One of the most disorienting aspects of the attack by extremist Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol last month was the fact that so many people felt comfortable rioting without covering their faces.
They should, of course, have been wearing masks to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus. But that aside, many in the mob seemed content to commit crimes in full view of thousands of television, security and cellphone cameras. Some people livestreamed themselves. Many took selfies.
Look, Ma, I’m breaking the law!
With the president behind them, perhaps they felt that the law didn’t apply.
That’s all come crashing down. Federal agents, security researchers, internet sleuths, journalists and average Americans have pored over the footage and identified many faces in the crowd. Rioters have been named, arrested, fired, shamed in public.
While it was no secret that cameras were documenting the attack, another type of technology was also keeping a close watch — and making a detailed record — of the people who walked from the National Mall, where the president gave his speech, to the halls of the Capitol building. This location data, consisting of millions of pings — a record of the location of a given smartphone at a given time — was being dutifully collected by companies that specialize in such things.
The data is supposed to be anonymous. But, as past reporting from Times Opinion has demonstrated, it’s ludicrous to describe it this way. The movement history of each smartphone is as unique as a fingerprint. In the case of the riot, the smartphones they carried could be traced from the Capitol back to the owner’s home in many instances.
That’s why it was so easy for my colleagues Charlie Warzel and Stuart Thompson to match smartphones with their owners, after a source shared a leaked data set containing millions of pings from Jan. 6. .
In the aftermath of the attack, it’s worth considering the technological tools that made it possible to organize the riot, as well as the tools that made it possible to bring the rioters to justice and how they could be used in the future — for good or for ill.