It has long been recognized that what you post on social media could come back to haunt you later – and many of those who broke into the Capitol building and captured the event online are now learning that lesson. Having recorded their own activities on Jan. 6 – criminal and otherwise – at least some of those who engaged in lawless behavior have been identified and are facing charges.
Law enforcement and armchair investigators are tracking down those rioters via social media – and some are asking for more evidence. Add that to the boom in facial recognition technology, and Americans may start to wonder what tools could be used to identify not only those who stormed Congress but people who choose to gather in the name of any political cause.
Social Media Investigations
Pictures and films posted by the protesters online have been used to track down and identify them. The FBI put out a public request for “images, videos, or other multimedia files” to help in their investigation – not that everyone needed that motivation. “Let’s name and shame them!” urged one Twitter account devoted to outing individuals by name and photo.
This may all seem like obvious self-incrimination, but there is more to the story. The rioters and other protesters may have unwittingly provided additional evidence in the metadata of their photos and other materials. Twitter user “donk_enby,” identified by several news outlets as a hacker and digital researcher, has taken the step of archiving Parler social media posts online, using the metadata of raw video files to reveal evidence such as the GPS coordinates of where a recording was taken. “The privacy implications are obvious, but the copious data may also serve as a fertile hunting ground for law enforcement,” commented Gizmodo, while the Independent added, “It is unclear whether Parler users present at the Capitol Hill riots realised how much information was being passed to the company, or that such information may be held against them.”
The work will not all be left up to private citizens, however. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who says he is the incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has informally asked social media platforms and telecom companies to “immediately preserve content and associated meta-data connected to Wednesday’s insurrectionist attack on the United States Capitol.” According to Warner, this information will be “critical evidence in helping to bring these rioters to justice.”
Despite an initial rumor started by The Washington Times that facial recognition company XRVision had identified some of the protesters as members of Antifa, the tech business denied that claim. It is true, however, that the New York-based firm did name some rioters, telling the Times in a statement that “Shortly after the rioting started, XRVision performed an analysis on the footage and identified several individuals. This information was shared with LEA [law enforcement agencies].”
The company also told BuzzFeed, “The image analysis that we performed were distributed to a handful of individuals for their private consumption and not for publication.” Whatever the value of locating potential criminals, this statement highlights the reality that technological and biometric evidence is not limited to the hands of the state; private companies and even private individuals have the capability to track down people of their own accord and decide whether or not to hand that information over to law enforcement – or other entities of their choosing.
Clearview AI, a company that collected its facial recognition database by scraping the internet for images, has also noted that it saw a spike in police activity in the aftermath of the Capitol protest.
That’s not to say that the state has no apparatus of its own. As former FBI Deputy Assistant Director Danny Coulson told Fox News recently, “There are cameras all over the place [at Congress]. Also, remember that those police officers that were attacked, they had body cameras on … FBI and Secret Service and other institutions have very good facial recognition ability and they captured all that stuff. It all becomes digitized.”
Where Is This Heading?
Human rights organizations are already starting to question some surveillance techniques being used after events at the Capitol. Leading digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) lauded law enforcement for working to identify the rioters but questioned the mass surveillance inherent in today’s facial recognition systems, in particular criticizing Clearview. The organization stated:
“[W]e object to one method reportedly being used to determine who was involved: law enforcement using facial recognition technologies to compare photos of unidentified individuals from the Capitol attack to databases of photos of known individuals. There are just too many risks and problems in this approach, both technically and legally, to justify its use.”
The group added that the use of such technology would stifle free speech and protest in all arenas:
“Its normalization and widespread use by the government would fundamentally change the society in which we live. It will, for example, chill and deter people from exercising their First Amendment-protected rights to speak, peacefully assemble, and associate with others.”
Whatever solutions are proposed to prevent an event like the storming of Capitol Hill from occurring again in the future, it appears likely they will change American life for the masses – not just for those who rebelled that day. Paired with the coronavirus, the events of Jan. 6 may trigger a shift toward mass surveillance not seen since the first years of this century – and the population has been unknowingly setting up the tools themselves, all these years.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.