon. But geofencing and many other surveillance methods sweep up everyone. Merely pass by a protest, tweet about it, and you could end up in a police database. Use a trigger word in a social media post—UNC police spying does violence to civil liberties—and the same thing could occur. Fear of that possibility, of coming to the attention of the police for protected expression, is not an individual problem; it’s a deterrent to the democratic process on which everyone’s freedom depends.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.