Law enforcement agencies in Minnesota have been carrying out a secretive, long-running surveillance program targeting civil rights activists and journalists in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Run under a consortium known as Operation Safety Net, the program was set up a year ago, ostensibly to maintain public order as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin went on trial for Floyd’s murder. But an investigation by MIT Technology Review reveals that the initiative expanded far beyond its publicly announced scope to include expansive use of tools to scour social media, track cell phones, and amass detailed images of people’s faces.

Documents obtained via public records requests show that the operation persisted long after Chauvin’s trial concluded. What’s more, they show that police used the extensive investigative powers they’d been afforded under the operation to monitor individuals who weren’t suspected of any crime.

MIT Technology Review’s investigation includes thousands of documents and more than two dozen interviews with Minnesota state employees, policing experts, and activists. Taken together, they paint a picture of a state operation intent on identifying participants through secretive surveillance operations. Though it was undertaken by nonmilitary governmental agencies using public funds, large swaths of its inner workings have gone undisclosed. We found evidence of a complex engine of surveillance tailor-made for keeping close tabs on protesters and sharing that information among local and federal agencies, regardless of whether the subjects were suspected of any wrongdoing.

Operation Safety Net (OSN) was announced in February 2021, a month before Chauvin’s trial was set to begin. At a press conference also attended by Hennepin County sheriff David Hutchinson, Medaria Arradondo, then Minneapolis’s police chief, described the effort as a unified command that would enable law enforcement officials to mount a regional response in case protests turned violent.

Publicly, OSN acknowledged that federal agencies would assist in monitoring for threats of violence and activity by out-of-state extremist groups, and that an “intel team” would be established to help share information surrounding these threats. Our investigation shows that federal support for OSN was in fact extensive, involving the US Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. At least six FBI agents served in executive and intelligence roles for the program.

According to OSN’s website, which was shut down on January 19, the program’s mission was to “preserve and protect lawful First Amendment nonviolent protests and demonstrations before, during, and after the trial of Chauvin, who was charged in George Floyd’s death.” The site added, “Operation Safety Net is also dedicated to preventing violent civil disturbances, assaultive actions, property damage, fires, and looting to government buildings, businesses, and critical infrastructure.”

OSN hasn’t tweeted, posted on Facebook, or held a press conference since the week Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict was issued in April 2021. At that time, officials told the public that the program was “ramping down,” apart from weekly coordination meetings and preparations for future trials. “We are already starting to maneuver, move people off of property protection details,” Major General Shawn Manke of the Minnesota National Guard said at the time. “We’re preparing those soldiers and airmen to leave the Twin Cities metro area and head back to their locations.”

In an email to MIT Technology Review in October 2021, spokesperson Doug Neville wrote that OSN is “not an ongoing operation.”

An email to reporter Sam Richards on October 25, 2021 from spokesperson Doug Neville asserting that OSN is not an ongoing operation.

However, according to emails obtained and reviewed as part of our investigation, the operation does appear to be actively ongoing, with regular planning meetings of the executive and intelligence teams—where it has been referred to as “OSN 2.0”—and sharing of intelligence documents. No information about the goals or extent of the new engagement has been publicly disclosed and officials contacted about the program denied it had been formally renewed.

Documents unearthed as part of this investigation shine a light on secretive surveillance programs, new technology

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By: Tate Ryan-Mosley, Sam Richards
Title: The secret police: Local and federal cops built a shadowy surveillance machine in Minnesota after George Floyd’s murder
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Published Date: Thu, 03 Mar 2022 11:00:00 +0000