ACLU of Washington Releases Coveillance Toolkit to Help People Notice and Counter Surveillance

News Release: 
Tuesday, February 9, 2021
SEATTLE -- The ACLU of Washington and the coveillance collective today released the Coveillance Toolkit, which empowers people to notice and counter surveillance in their daily lives. Coveillance is a proactive approach to the powerful and unprecedented surveillance technologies that dominate public life in 2021. The new toolkit, which is built around Seattle’s surveillance infrastructure but can be adapted for other cities, offers individuals and organizations strategies for watching the watchers.

From people’s shopping habits to their attendance at political protests, private companies and governments are increasingly using surveillance technologies to track individuals and their data, often without the consent or knowledge of the person being watched and followed.

The Coveillance Toolkit includes four guides for offering workshops that focus on different aspects of surveillance:
  • A history of surveillance workshop explores how surveillance has been deployed to monitor and police people from marginalized communities, including Black, Indigenous, Latinx, immigrant, religious, LGBTQ+ and other communities.
  • A data mapping and stories guide traces the flow of information in a surveillance society to uncover how personal information travels and where it ends up.
  • A virtual walking tour of downtown Seattle helps users practice spotting surveillance tools hidden in plain sight.
  • A countersurveillance yoga workshop offers techniques for using the body to understand how surveillance systems operate and to reduce the physical stress triggered by always being watched.
“More than ever, understanding who is watching you and how is critical for engaging in public life. But exhortations to ‘protect your privacy’ can be overwhelming and vague. It's easy to feel powerless,” said Micah Epstein from coveillance, a collective of technologists, organizers, and designers who employ arts-based approaches to build communal counterpower. “Today, we offer a new toolkit with resources designed to give the power back to people and communities.”

For members of historically marginalized communities, surveillance is nothing new. Governments have long used surveillance to target vulnerable communities, including Japanese Americans during World War II and Black Civil Rights leaders in the 1960s. More recently, Black Lives Matter activists have been tracked via social media, and Muslim community members have been subjected to government monitoring through license plate readers. In addition, there are now multiple cases of face recognition technology implicating Black men in crimes they did not commit, including Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, who was wrongly arrested and jailed due to a false match.

“The Coveillance Toolkit helps to deepen understanding of the pervasive and harmful nature of surveillance technologies, especially for historically marginalized communities,” said Jennifer Lee, ACLU-WA’s Technology and Liberty Project manager. “People can use the knowledge they gain from the toolkit to resist the encroachment of surveillance into their daily lives.”

In addition to joining coveillance to build this community-facing toolkit, the ACLU-WA is working with the Tech Equity Coalition, a group of individuals and organizations representing communities historically targeted by surveillance, to draft and support legislation that would safeguard people’s privacy and require input about how technologies can be used from the community members who are most impacted by increased surveillance.

The following bills, introduced in the Washington state Legislature’s 2021 session, would strengthen legal protections against invasive surveillance technologies:
  • Face Surveillance Moratorium (SB 5104): A bill that would establish a five-year moratorium on the procurement and use of face recognition technology by government agencies in Washington state.
  • People’s Privacy Act (HB 1433): A bill that creates a people-focused, community supported solution to the growing need to protect individual personal data both online and offline by requiring informed, opt-in consent for any use of an individual’s personal information.
  • Automated Decision Systems (SB 5116): A bill that would establish guidelines for government procurement and use of automated decision systems to protect consumers and improve transparency.
More information about ACLU-WA’s Technology and Liberty Project and legislative efforts related to technology and privacy is available here.

coveillance is a collective of technologists, organizers, and designers who employ arts-based approaches to build communal counterpower against new forms of technology-driven oppression. A nonprofit organization founded in 2020, coveillance has facilitated workshops in Seattle, Barcelona, and Pittsburgh.