Why the Surveillance State Is Everybody's Problem

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies have frequently focused counterterrorism efforts on marginalized groups, but if we fail to act when one group is targeted, we will all end up under the microscope.

May 12, 2015
Smart Phone Applications

Cross-posted on Salon

There’s been much controversy around the New York City Police Department’s stop and frisk program, which unfairly ensnared tens of thousands of young minority men. But new reports show the NYPD’s tactics are evolving. Now, the Department is monitoring Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube accounts — particularly those of young African-American men— and residents have pointed to surveillance cameras liberally sprinkled throughout African-American neighborhoods.

The NYPD’s deployment of technology to watch communities of color is only the latest chapter in a much longer story of government surveillance often disproportionately focused on marginalized groups, and now affecting nearly every American in one way or another. We ignore this history at our peril; if we fail to act when one group finds itself targeted by the government, we will soon find we are all under the microscope.

The developing welfare state provided the first opportunity to keep tabs on a disfavored community: the poor. Some states require drug tests for aid recipients. Others strictly limit the items that can be purchased with aid dollars. Most recently, Kansas banned welfare recipients from spending aid money at swimming pools, and if the Missouri legislature has its way, those on food stamps will no longer be able to buy canned tuna.

Such restrictions are likely to be accompanied by bureaucratic tracking mechanisms as well as limits on using cash to facilitate monitoring of recipients’ spending. The information in some welfare databases is shared extensively within the government, and recipients report that caseworkers are using their electronic welfare benefit cards to monitor their activities. These accumulations of data are also inevitably vulnerable to misuse.

Cutting-edge technologies are prone to be targeted at communities of color as well. An advocacy group’s deep dive into license plate records from Oakland, Calif., revealed that lower-income minority neighborhoods – regardless of their crime rates – were lined with the devices, while white wealthier neighborhoods could count on having their cars snapped with far less frequency. Another study conducted after a Michigan city installed surveillance cameras in residential neighborhoods found that African-American residents were twice as likely to be surveilled as their white neighbors.

In the counterterrorism context, too, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have frequently, and erroneously, focused on minority populations. The NYPD, for instance, often in close collaboration with the CIA, surveilled and documented barbershops, restaurants, travel agencies, and more, solely because their owners hailed from the Middle East. The FBI spied on Muslims under cover of a community outreach program. The NSA allegedly monitored Muslim activists and scholars. And TSA employees at a major American airport accused their colleagues of pulling aside Middle Easterners, Hispanics, blacks, and other minorities instead of focusing on real threats.

These surveillance efforts often focus on illusory risks, diverting policing, enforcement, and intelligence resources from the real threats. Welfare recipients, for instance, are generally less likely than the overall population to use drugs, and the actual incidence of fraud by beneficiaries of aid is relatively low. Muslims, an enduring target of counterterrorism efforts, are responsible for just a small fraction of all terrorist attacks in the West. Indeed, the NYPD was forced to acknowledge that its spying program origin produced no leads. And the TSA’s behavior detection program, which led to its agents’ racial and religious profiling, was discredited by the government’s own accountability watchdog.

Further, using the government’s power to widely surveil its own citizens may fundamentally alter the balance of a democratic society. People under surveillance may limit their exercise of First Amendment rights, including choosing whom they associate with and engaging in lawful protest and dissent. When the groups being surveilled have also historically been the disproportionate subjects of law enforcement and intelligence interest, that chilling effect is likely to be magnified.

This may be one hidden blessing of the recent revelations showing that nearly every person who has made a phone call, sent an email or personal photo, or done a web search is almost certain to have been swept up in the government’s national security dragnet. Polling shows that majorities are opposed to surveillance when “average Americans” are the target. And the effects trickle up: major tech companies have lost overseas business over fears that they are sharing their customers’ private information with the government, and could lose more. U.S. senators — not usually the subjects of government surveillance — are also seeing their communications captured.

Perhaps when people realize that it’s not just their neighbors being surveilled, the politics of surveillance may finally change.

(Photo: Flickr/JasonAHowie)