Undercover officers with the New York Police Department (NYPD) not only infiltrated Black Lives Matter protesters, they become so embedded within the group as to have access to text communications available only to a limited number of organizers. And, they continued their undercover operations despite a lack of any evidence of criminal wrongdoing.These revelations are the result of a series of documents obtained by the Guardian through a freedom of information request.
The released documents show at least one undercover NYPD officer reported back to his superiors information about where specific protesters were at various points in time. What’s most unsettling though is that the released documents would suggest the NYPD infiltrator did not merely show up at demonstrations, but was closely interacting with activists. For example, one of the released documents depict the infiltrator walking to a demonstration at Grand Central Station with a group of seven people. As Keegan Stephan, a Black Lives Matter activist during the time the surveillance took place, told the Guardian, “If you’re walking to Grand Central with a handful of people for an action, that’s much more than just showing up to a public demonstration—that sounds like a level of friendship.”
Law enforcement and intelligence agencies have more high tech tools at their disposal than ever. From cell site simulators to the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of metadata, activists, civil libertarians,and privacy activists (including Defending Rights & Dissent) have raised the alarm about the threat these surveillance technologies pose to the First Amendment. But it is important not to forget about human intelligence. In this case, the NYPD was able to obtain private text messages not via electronic interception, but because an undercover agent was either included in the text chain or had access to the phone of someone who was.
Defending Rights & Dissent has long documented the infiltration of activist organizations, by not only local law enforcement, but federal law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and even by the military. We also last year submitted public comments on a proposed settlement about NYPD spying on First Amendment activity. It is not clear if this activity violated the guidelines regulating NYPD monitoring of First Amendment activity, but these revelations are chilling. The undercover agent in this case continuously acknowledged the protests were peaceful. this is not uncommon–we’ve seen infiltrators at every level of government document that the activity they are spying on is peaceful and lawful, yet continuing to spy.
The NYPD’s surveillance of Black Lives Matter is troubling, but not surprising. Nonetheless, it is important that we never accept political surveillance as normal, no matter how routine it is. Local activists can fight to end the practice by enacting local ordinances to require probable cause before police are allowed to infiltrate or spy on First Amendment activities (see this model ordinance). Nationally the FBI is the main culprit in engaging in political spying. Rights & Dissent launched a campaign last year to urge Congress to investigate the FBI’s routine spying on dissident groups.