The secret police: Cops built a shadowy surveillance machine in Minnesota after George Floyd’s murder

Selman Design

The Secret Police: A new era of law enforcement
MIT Technology Review, March 3, 2022
Tech Policy
by Tate Ryan-Mosley & Sam Richards

“An investigation by MIT Technology Review reveals a sprawling, technologically sophisticated system in Minnesota designed for closely monitoring protesters.”


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.”


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 vendors, murky supply chains used to arm riot police, and several watch lists, as well as other previously unreported information. Taken together, they reveal how advanced surveillance techniques and technologies employed by the state, sometimes in an extra-legal fashion, have changed the nature of protest in the United States, effectively bringing an end to Americans’ ability to exercise their First Amendment rights anonymously in public spaces. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the right to anonymous free speech as a core tenet of the First Amendment, particularly when it comes to unpopular speech.

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About the Authors:

Tate Ryan-Mosley is the senior tech policy reporter for MIT Technology Review. She focuses on the impact of new technologies on political systems, human rights and the health of global democracies. She’s also worked on many of MIT Technology Review’s podcasts and data journalism projects. Before she was a reporter for Tech Review, she was a researcher at MIT Technology Review working on special newsroom projects. Prior to journalism, she was a consultant on emerging tech strategy for large companies. In 2012, she was a fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, specializing in conflict and post-war development.

Sam Richards is an investigative reporter focusing on government surveillance, particularly of the aerial variety, as well as other topics.

See also:

This article is part of an MIT Technology Review series: “The Secret Police: A new era of law enforcement

  1. Cops built a shadowy surveillance machine in Minnesota after George Floyd’s murder
  2. After protests around George Floyd’s murder ended, a police system for watching protesters kept going
  3. Inside the app Minnesota police used to collect data on journalists at protests
  4. Minneapolis police used fake social media profiles to surveil Black people
  5. A private security group regularly sent Minnesota police misinformation about protestors