I've written here previously about the balance between our government's responsibility to keep us safe and our rights for freedom and privacy. The issue gets more complicated with news that the NSA can put spyware on hard drives before they leave the factory and even local police can tap into every cellphone. So I was curious to follow this story when a Chicago newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request to learn more about how police targeted some local protesters.
The newspaper wanted to shed light on how Chicago police have been spying on citizens who participate in protests and other demonstrations, but there's only one problem. Most of the relevant information in the FOIA documents is blacked out or left blank altogether.
Police in Chicago used spying and undercover officers to gather information on the men known as the "NATO Three," three anti-NATO protesters who were arrested in 2012 and faced charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism. The men were found not guilty of the terrorism charges but were found guilty of mob action and arson. Following the NATO Three case, the Chicago Reader filed a FOIA request to see how extensive police spying in Chicago is.
In response, the police department sent 26 pages of records in which most of the essential information was blacked out—including sections showing who was being investigated, what the justification was, and which methods police used.
Because of all of the redactions, in many cases you can't tell who the police were spying on or what information they used to justify the spying on people exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. But, there are still some clues that expose the extent of police spying in Chicago and how they're doing it.
Specifically, we asked for copies of the paperwork required when police open what they call "First Amendment-related investigations," which are "prompted by or based upon a person's speech or other expression," according to department rules. These investigations could include undercover officers, infiltration of protest groups, or electronic surveillance such as wiretaps or StingRay cell-phone tracking devices that can intercept calls, texts, and e-mails.