Editorial: Stop the tracking of political protesters

The Detroit News

The tracking by a private group of protesters who came to Lansing this spring to demonstrate against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's shutdown orders bumps hard against the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble.

Data from cell phones in the area of the protests was collected by an outfit called the Committee to Protect Medicare, which appears to be more a Democratic front group than health care advocate.

It's run by Rob Davidson, a west Michigan doctor and former unsuccessful Democratic congressional candidate. The group worked with VoteMap, a data tracking firm often used by Democratic campaigns.

Cell phones were identified at the April 15 and April 30 rallies and then tracked across the state ostensibly to determine whether the rallies contributed to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. No evidence has been produced to suggest the anti-shutdown protests produced a spike in virus cases.

More:Tracking Michigan protesters raises privacy, COVID-19 spread questions

Prostesters, from their cars and on foot, surround the State Capitol during "Operation Gridlock" in Lansing, Michigan on April 15, 2020.

Notably, the group did not track cell phones at the much larger anti-police brutality rallies across the state last week.

It's not clear how tracking protesters protects Medicare, which the group's name suggests is its mission. But it certainly fit the governor’s political agenda.

She tried to derail the protests by warning they'd make it harder to control the virus

There's no indication the Whitmer administration was involved in the tracking by the committee.

But the Democratic governor appeared to refer to the data collected from the protest in a May 13 interview with “The View.” She told the liberal talk show hosts “the risk of perpetuating COVID-19 (at the protests) is real. We’ve seen it happening." She later referred to  “a group” that had tracked phones to where cases had increased and assembled a report. 

Such tracking is legal. Apparently, phone users opt in to being tracked at some point, although it’s a safe bet that most don't know when or how they opted in or how they can opt out. And they aren't notified when their phones are being tracked.

Cell phone users remain anonymous, VoteMap says.

Such data is frequently used for product marketing, and when it’s done for that purpose, it is fairly innocuous. 

But when the applications are used to track the activity of political protesters, it becomes much more insidious.

Tracking people who attend political rallies or protests can have a chilling effect on the right to assemble. No one can be sure what the data is being used for, who will see it or whether their identities will truly be protected. 

It may make many people uncomfortable in exercising their rights.

Lawmakers both in the Legislature and Congress should tackle this issue and put an end to cell phone tracking at political protests, events and rallies. 

It’s an offensive intrusion on privacy and could serve as an implied threat to quell dissent and silence dissenters.