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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.

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)