NATO Chicago: How Tech, Police and Protesters Converge

NATO Chicago: How Tech, Police and Protesters Converge

Chicago’s NATO summit has the world watching, and protesters, law enforcement, and hackers are using technology to milk the event for all the publicity it’s worth.

The growing realization that these global events draw traditional media attention as well as prominent world leaders has contributed to a circus-like atmosphere almost designed to showcase fringe groups outside the highly secure official meeting spaces.

In a city as large as Chicago, the challenge for protesters to make their voices heard above the crowd was substantial, but that didn’t keep them from trying. At the same time, the Chicago Police Department is focusing on the fine line of allowing for peaceful protests, while still ensuring the streets are orderly and containing the crowd.

Protesters Seek New Audience

While their individual causes are different, the protesters have a similar mission: to spread their message beyond their core group and gain wider attention and momentum. These groups understand the world’s attention on NATO, as well as digital tools, can help them meet that that goal.

And so, as the busloads of demonstrators headed to the Windy City late last week, the passengers weren’t watching the scenery roll by. Instead, they were posting to Tumblr and tweeting, hoping to piggyback their groups’ messages on the world’s focus on Chicago’s big event.

“Part of it is how much of this will get out there,” said NATO Indy Media’s Jimmy Johnson in the Chicago Tribune. “It’s fine if all the protesters retweet our stuff, but what we really want is to reach a new audience.”

The wide-ranging issues they are demonstrating over include a moratorium on foreclosures in the housing market, improved healthcare services and availability, solidarity against the war in Afghanistan, marriage equality and immigration reform, just to name a few. Many of the causes echoed those from earlier “Occupy” protests, and there were a few clever people among the protestors promoting legal services for those who got arrested.

For their part, summit organizers used several digital tools to stream its message. In addition to a NATO page as a main source for official updates, the group created a YouTube channel, live broadcasts and video of the meetings, a smartphone app, Facebook page, Flickr feed and encourages Twitter followers to use the standard @NATO press office feed.

The dizzying array of expected protests and media underscore how the anticipation for the event built for months, during which time the Chicago Police have been planning for the NATO-affiliated activity. The department is employing both low- and high-tech strategies to make sure the city it serves and protects is presented in the best light.

Police Employ “Something Old, Something New”

Department leaders have said bicycle patrols will be a key part of their plans to deal with protests and rallies surrounding the gathering of world leaders that begins Sunday, and police bike units have been a very visible presence in the weeks leading up the big event, like at the May Day marches kicking off the month.

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said using the patrols makes sense because large teams of officers can move quickly to get ahead of marches, avoid traffic and not lag behind on foot. McCarthy told business leaders at a briefing last week he has doubled the department’s bike patrol, though officials have not revealed its total number.

“They’re a very, very viable strategic tactical unit that we can deploy quickly. And they’re very, very effective in crowd control, and they can cover an awful lot of ground,” McCarthy said.

To balance out this low-key strategy, the CPD is still covering all bets, reportedly ordering $1 million worth of riot-control equipment, which includes a “sound cannon” that can used to emit sound waves up to 150 decibels for crowd control.

According to the Guardian, Chicago police have confirmed that a long-range acoustic device, or LRAD, will be on hand at the protests, and that officers intend to use the device “as a means to ensure a consistent message is delivered to large crowds that can be heard over ambient noise,” police spokesperson Melissa Stratton told the publication. “This is simply a risk management tool, as the public will receive clear information regarding public safety messages and any orders provided by police.”

If the CPD employs the sound cannon, it wouldn’t be the first time. The Pittsburgh police used the LRAD against activists at 2009′s G20 summit and again in 2011 during football’s Super Bowl festivities, and the device’s cannon emitted shrill noises, causing those within earshot to cover their ears and back up.

While that may sound nasty, don’t expect LRADs to go away anytime soon. Last week Britain’s Ministry of Defense announced they will deploy a sound cannon during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where it will mostly be used to blast verbal warnings to boats on the River Thames, according to the Associated Press.

The Protesters Strike Back

Technology gives the police abilities to manage crowds at a large scale, but it also grants protesters a growing technological savvy as well. For example, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in New York made use of the
“Inhuman Microphone” app to amplify their message and get around a state law banning the use of megaphones in protests.

The Inhuman Microphone takes the concept of the old-fashioned human microphone to the digital realm, making iPhones into voices capable of achieving the same result. A speaker shouts into an iPhone running the app, which contacts a cloud-based server that then prompts other protestors’ phones to echo back at full volume.

The microphone app joins others that have helped demonstrators spread their message far and wide. For example, “Go,” developed by Hollr, helps demonstrators coordinate anonymously by skipping the self-authentication step many social media sites like Facebook and Twitter require.

Recognizing the growing sophistication of these digital tools, some cities look to disrupt the connection between mobile technology and dissent, even by shutting it down. And, earlier this year, Chicago’s City Council discussed problems with this very issue of suppressing phone reception.

Chicago was out ahead in planning, hoping to avoid the fate of San Francisco when the city drew fire for shutting down mobile reception on public transit during protests. San Francisco’s public transit team successfully prevented the protest, but it endured heavy criticism and retaliation from hacktivist group Anonymous afterwards.

Although the CPD didn’t use controversial reception blocking devices and there weren’t any major incidents of widespread police engagement, hacking group Anonymous still targeted the City of Big Shoulders over complaints of police brutality.

Anonymous Gets in on Action

Members of AntiS3curityOPS, which claims it is affiliated with Anonymous, posted a video on YouTube taking credit for a hacking that allegedly brought down the Chicago Police website, accusing them of brutality during clashes Saturday night with protesters.

“We are actively engaged in actions against the Chicago Police Department, and encourage anyone to take up the cause and use the AntiS3curityOPS Anonymous banner. For those able, chicagopolice.org should be fired upon as much as possible,” according to a transcript of the video, which is no longer available. “We are in your harbor Chicago, and you will not forget us.”

Social media and mobile communication are increasingly considered rights, not privileges, and idea governments are likely to struggle with as they balance them with public safety. CPD has a difficult history with protesters, dating back to the tumultuous Democratic National Convention over 30 years ago. Ironically, that earlier history may have set the stage for today’s worldwide summits, which are less about the official players and scheduled discussions at the heart of the gathering, and more about the municipalities’ ability to showcase their cities and control the often chaotic side-show of protests and demonstrations.

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