Toronto Police Monitored Black Lives Matter In 2016, But That's Not Unique

Earlier this week, a report revealed Toronto police monitored Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLM) activists and supporters through social media. In particular, documents released through a freedom of information request focused on the BLM protest in 2016 when they camped outside police headquarters in response to a Toronto police officer being cleared of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of Andrew Loku.

“Black activists, particularly, are targeted and surveilled,” claimed Pascale Diverlus, BLM Toronto co-founder. “We know that this happens. The targeting and surveillance of our communities is not new.”

No Diverlus, it’s not. But then again, neither is police monitoring of social media.

Back in 2013, then Police Chief Bill Blair bragged about Toronto Police monitoring political activists via social media at a conference in Philadelphia. When Vice contacted Toronto Police asking for comment in 2015, they responded that “Toronto Police Service pays attention to a wide range of public domain information including radio, television, newspapers, websites and social media. We do that on a daily basis.”

And that’s really what’s key here. This issue isn’t police monitoring BLM, despite their attempts to make this all about them and how they’ve been targeted. Yes, there are certainly justifiable concerns about racial inequality in our society, but not everything is a personal attack against the BLM movement and black people as a whole. Despite what BLM Toronto would have you believe, race is not the issue here.

Monitoring social media is not a racially-oriented practice. Police forces across the United States spent $4.75 million on software tools to monitor social media hashtags and locations of activists using geo-coded posts from 2013 to 2016 alone. Considering BLM sprung up in 2014 in response to the killings of several unarmed black individuals, it’s hard to argue that they’re being unfairly targeted. And in Toronto, police were monitoring Israel/Palestine demonstrations back in 2012. CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, helped prepare senior federal officials for the Northern Gateway pipeline protests in 2015. Clearly, these policies are neither disproportionately used on BLM activists, nor are they even close to the highest priority in terms of intelligence gathering on activist groups.

None of this would be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that this is far from the first time BLM Toronto has missed the mark and landed itself with bad PR.

From holding the Toronto Pride Parade hostage to cofounder Yusra Khogali sprouting black supremacist rhetoric and accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of being a white supremacist, BLM Toronto is continuously revealing itself to be a joke.

This isn’t to deny that racial profiling exists. It does. Hell, a Canadian company’s software has been implicated in racial profiling by U.S. police departments. And after five law enforcement officers were killed at a BLM protest in Dallas, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) sought information on any possible links between African American hate groups and BLM in Canada - in particular, BLM Vancouver. But I think the greater issue we need to discuss is police monitoring in general.

We’ve known for years now that large corporations, like Google and Amazon, actively data mine consumers in order to predict their behaviors and cater to future interests. People have accepted this collection of data as normal, even though it gives groups with ulterior motives an unprecedented amount of private information about citizens. But the world of social media and media in general were rocked by the revelations that Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to gain access to the details of millions of profiles without their explicit knowledge. Perhaps it was the wakeup call many folks needed to realize just how much of their lives were vulnerable to groups seeking to use it.

Colleges have begun using mass social media surveillance as a means of policing their campuses. The University of Virginia even went so far as to hire a private company to monitor social media as a means of preventing crime. It’s not that far of a leap to connect the dots to police forces monitoring social media as well. If anything, it’s the most obvious fit for social media mining.

These posts are full of data that can make interventions quicker, more effective, and more representative. From pictures of emergency conditions to posts about crimes in progress, police and first responders can almost instantaneously know things relevant to public safety. In an ideal world, this would only help citizens. It would allow police to be more proactive, finding ways to de-escalate situations before they become tragedies.

But when you stop and think about it, social media contains extremely sensitive information about people - information they would be outraged to know had been collected by other means, such as listening in on telephone calls or physically monitoring homes. There are laws in place to prevent invasions of privacy, but right now the internet and social media are still relatively young - there is very little legal precedent for dealing with privacy online.

Regarding U.S. police using technology to monitor #blacklivesmatter, #dontshoot, and #policebrutality, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out that “law enforcement should not be using tools that treat protesters like enemies.” But unfortunately, it seems likely that they are. Back in 2015, the Toronto Star revealed that the RCMP had been using dummy Facebook profiles to track activist and rallies. A survey by in the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Urban Institute revealed that 76% of officers use social media to gain tips on crime, 72% monitor public sentiment, and 70% use it for intelligence gathering. And that’s just access to public profiles on social media.

Earlier this year, the Toronto Star discovered that the Toronto Police Service had used cell phone data-capturing technology in at least five separate investigations - after they had specifically denied it. The device, called an international mobile subscriber identity catcher (IMSI) is more commonly known as a Stingray, and indiscriminately collects all mobile data from an area. It mimics a cell phone tower, tricking all phones within a particular range to broadcast their data to the Stingray before all of it is then sent to a proper cell tower. It can be used to pinpoint the location of a specific phone, numbers dialed from phones, along with text messages. It can even eavesdrop on calls and jam phones to prevent them from being used, although current evidence shows the Toronto police have not used it for those purposes. But essentially, it’s a form of mass surveillance. 

Troublingly enough, it was unclear whether Toronto police had warrants in all five cases. Only one of the cases revealed to the Toronto Star had a ‘general warrant,’ and it does not detail what would happen to the information gathered from anyone else in the area while the Stingray was active. Back in 2015, a senior RCMP officer said all data captured through IMSI catchers are considered evidence and will be kept, though nothing except the target information would be accessed. That’s a direct contrast to the European Parliament, who voted through tougher rules on data protection back in 2016. Commonly known as the ‘right to be forgotten,’ it allows people to request that certain information about themselves be taken offline.

It’s clear that we are falling way behind on privacy issues. People share their interests, their habits, and their political leanings with their social groups. There is nothing inherently wrong with sharing this information, but people should know who is going to be able to access it. Somewhere, there is a line that should not be crossed when it comes to groups collecting online personal information. But we’re in the wild west of internet surveillance right now, where everyone seems to be tracked like we’re all criminals. Now is the time to discuss and figure out that line before our privacy merely becomes a memory. But unnecessarily racializing that discussion is the last thing that we need to create consensus on this issue.

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