While covering Portland protests as an independent journalist, being filmed while working has never really bothered me. My full name and a photo of me is available publicly and, honestly, I’m much more concerned with protecting myself from riot control agents like tear gas and impact munitions used by Portland police.
For others in the crowd, however, protecting themselves from being filmed is a necessity. In the hands of the wrong people, footage exposing their identity can be (and is) used to threaten them online and commit very real acts of violence against them and their acquaintances. It can cause people to lose their jobs and their homes, depending on how their employers and landlords feel about what they’re doing in the footage. (There is a reason so many protesters dress in head-to-toe black, and why some people walk through the crowd with black umbrellas to block people’s phones as they attempt to film the crowd.)
That’s why, when I received the following email on Tuesday, Aug. 18, at 11:41 p.m. from firstname.lastname@example.org, my stomach dropped:
Someone with the username “Cryptonater” was asking me if I’d like to receive payment in exchange for taking photos and videos of faces of members of the press at Portland protests — specifically “pro-Antifa press and those posing as press.” According to their email, their objective was to create a database of people whose faces I recorded, then perform background checks and “analysis” on them.
I took a screenshot of the email and sent it to a group chat of fellow journalists, asking — essentially — “what the fuck?” No journalist with a modicum of integrity would ever participate in an agreement like this. It goes against a commonly shared journalistic code of ethics (and I was fairly certain was unconstitutional, if connected in any way to a governmental agency).
After discussing the email with the group, I decided to reply to the email first before sharing it with fellow journalists on Twitter. The goal was to see what additional information Cryptonater would send me before they inevitably realized I wasn’t down to secretly surveil people.
On Wednesday, Aug. 19, I replied, asking Cryptonater what other opportunities they were offering:
Then I waited. While waiting, I wondered why Cryptonater had chosen to email me. Was it because I had a relatively low follower count on Twitter? Was it because, only a day prior, I had posted a tweet (okay, complained) about news outlets requesting to use my reporting without payment? (Fact: being credited by Good Morning America might feel sweet, but it does not pay to refill your prescriptions.) Was Cryptonater just a troll with too much time on their hands?
By Aug. 20, I figured Cryptonater had given up on hiring me, so I posted their original email and my reply to Twitter:
Almost immediately, responses started coming in, including worried replies from other people covering Portland protests. Twitter users were tagging the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Society of Professional Journalists. The most common replies were iterations of “this is disturbing” and “what the fuck?”
After sending the tweet, I figured I had finished the task of making fellow members of the press aware that someone was trying to watch them (or at least claiming to). I also gave up on ever hearing back from Cryptonater.
Then, at 11:16 a.m. the following day, I received a response:
This lengthy (605-word) email from Cryponator can be distilled into 10 key points:
- An organization was claiming to be building a national database of people at protests, specifically those identifying themselves as press but not employed by a news organization;
- They’re already doing this by scraping footage from social media feeds like Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Twitch and Instagram;
- They’re working on a “biometrics algorithm” that can identify people based on “walking style, filming style, voice, facials, build, and other identifying marks like tattoos;”
- This information is being bundled for sale to law enforcement, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense;
- They are paying $20 per minute of footage (amounting to ~$10,000 for nine hours of protest coverage);
- If willing to travel to other cities, that payment doubles to $40 per minute for footage and includes paying for travel costs and 50% payment upfront;
- Hirees must sign an non-disclosure agreement;
- The organization provides medical and liability insurance for any injuries sustained;
- Their stated goal is to “deconstruct extremism by identification and then neutralization” (WHAT DOES “neutralization” MEAN?) of “pseudo-press” and individuals who engage in “rioting and crime;”
- They already have freelances filming at protests around the country and are seeking to expand their teams in Portland and Seattle.
This email prompted two responses. First, I want to throw up. Second, there’s no way this is for real. Who has this kind of money? What organization could possibly think they could get away with this? And, if in cooperation with Portland Police Bureau, this would be super illegal.
In July, at the request of the ACLU of Oregon, a Multnomah County judge issued a temporary restraining order against Portland Police Bureau, barring them from using livestreams as a means of surveillance over local protesters, citing an Oregon law prohibiting law enforcement from “collecting or maintaining information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities of people who are not suspected of criminal activity.” In Oregon, law enforcement may not collect footage of protesters unless they are suspected of committing a crime.
Cryptonater also used the term “pseudo-press,” likely in response to an increase in the number of people at Portland protests identifying themselves as press. Following a different request in July by the ACLU of Oregon, a U.S. District Judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking Portland police from “dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest, or targeting journalists or legal observers” at protests, including anyone wearing identifying markers like press passes and badges. Perhaps in an attempt to increase their safety, more people began appearing at Portland protests identified as press. (If that was their aim, it was ineffective; law enforcement officers continued targeting press and legal observers at protests, leading the ACLU of Oregon to demand federal agents with the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service be sanctioned and held in contempt.)
I couldn’t imagine why an organization claiming to operate at such a grand level and with such advanced technology would have sent this email to me without catching my tweet. But, if on the off chance they were for real, I wanted to collect as many words from them as possible before they found me out.
An hour later, I sent the following response, aiming to sound suggestible and strapped for cash (honestly, who isn’t right now?):
My reply had three questions: How would they recommend responding if someone at a protest caught me filming them, how does their video technology work, and what larger organization are they working for?
