The September G-20 summit made history in a lot of ways. But one of them has largely escaped attention: The summit -- and police actions to quell disturbances stemming from it -- marked the rise of online media as an alternative to local news.
Protesters and onlookers notified each other of events using Twitter, the social-media messaging tool. In Oakland, where disruptions took place on Sept. 24 and 25, tech-savvy students documented police actions using video cameras, then posted the videos to YouTube. Many of these -- like the footage of police posing for a photo with an arrestee -- have generated outrage, and even stories in the mainstream press.
But perhaps the most significant technology used was a previously obscure Web site, www.radioreference.com, that puts police-radio transmissions online, where anyone can listen.
During the G-20 summit, Radio Reference carried two city police channels, allowing hundreds of people -- including at least one city councilor -- to eavesdrop as officers talked about G-20 tactics and life on the streets of Pittsburgh.
What they heard may well guide future inquiries into police conduct. Pittsburgh City Councilor Bill Peduto was listening to the online scanner. He says he repeatedly heard officers talking about executing a "hammer and anvil" during the Sept. 25 protests in Oakland, and wants to know what that tactic entailed. What's more, he says, "They kept calling for more officers, even though we know there were only a couple hundred people there."
Peduto says he first heard about the online scanner from a Twitter instant message -- and he's not alone. Like many Internet phenomena, the Radio Reference scanner went viral, with people twittering each other about it, and sharing what they'd overheard.
"A lot of people I told about the site were like, 'Damn you -- this thing is addictive,'" Peduto says.
"We saw record traffic for the site during the summit," says Lindsay Blanton, who heads up the San Antonio-based company that operates Radio Reference. More than 1,650 people were listening at a time during peak periods.
Blanton says Radio Reference offers roughly 1,300 "feeds" carrying radio transmissions from agencies around the country. Almost all the feeds are provided by volunteers, says Blanton, and uploading content is almost as easy as hooking up a cable between your hard drive and your scanner.
Radio scanners capable of picking up police transmissions have been commercially available for years. (Radio Shack sells scanners for as little as $99.99.) But posting the material online makes it far more accessible to the general public. And for police departments, that's a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, by listening to the scanner, Peduto learned that an unpermitted Sept. 24 march in Lawrenceville had broken up -- and that protesters might be headed toward the chain stores of Shadyside. As a result, he says, "I was able to notify merchants on Walnut Street that it might be coming their way." Similarly, when he heard the police were descending on Oakland the next night, Peduto sent a Twitter warning of "a lot more arrests in Oakland -- police sending all wagons to Forbes and Fifth @ThePittNews -- please advise students to leave."
On the other hand, on Sept. 24, state troopers arrested two people in a Kennedy Township motel for allegedly doing much the same thing Peduto did in Oakland: advising people about police movements.
According to a criminal complaint, Pennsylvania State Police caught Elliot Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger "seated in front of personal computers and telecommunication equipment ... with various maps, contact numbers and police and EMS scanners." The two were using Twitter to notify protest groups "of the movements and actions of law enforcement in response to the actions of those ... protest groups." They each face charges stemming from the use of telecommunications equipment "for the purpose of directing/redirecting others in order to avoid apprehension by police after a lawful order to disperse."
Nothing in police reports indicates that the two were using Radio Reference, and Blanton stresses that some transmissions -- like those involving the military, or protecting dignitaries -- are strictly off limits. And he's addressed law-enforcement concerns in the past. During the 2008 Republican National Convention, in Minneapolis, he says, the FBI called "and said, 'Protesters are monitoring this feed, and there's an officer-safety issue. Can you help us out?' We delayed the feed by about 15 or 30 minutes." Nobody in Pittsburgh, he says, made a similar request: "I didn't hear from anybody."
The Pittsburgh Police Bureau did not respond to an e-mailed list of questions for comment, which was circulated via e-mail to top brass. But police do know their conversations can be monitored. On Radio Reference, Pittsburgh police could be heard discussing the fact that their communications were being monitored -- and planning to call each other up on their cell phones.
The state police, meanwhile, are switching over to a new radio system -- called PA-STARNet's OpenSky -- that cannot be scanned. In Pittsburgh, the system "was implemented for the G-20 Summit," confirms Jack Lewis, a state police spokesperson.
"Privacy of police messages is one reason [the PSP] is switching over," Lewis says.
"I don't think anybody has any issue with people listening in on police scanners," says University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. "At least in Pennsylvania, it's perfectly legitimate to listen in. The real question is what you do with the information."
Peduto "did nothing wrong" by trying to warn students, Burkoff stresses. "Knowing where officers are and wanting to avoid them is not necessarily a bad thing."
As for Madison and Wallschlaeger, much depends on intent, says Burkoff. "If I picked up a phone after you committed a homicide, and told you where the police were so you could escape -- nobody would have a problem with that being criminalized." Even so, Burkoff says, "This is not a common prosecution, and there are First Amendment issues, which makes it a bit scarier."
In any case, Burkoff says, new technologies like Twitter, and online resources like Radio Reference, will continue to pose challenges to law enforcement -- and to the law itself.
"What's fascinating is how quickly this stuff goes from being edgy to just being a fact of life. We have to consider it both in terms of its usefulness, and its potential to do bad things."