Comments on Reddit Led to Virginia Fusion Center Warning on Protesters Attacking Emergency Vehicles

A video posted to YouTube in December 2014 by activists associated with Anonymous that appears to show Chicago police officers discussing surveillance of protesters.

A bulletin issued in December 2014 by the Virgina Fusion Center (VFC) warned law enforcement and first responders that emergency vehicles could be targeted by violent protesters seeking to retaliate against the perceived surveillance of their activities. The bulletin, which is titled “Malicious Activists May Promote Harm to Emergency Management Vehicles Observed During Violent Protests,” draws its conclusion that “violent or malicious activity” could be directed toward emergency vehicles “operating near protest areas” based primarily upon comments to a post on Reddit and a protest guide posted anonymously on Pastebin.

Following the decision last year by a Missouri grand jury not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, protests have taken place throughout the nation.  One particular protest held in Chicago on November 28, 2014, just days after the decision, gained attention online after numerous protesters noticed a Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) vehicle that followed them as they marched through the city streets. Several posts on Twitter and other social media platforms include pictures of the vehicle with some protesters noting that their phone begins to malfunction and behave strangely when the vehicle is near. After the photos began to spread on social media, there was rampant online speculation that the vehicle may have contained a Stingray IMSI-catcher produced by Harris Corporation and used by law enforcement to intercept cellular communication content including calls, text messages and other data.

The protesters’ speculations were further bolstered when a video was posted on YouTube by activists associated with the group Anonymous that featured recordings of police scanner traffic where an officer appears to discuss the ability of the local police fusion center to intercept cellular phone calls made by the protesters:

Dispatch: “CPIC [Crime Prevention and Information Center] on the air for a mobile”
CPIC Officer: “Go ahead”
Car 41 Officer: “Yeah one of the girls is kind of an organizer here, um, she’s been on her phone a lot. Are you guys picking up any information, uh, where they’re going, possibly?”
CPIC Officer: “Yeah we’ll keep an eye on it, we’ll let you know if we hear anything.”
Car 41 Officer: “10-4. They’re compliant, and they’re, they’re doing ok now but she’s spending a lot of time on the phone.”
CPIC Officer: “10-4”

A post on the excellent PrivacySOS blog authored by Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty Project, covered the protesters’ observations as well as video released by Anonymous. The post, which is directly cited in the VFC bulletin, also mentioned that a local news outlet had identified the potential target of the police surveillance mentioned in the Anonymous video as Kristiana Rae Colón, daughter of Chicago alderman Rey Colón and organizer of the #BlackLivesMatter protest that was being held that day.  The blog post on PrivacySOS was later linked to in the news section of Reddit, leading to more than five-thousand positive votes and two-thousand comments. The VFC issued its bulletin warning law enforcement that “emergency management vehicles operating near protest areas may be targeted by precipitating violent or malicious activity” primarily because a few comments on Reddit, several of which appear to be facetious, suggest using violent tactics against the Chicago OEMC vehicle or otherwise sabotaging its surveillance capabilities.

One comment highlighted in the bulletin states if “someone were to accidentally operate a device at protests that happened to operate at the frequencies that truck is using” that it would “block their transmissions.” Another commenter says “if you see one of those cars” at a protest, just “make a bunch of calls saying ‘I think I just overheard someone saying there was a bomb'” on the other side of town. More interestingly, a comment is included in the bulletin because it references Virginia, despite the fact that the comment simply notes that a vehicle like this exists in “Chesterfield VA and it’s only supposed to be used with a court order or a search warrant.” These comments are described in the bulletin as commenters expressing “interest in responding to similar vehicles via technical, subversive, or violent means.”

These violent or malicious intentions are further exemplified, according to the bulletin, by an anonymous post on Pastebin from December 6, 2014 titled “Stingback: A Short, Emergency Guide for Activists Being Spied on by Chicago Police Stingrays (and very likely other police departments).” The guide provides a few simple actions protesters can take to help protect themselves from police surveillance while organizing, including using separate phones for personal and protest activities, using encrypted communication apps such as the products of Open Whisper Systems including TextSecure, RedPhone and Signal, as well as turning off a phone’s location tracking features. One of the last suggestions in the guide, which mentions physically inhibiting the movements of the vehicle, is what led to it being cited in the VFC bulletin. VFC warns law enforcement that “emergency management vehicles deployed to potential protest areas, particularly areas which may have a propensity for violence, should exercise caution” and “be aware that they may be targeted by non-violent methods in order to inhibit their vehicle movements in the area.”

At no point in the VFC bulletin is the fundamental claim of the protesters addressed: that surveillance of the protesters’ communications based solely on the fact that they are engaging in free speech activities is a violation of their Constitutional rights. In fact, this point is made explicitly clear in the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice’s guidelines on policing First Amendment-protected events which states that “collecting, maintaining, using, or sharing information regarding persons or groups solely because they are involved in constitutionally protected activity” is prohibited, as is “collecting, maintaining, using, or sharing information regarding persons or groups solely because of the content of their speech.”

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