About fifty protesters were rounding the corner as I approached the intersection of Broadway and Maiden Lane, a tiny fraction of the thousands that took to the streets on Monday for the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. The small group was followed closely by a seemingly endless police motorcade, a constant chaperone, as it made its way in the direction of Occupy’s former home in Zuccotti Park. It’s a site and scene that has become familiar ever since Adbusters first summoned a monsoon of protest against corporate greed and political corruption into the heart of New York's financial district. But this time, things were a little different.
While social networks have been a constant rallying point for the Occupy movement since last year, protesters were now switching up their strategies: rather than announce all their plans ahead of time on the web, the details and locations for many of the individual demonstrations were decided on the spot. Numerous flashpoints of activity ignited quickly and dissolved just as quickly, including a “Peoples’ Wall” which momentarily blocked entry to the New York Stock Exchange, the headquarters of JP Morgan Chase, and various other hotspots of corporate and government malfeasance.
The necessary changes in tactics reflected just how thoroughly police have cracked down on the movement in the past year. But if the recent past is any indication, Occupy’s most daunting challenge going forward won’t come in the form of kenneling or pepper spray, but in confronting the vigorous (and largely unseen) efforts of law enforcement to electronically surveil, subdue, and discourage protesters through the very online networks on which they thrive.
“They know who we are, where we live and where we are organizing.”
It’s an oft-forgotten irony that Occupy’s much-advertised organizational "edge" — its strategic use of social networking services like Twitter and Facebook — also makes it an easy target for authoritarian powers looking to crush the movement's efforts and intimidate its members. Along with the NYPD’s newly-unveiled city-wide surveillance system, police commissioner Raymond Kelly recently announced new guidelines permitting officers to do undercover investigations on social networks using aliases, allowing for an even deeper inspection of Occupy’s publicly-coordinated activities online.
The transparency has had real-world effects as well. Earlier this year, during the lead-up to the May Day labor rallies, the National Lawyers Guild said they had become aware of at least five instances where the NYPD visited activists associated with Occupy at their homes to interrogate them about future protest plans. Before that, the New York Times reported that Occupiers (and some innocent bystanders) were arrested in what one group’s lawyer described as “pre-emptive action” in anticipation of protests nearby.
“I felt like I had been arrested for a thought crime,” said Kira Moyer-Sims, one of the arrestees who declared her intent to sue the city after claiming that she was strip-searched and denied a request for a lawyer. “It means that they are watching us,” said Sandy Nurse, an Occupy organizer who received a visit from police at her apartment in Brooklyn. “They know who we are, where we live and where we are organizing.”
"They need something like TrapWire more for threats from activists than from terror threats."
The number of tools available has also grown significantly. The makers of TrapWire, a surveillance tool being billed as “antiterrorist software,” specifically name activists among the tool’s intended targets, saying in a leaked email that "they [San Francisco] need something like TrapWire more for threats from activists than from terror threats. Both are useful, but activists are ever-present around here."
Alternatively, the FinFisher spyware, which provides governments with remote computer surveillance capabilities, was recently found targeting activists in Bahrain. Found documents also revealed that the spyware’s makers, the UK-based Gamma International, planned to sell the malware to others including the Mubarak regime just prior to Egypt’s revolution.
And on the national level, a bipartisan bill that just passed through the US House of Representatives is looking to extend the NSA’s clandestine surveillance powers which, according to declassified documents, have violated the US Constitution by targeting American citizens “on at least one occasion.”
In other countries, the consequences for being linked with online activism can be far more dire. Members of Iran’s short-lived Green Revolution, credited with giving notoriety to the “Twitter-centric” revolutionary roadmap, were accused of spreading “insults and lies” by the Iranian government in the aftermath of the failed uprising, and had their pictures published as “wanted” posters on state-run websites.
“The Arab Spring is not just about brave activists toppling ruthless dictators.”
Whatever the country of origin, however, Belarus-born internet scholar Evgeny Morozov argues that such pervasive surveillance speaks to a greater need for caution and cynicism when dealing with idealistic views of social media and internet activism after the Arab Spring. “The Arab Spring is not just about brave activists toppling ruthless dictators,” he writes. “It is also about the complicity of Western firms selling surveillance equipment and censorship technology to the most heinous regimes in the world.”
He points out that the contrasting, cyber-utopian attitude shares interesting similarities with the quixotic triumphalism of the West after the fall of the Soviet Union, encapsulated most famously in Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and The Last Man. Twitter and others, Morozov writes, resemble a kind of 21st Century samizdat, referring to anti-Soviet propaganda brought on by the introduction of photocopying machines and VCR's, which Western powers used to credit themselves with the collapse of Communism.
Likewise, he argues it wasn’t a dependence on digital tools that won freedom for the people of Egypt or Tunisia, or roiled the streets of Downtown Manhattan, but rather “the confluence of favorable political, social, and cultural factors, with technology playing an important mobilization role — but only because the environment was already enabling.” Looking back after Occupy's first anniversary, it seems as if the success of that movement, too, will ultimately depend on its ability to leverage the benefits of networked dissent while contesting with its most harrowing and dangerous drawbacks.