To my surprise, they got back to me within a few hours with another lengthy (1,085-word) response:
For anyone unwilling to read 1,085 words, here are this email’s 10 key points:
- If hired on, I would continue reporting at Portland protests like I usually do, but wear a pea-sized recording device that looks like a button concealed in a helmet or my clothing;
- This recording device captures both audio and video in low light, and has “millimeter wave capture which allows rendering of faces even if they are wearing cloth masks;”
- The device uses technology from FLIR (a designer of thermal imaging cameras and sensors) and Axon (a company based in Scottsdale, Arizona that develops technology and weapons for law enforcement);
- I would also be equipped with a disposable cell phone with an “SoS text button” that I could press in duress, at which time they would “create a situation” to extract me safely without “compromising me,” including a planned ahead “pseudo-arrest” with local law enforcement or a feigned injury, where “someone dressed as an EMT” would escort me out;
- They hire multiple individuals who do not know each other to record at the same time, along with an analyst and security team “dressed up similar to the protesters and in plain clothes” who would follow me at a distance;
- They say to date, no one they’ve contracted to use this technology has been identified;
- If I was willing to participate, I would attend an in-person meeting at their field office location in Portland or another “major city” of my choosing, sign an NDA and undergo a two-week paid training process;
- Their organization is a private registered corporation in the state of Delaware that monitors and tracks “many freelance press;” and
- The organization expects to see between 10 and 18 months of “continued unrest throughout major urban areas in the US.”
After reading this, my desire to throw up increased ten-fold. But I also started feeling more and more as if this was an elaborate prank. I decided to just ride the wave and sent back this response a few minutes later agreeing to meet with them:
Unfortunately, by 4:06 p.m. on Friday, they claimed to have finally found my tweet from Aug. 20. (What had taken them so long?) Cryptonater sent me the following response, attaching a weirdly blurred screenshot of my tweet:
According to their email, they weren’t surprised a journalist would send out the tweet or stay in contact with them to gather details for a bigger story (*cough* like this one). However, they were still willing to work with me, saying the tweet “would end up making [me] even less suspect.” If I wanted to move forward, I would leave the tweet in my feed as is and pass it off as someone attempting to “troll” me, in order to not garner additional attention.
Feeling like I’d narrowly escaped defeat, I replied minutes later, saying that because of their pay rate and the NDA they were offering, I was still willing to work with them:
Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Cryptonater replied to my email 7 hours later, letting me know that they had spoken to their “principal responsible for risk management” and determined that, after evaluating my social media history, they could not “foresee a guaranteed threshold met for sustained loyal confidentiality” between me and their organization (my social media history being, presumably, continued reporting on police brutality against people protesting police brutality).
In their email, Cryptonater thanked me, adding that they would appreciate my “discretion and confidentiality going forward” and that “this will be be our last interaction and this account will now deactivate.”
A final paragraph noted that our email exchanges “did not reach a qualified offer of employment or subcontract and the candidate should not interpret this as an offer,” despite their earlier email saying they would pay me up to $10,000 per night to work with them.
I closed out of this email unsurprised but still disappointed. I had been mentally preparing to find an attorney and someone who could equip me with some kind of secret recording device I could wear to our in-person meeting, doing the exact same thing to them that they were already, apparently, doing to us.
I also still had so many lingering questions:
- If “Cryptonater” was someone pulling a prank on me, it was a weirdly elaborate one. Put simply: why?
- What if someone sent me this email knowing I would post it on Twitter, hoping it would put members of the press and protesters in greater fear for their personal safety?
- What organization has the funds to pay freelancers in cities across the nation for up to 18 months and at up to $10,000 per night?
- If the organization was real, what were their ties to local law enforcement and the broader US government?
- Why had they misspelled “discrete,” “occasionally,” “similar,” “pseudo,” “counsel” and “Delaware?”
- WHAT DOES “NEUTRALIZATION” MEAN?
I never got answers to any of these questions. But it did make me reflect on various people I’ve seen at Portland protests; people who look out of place.
One of these, a white man who appeared to be in his fifties, was walking alone at a recent protest dressed head-to-toe in black padding and body armor. A Go Pro camera was fastened to his helmet and he had the words “PRESS” emblazoned in white on his back and chest. He wasn’t wearing any badge that affiliated him with a new organization. A fellow journalist nudged me and pointed him out, saying: “That’s a cop.”
I walked up to him and asked him who he was working for that night. As he kept walking, he told me that he had been “embedded in Hong Kong” (which didn’t really answer my question). I asked him if he understood why protesters would be wary of a person filming the crowd nonstop from a camera on their helmet. He told me the camera wasn’t on, and as I walked away, he unclipped it from his helmet.
Looking back at that moment causes me to wonder if he was either one of the “journalists” this organization had hired, or if he was a member of the security team there to protect them.
I stared at my computer screen feeling like both a conspiracy theorist and a chump, falling for what was obviously a scam. But a part of my brain was also telling me that this offer was real; that “Cryptonater” was a temporary username taken up by a legitimate organization that exists and works with local law enforcement to collect data on people protesting police brutality and racial violence, and the press who cover it. An organization that had already been a part of my life, filming and recording me without my knowledge.
Filming and recording all of us.