With the Snowden revelations in 2013 on NSA spying, many who were outraged sought to channel their frustrations first into mobilizing protests against state surveillance, and then into organizing local groups in defense of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. From this initial mobilization, Restore the Fourth was born as a network of decentralized, local groups. Restore the Fourth Minnesota (RT4MN) is very active, helping organize a local coalition known as Safety Not Surveillance, and joining with a wide range of other local groups, from those seeking community accountability reforms to police abolitionists. A member of the Electronic Frontier Alliance, the organization has recently helped ban government facial recognition in Minneapolis, defeated extra state funding to their local fusion center, and pushed for an expanded form of CCOPS (Community Control Over Police Surveillance) that they call POSTME (Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology and Military Equipment).
The EFF Organizing Team caught up with Chris at RT4MN to hear about how they got organized and won victories this year for their communities.
What is Restore the Fourth Minnesota?
Chris: RT4MN is a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to restoring the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We advocate for personal privacy and against mass government surveillance.
We try to focus on state and local issues, but we also advocate on the national level with other Restore The Fourth chapters and advocacy organizations. The national Restore The Fourth movement initially grew out of the wave of national protests after the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013. The people who attended the subsequent protests started meeting regularly. After a couple of years, the chapter went dormant, but we rebooted in 2019. I have always been immersed in the intersection of technology and policy, but it was the Snowden revelations and the activism that grew up around it that opened my eyes to the importance of this topic, too.
How did it come back together in 2019? Was restarting the chapter easier than starting it initially?
Chris: I was not part of that initial wave of activity back in 2013. But my co-chair Kurtis and the rest of the original activists definitely laid the groundwork for our success.
Both Kurtis and I had a lot of friends who worked in technology, and who could see that issues of privacy were getting worse, not better. We both invited some folks we thought might be interested, and then emailed everyone who was on the chapter’s old mailing list, finally doing a couple of Reddit meetup posts. At that first meeting, we discussed a path forward, some thoughts on how to grow the chapter, what our legislative objectives should be, and so on. The main thing we decided was that we should meet semi-regularly and reach out to the local ACLU to see if they were interested in working with us.
What have been some of the issues you’ve concentrated on and what were some of your early successes?
Chris: Our most significant accomplishment before 2021 was partnering with the ACLU and other local organizations in 2020 to establish an anti-surveillance coalition. That laid the groundwork for our success in passing a facial recognition ban in Minneapolis earlier this year. Our other big accomplishment was advocating against a budget proposal that would have added millions of additional funds to a local fusion center.
That being said, our primary focus has been CCOPS. The pace with which technology develops necessitates a holistic framework. Spinning up new policy proposals to push through the legislature, trying to ban technology x while strictly regulating technology y and promoting technology z is not going to work. The tech moves too fast and the legislative and judicial bodies move too slow.
Are there members of your group or coalition who are abolitionists? How does CCOPS/POSTME work within both a reform and an abolitionist framework in Minneapolis?
Chris: Yes, there are definitely a couple of abolitionist types in our group, and a couple of more moderate “surveillance technology can be useful if used properly” types. CCOPS is great precisely because it is a framework and not a one-size-fits-all solution. It leaves it up to people’s duly elected representatives to decide whether and under what circumstances surveillance technology is used, while ensuring that the community that will be impacted by the technology will have the information they need to either fight against or support it.
Tell us about how the community won Minneapolis’ facial recognition ban.
Chris: After some initial discussion, the coalition approached Minneapolis City Council Member Steve Fletcher, who had already publicly done some work on surveillance issues. After some back and forth with him and other council members, the city passed a series of “privacy principles” which were nonbinding, but laid the groundwork for further action.
Soon afterwords, George Floyd was murdered. The public outcry placed a lot of pressure on the council. So we decided to pivot from a comprehensive surveillance reform to a more narrow but achievable aim, placing a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology (FRT). CCOPS is great because it is comprehensive, but the downside is that it therefore required the input of a lot of different stakeholders.
Did the murder of George Floyd and ensuing uprising change the course of RT4MN’s campaigns, or how you thought about and worked on these issues?
Chris: Yes, in too many ways to count. It certainly brought in a new wave of activists. The government’s response to the protests also highlighted some of the worst aspects of surveillance. As one example, the Minnesota fusion center performs ongoing social media surveillance, and right after the murder they sent several “reports” to the Minneapolis Police Department highlighting some out-of-context and hyperbolic tweets. Despite the protesters being mostly peaceful, the report exaggerated threats and descriptions of suspicious behaviors, stoking police fears and setting the stage for a massively overmilitarized response.
How did the work around the Minneapolis fusion center come about and how did the movement help defeat added funding this year?
Chris: We heard vague rumblings about it in the local activist grapevine, but in mid March things became much more solid when the proposed budget came out and there was a corresponding media push. The goal was to add millions of dollars to the budget and transform it into a 24/7/52 operation.
The Minnesota Senate was controlled by Republicans, who are already primed to cut spending from the proposed budget, so our task was to make sure that $5 million got to the top of the cutting block. So we hosted a live panel, sent around a petition, submitted testimony, and had conversations with lawmakers.
It’s hard to know for sure what tipped the scales, but the fusion center funding was removed from the House Public Safety and Senate Judiciary omnibus budget bills, and never made it into the budget.
What has your group learned about training people in Surveillance Self-Defense and in your other popular education work?
Chris: These trainings are fun and important (especially when you are helping fellow activists), but for me they mostly serve to reinforce the idea that leaving it up to individuals to protect their privacy is a losing strategy. I say this as someone who spends a frankly unhealthy amount of time and effort trying to protect my personal privacy.
Yes, it is important that people have the knowledge and ability to fight back when the government abuses our rights, but that distracts from the fundamental problem that the government is abusing our rights, and it needs to stop doing that.
What’s on the horizon for RT4MN? Are there campaigns that your group has wished to prioritize in the past and you’re now putting back on the agenda?
Chris: Drones. Drones are always on the horizon.
In all seriousness, it’s hard to pin down. There is a never-ending list of ways that the government wants to spy on us. Corporations love spying on us too, and of course all the data they collect eventually makes its way into the hands of the government.
In the immediate future we are looking at trying to get CCOPS passed in Minneapolis and getting facial recognition banned in Saint Paul, while also seeing if we can get some movement on better regulating drones, getting some Consumer Privacy protections, and hopefully banning Keyword Search Warrants.