Some in Black Lives Matter suspect being algorithm surveillance targets

By Linjing Cheng


Vanessa Zorlu, the organizer of the Black Lives Matter movement in Springfield, Mass. is an outspoken radio journalist at University of  Massachusetts Amherst who said she’s been arrested three times. On April 11, Zorlu said she was sitting in a Vietnamese sandwich restaurant informing a reporter about a national act-out the next Tuesday. On that Tuesday, her mugshot appeared on together with 14 other protesters, whom she often referred to as “comrades.”

On a similar national walk-out day advocated by Hands Up United on last Cyber Monday, December 1, Zorlu and her friends tried to use their text alert system for the first time, to direct more than 300 people from a local mall to Walmart. “We made public through phone alert system the location of one of our actions and when we arrived, there were multiple state troopers, local police and a K-9 unit waiting for us,” Zorlu recalled.

“I’m pretty sure that they are on our system. There is no way that they could have known and met us there,” she said.  “When we arrived for the second action, there were dozens of local police and state troopers waiting for us. So, I can only imagine that they got that information from our texts alert system.” After the protests, as they sat down at a pizza store, Zorlu said two police officers came in and told them  “we know you are here.”

But while protest organizers have their suspicions, police indicate those suspicions are unfounded. Springfield Police Department Sgt. John Delaney said that he doesn’t know anything about any phone or computer surveillance, adding “just because they say so, is a fact? Is that what you are going by here?” Delaney also said that he was there at the arrest, and that there is no record of such surveillance to check.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Tom Ryan at Massachusetts State Police said that they couldn’t comment on the allegations made by people he didn’t meet. “We couldn’t comment on our investigative methods,” he said.

Civil rights protest leaders have been watched by government authorities for decades.  For example,  the FBI released in 1984 a file on Martin Luther King, proving their round-the-clock surveillance to him through the 1960s. Back then, phone tapping and hidden microphones were the most commonly used methods. And as former National Security Agency worker Edward Snowden has revealed, the NSA  has obtained cellphone texts from the servers, filtering from an even larger, global pool of information. And today it’s no longer the FBI agents, but algorithms that can be used to figure out patterns, relationships, and key words.

Zorlu has organized Black Lives Matter Chapter 143 in western Massachusetts. She often visits Springfield, Amherst, Northampton and Greenfield. Zorlu grew up in the predominantly white town of Athol, Mass with a West Indian immigrant dad and Greek immigrant mom. She remembered that they were the only blacks in the town. Though unfair treatment confused her,  she said racism wasn’t conceptualized in her mind.  She recalled driving to Northampton when police stopped her and asked her,  “Where’s the weed at?” On the same trip, she said police officers stopped her two more times. “Just like a racially profiling crazy move. They have no reason to ask that question, other than the fact that I’m not white.” Zorlu said.

Of course, surveillance is possible,  said Xiangxi Liu, a veteran who fought in Iraq. “The FBI and NSA perform surveillance on people who are on the watch list, or people who have the potential to harm society,” he said. He added it’s often Internet surveillance, and cameras. Zorlu said she knows about watch lists, adding that it doesn’t concern her. She said, “We are already being watched as blacks, why does it matter that we are on a watch list?”

Sgt. Ryan of the state police, in responding to the use of cameras,  said, “Are you saying it’s illegal to identify suspects from cameras? Because you know, a lot of the footage from  the Marathon bombing case is from privately owned cameras.” Later he added, “If someone commits a crime, is it wrong to utilize the camera?” He also said that lots of cameras “out there” belong to private agencies.

The development of algorithms has led to various method of surveillance, accessing large scale of information.

Craig Sevener, senior manager for cloud services at Cengage, spoke about what might have happened in Springfield on Dec 1 last year.  “In that scenario it sounds like, they are trying to get in there, to monitor the traffic. You can intercept it, and decipher it, and figure out what they are up to. Or you can actually go into their servers, scan the servers, and look at the emails or traffics. Anything with the law enforcement, usually they can do either one.”

Now, as Snowden revealed, NSA can blanket the wireless communication in the air, other than watching each specific person.

Sevener said, “The problem of actually hacking someone’s computer or phone is that, the person will notice from the traffic, or the incoming and outgoing signals. Let’s say that you call somebody. That phone call goes outside the place. The very first spot you go out, the police can monitor that traffic. NSA blanket all texts and the algorithm search for the keywords, how frequently that word is mentioned, and what’s the relation to the event. Because the organizers can change their names and use a different account.”

Black Lives Matter West Massachusetts chapter has over 300 people registered with its text alert system, and about 700 people are on the Facebook page and mailing list. But the group leaders say it keeps a small close circle of primary organizers.  “So if it gets out, we know who knew the information,” Zorlu said. “But again, we are also aware of this is an age of surveillance, and there are still people who are in jail and people who have been killed, by people who were very close to them working as informants. It’s… finding some kind of balance.”

Khalil Rodriguez, an organizer at Black Lives Matter at West Massachusetts, excluded the possibility that his colleagues could have being the informants. “The organizers in Springfield are already in the area. They have already been organizing systematic change, social change, political change,” he said. “So these are organizers we’ve already been working with, before BLM actually started here in Springfield. And, most of us have traveled together, lived together, and eaten with each other, so the relations with the organizers are tight. That’s why we are so strong especially from building relations with many people,” said Rodriguez.

Zorlu and others see the use of social media in the Arab Spring anti-government protests in the Mideast and Occupy Wall Street as models for their protest communication. “I think it’s a double-edged sword. It’s a really beautiful way of communicating with each other, but we also know that we are openly subjecting ourselves to an incredible amount of surveillance. I think we all carried on a lot.”




About linjing_cheng 4 Articles

Linjing Cheng is a second year journalism graduate student at Emerson College. She is a published writer in English and Chinese. She has done work during her internships, among others, at China Central Television International, WERS, and The Somerville Times. You can find her works at