Demonstrators and others should be aware that police may or can:
- track and infiltrate activist groups.
- Infiltrate organizations, secretly film or photograph individuals, or keep records of activities. When in public, assume that police are monitoring all activities.
- track protest planning on social media, including Facebook and Twitter.
- track individuals using their cell phone location.
- collect information about a person’s identity, including fingerprints and criminal history.
- briefly stop and question a person in public, if the police have reason to believe that person committed a crime.
- search someone’s belongings, home or other location, but generally must obtain consent or a warrant from a judge.(1)
Privacy protection Q&A.
- Can police lie to infiltrate an organization?
Answer ↕Yes. No law prohibits police from lying, including posing as civilians in person or on social media.
- Can police search an organization’s meeting place?
Answer ↕Generally, not without a warrant. However, government agents may try to enter a place based on health, housing or other government regulations to spy on a group’s activities.(2) Police cannot search an area to retaliate against a person’s or group’s political views.(3)
- Can police collect fingerprints for identification?
Answer ↕Police have fingerprints on file for everyone who has ever been charged with a crime.(4) Unless someone demands that their fingerprints be destroyed, they may still be on file, even if their record was sealed.(5) Police usually do not collect fingerprints for minor or misdemeanor crimes, except first degree misdemeanors.(6)
- Can police make a demonstrator unlock their cell phone?
Answer ↕No. Cell phones are protected by the Fourth Amendment, and police cannot look at phone data without a search warrant.(7)
- Can police arrest a demonstrator for using a cell phone?
Answer ↕Under the City’s flash mob laws, which prohibit groups from organizing spontaneous gatherings via social media or text to commit a crime, cell phones and other devices are categorized as “criminal tools.”(8) This means that police may arrest someone for using their phone if police reasonably believe that the phone is being used to commit a crime.
- Can police track a person’s location?
Answer ↕Yes. Federal and some local law enforcement have been known to use devices to track individuals using their cell phones.(9) These devices can acquire cellphone numbers, locations, and metadata. When combined with unauthorized software, it can also collect message content.(10)