Privacy SOS

Going to Cleveland to protest the RNC this summer? Beware the local surveillance tech.

The New York Times reports activists from cities and towns across the country plan to descend on Cleveland this summer to protest the Republican National Convention and its presumptive nominee, Donald Trump. Deb Kline of Cleveland Jobs with Justice told a reporter she expects to see civil disobedience and arrests: “If there are people willing to put themselves on the line to be arrested, so be it.”

Political conventions are National Security Special Events (NSSEs), a designation that helps local police departments obtain large federal grant packages to buy surveillance and riot equipment, creates restrictions on First Amendment speech, enables cities to lock down and deny the public access to public space, and puts the Secret Service in charge of security operations. When the Democratic National Convention came to Boston in 2004, it came with millions of dollars of investment into the local surveillance architecture, including the establishment of the networked surveillance camera system that, twelve years on, still serves as the backbone for the city’s camera operations. In Cleveland, officials plan to keep protesters far from the convention center and the eyes and ears of the republican delegates. The ACLU is suing.

It’ll take some public records digging to find out exactly what kinds of special toys the local police in Cleveland have purchased in advance of their big show (one request has gone largely unanswered), but we know a little about what kinds of technologies officers in the city and county already possess. Here are some technologies protesters and others visiting Cleveland this summer will likely face as they express their First Amendment rights.

  • IRIS SCANS: The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s department uses iris scanning technology during bookings. So if you’re arrested in Cleveland, keep in mind that you may be required to submit to an iris scan. That iris scan will likely travel to the FBI, where the Bureau will hold onto it in its massive Next Generation Identification (NGI) biometrics database. 
  • LICENSE PLATE TRACKERS: As of 2014, the Cleveland Police Department used license plate trackers to document and retain information about who is driving, where, and when. The department did not have a data retention policy, meaning it may store the information forever. The police may also share the information with federal authorities in town for the convention. License plate reader systems can be used to create “geofences,” allowing particular officers to be notified when a certain car enters a specific geographic area.
  • SURVEILLANCE CAMERAS: According to an April 2016 request for proposals from the City of Cleveland, the city has received money from the Department of Homeland Security to build out a CCTV network: “The City utilized Department of Homeland Security grant funds to build a high-speed wireless point to point and mesh network with video surveillance cameras. The Cleveland Shared Security Surveillance (CS3) program’s first initiative was a 9 camera pilot system in the Public Square area of downtown Cleveland. Since the initial pilot the CS3 program has expanded to 120 cameras Citywide. These cameras provide coverage in the heart of downtown Cleveland as well as throughout neighborhood corridors, parks, business districts and hot spots.” The system enables remote viewing and recording.
  • FUSION CENTER: Cleveland is home to the Northeast Regional Fusion Center, a Department of Homeland Security funded operation that puts cops, feds, and representatives from private industry in the same space along with access to databases, spy tools, and information sharing systems. In 2015 a Tampa police officer told a “security” conference in Cleveland that local officials managed to control protesters at the 2012 RNC by infiltrating their groups with undercover officers. Watch out for similar infiltrations in Cleveland, perhaps coming out of the fusion center.
  • STINGRAYS: The Cleveland Police Department hasn’t fully responded to a public records request seeking information about its use of cell-site simulators, devices that trick cell phones into communicating with the police. But there’s good reason to believe the police department has one, or will be borrowing the machines from federal agencies while the convention is in town. Federal law enforcement may also bring their own cell phone tracking devices, and may even fly surveillance planes equipped with the spy tech over the city and the protests, sucking up the personal information of the people on the ground. If you don’t want anyone to know you were at the protest, the best bet is to leave your phone at home or keep it turned off. If you don’t want officials to be able to wiretap your communications while you’re protesting, make sure you use Signal or Whatsapp to communicate. Your messages will be encrypted and unreadable by anyone other than the person you’re talking to.
  • LRAD: The Long Range Acoustic Device is a sound weapon that was initially developed for military use. Police departments often bring the devices to large protests. They can be configured to emit an ear piercing sound intended to disperse crowds. If you’re worried about the LRAD, pack a box of earplugs and hand them out to your friends and colleagues.
  • TEAR GAS: Tear gas has featured prominently at many political protests throughout US history. If you are concerned about being gassed at the protest, bring a gas mask or a painter’s mask with a filter. If you get tear gassed, follow these instructions. 

Lots of people plan to go to Cleveland to protest the RNC. It’s likely that there will be lots of arrests. The ACLU in Ohio has a page with lots more resources for protesters. The National Lawyers Guild Ohio Chapter has also been preparing for this for some time. If you have been visited by law enforcement or questioned about your plans to protest in Cleveland, they want to hear about it: 

216-5050-NLG (654)

And write that number on your arm if you plan on making your voice heard in the streets; it’ll come in handy if you’re arrested.

Stay tuned for information about what to look out for in the City of Brotherly Love, as it prepares to host the Democratic National Convention. A lot of the same forces will be at play.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.