"What's on your mind?"
This innocent Facebook status question is today answered through 21st century digital platforms, then shared with an awaiting audience ready to consume our latest 140-character anecdote. The Internet, through social media, helps us answer mundane questions like “Which Game of Thrones Character Would You Be?” and “Do You Know How to Take the Subway like a Real New Yorker?” (I’m apparently a Pro). We know more about a greater number of people in our lives than we ever did before—but we’re not the only ones.
Today’s digital and mobile technologies give us the tools to stay connected, but in exchange, the companies that own that infrastructure have made a business of manipulating the data we are creating. We generate information every time we use our smartphones or log on the Web. Our Google searches, website history, call logs, text messages and even GPS coordinates are constantly being tracked.
This may not seem like a big deal to some, who have come to expect the annoyance of targeted ads as a tradeoff for “free” access to a Facebook profile. But what happens to the data that is collected? Who is it shared with, and, more importantly, under what circumstances are they allowed to share it?
A little less than a year ago, the Edward Snowden leaks blew the lid off just where all those status updates, tweets, emails, phone calls and text messages were going. Snowden revealed a series of domestic surveillance programs of the National Security Agency aimed at gobbling up as much data as possible from companies like Google, Verizon, Yahoo!, Facebook, Microsoft and others. Rather than collecting targeted information from potential “foreign suspects,” these dragnet surveillance programs were collecting data from nearly everyone in the United States.
Surveillance With a Purpose
To what end is the NSA doing this? We’ve long been told that it’s necessary to sacrifice privacy to maintain our safety and security, especially in a post-9/11 world. Domestic surveillance, however, has a long and shameful history in the United States, most notably carried out by agencies like the FBI and NSA, which from the 1950s to 1970s monitored the day-to-day activities of key political figures in the civil rights movement.
As Bloomberg News (8/27/13) pointed out, it was shortly after his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech that civil rights leader Martin Luther King became a prime target for the FBI:
Initially approved in October 1963 by then–Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the FBI’s wiretap and hidden-microphone campaign against King lasted until his assassination in April 1968. It was initially justified to probe King’s suspected, unproven links to the Communist Party, morphing into a crusade to “neutralize” and discredit the civil rights leader.
The FBI also established the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) with the intent of targeting groups or individuals considered “subversive.” The program targeted leaders in the NAACP, American Indian Movement, Black Panther Party and Socialist Workers Party as well as anti-war activists, student groups and feminist organizations. The intended goal of COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” groups for their supposed subversive activities. The program accomplished this through illegal means, oftentimes falsifying evidence that led to the arrest and conviction of key political leaders, and at times supporting or carrying out assassinations (Huffington Post, 12/3/13).
The extent of the FBI’s domestic surveillance programs came to light after a congressional investigation following the Watergate Scandal. The 1975–76 Church Committee report revealed an FBI program called “HT-LINGUAL” that intercepted, opened and photographed over 200,000 pieces of US mail. The report also revealed the NSA’s spying activities through Project Shamrock, a program that intercepted telegraph messages coming into and out of the United States.
These programs operated without courts issuing warrants or providing any legal oversight. Though the existence of these programs was justified as a necessary means to maintain national security, in practice these programs were mechanisms to stifle the political speech of groups who represented the new left.
Public outcry over these revelations led in 1978 to the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a law meant to limit the power of agencies like the NSA and FBI to carry out surveillance programs by introducing procedures for how physical and electronic communications could be monitored and collected. But since 1978, the ways we communicate have changed dramatically, and so have the various ways our communications and movements can be tracked.
The Times Are Not A-Changin’
The same directive which guided the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations, to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” those deemed subversive, are again being applied to the programs created through the NSA. As the Huffington Post (11/26/13) reported, the NSA is tracking the online viewing habits of people with no connections to “terrorist organizations,” but who are deemed “radicalizers” because of what they’ve said on the Internet:
The National Security Agency has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches, according to a top-secret NSA document.
The secret FISA courts established as a safeguard against unwarranted surveillance under the so-called war on terror became rubber stamp courts where any and all personal data requests were approved. The danger of empowering agencies like the NSA and FBI to operate with little oversight is that under the guise of national security, any violation of our civil liberties and personal freedoms can be justified.
At what point will the social movements of today become the “radicalizers”? How long before our struggles for immigrants rights, against police repression, for living wages, jobs with dignity, healthier communities, for communication rights, become targeted for vulnerabilities? As Fahd Ahmed (YouTube, 10/23/13), policy director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), pointed out:
Any time we see any levels of policing—whether it’s day-to-day policing in the streets, surveillance by the police or Internet surveillance—social control, particularly of those that resist the existing system, becomes an inherent part of that system.
To Detect and Surveil
After the September 11 attacks, which reignited a xenophobic backlash against immigration, the Department of Homeland Security began recruiting local law enforcement agencies as the next front in the detection and apprehension of undocumented immigrants. What followed was a massive wave of deportations that increased under the Obama administration to over 2 million (Politico, 3/4/14).
Like immigration, the “War on Terror” is now being shifted to local law enforcement agencies who, in exchange for federal dollars, are deploying powerful surveillance tools with little oversight and applying these tools to everyday policing, not just “counterterrorism.”
In Northern California, police departments from San Jose to Sacramento have begun using StingRay, a powerful surveillance tool that tricks cell phones into communicating with it by posing as a cell tower. It lets police officers capture cell data from a wide swath of people, including people who are not suspects of an investigation. It also gives them the capacity to eavesdrop and listen in on phone conversations without the need for a warrant.
Many other local law enforcement agencies are becoming part of the surveillance machine, and this is leading to violations of civil liberties, especially with the use of surveillance technology absent any real standards for how data can be collected and used. Caught in the dragnet are communities whose every movement is tracked. At a time when communities of color are transitioning more and more onto the Internet, it’s that very platform, along with other surveillance technologies, that are being used to monitor them.
We’re in a signature moment that will determine the future of our privacy. Shortly after the Snowden leaks, hundreds of organizations and millions of people spoke out against the NSA’s surveillance, including my own Center for Media Justice. Members of CMJ’s Media Action Grassroots Network like May First People Link are teaching organizers and activists how to use encryption technology, and free and open source software, to protect their communication from unwarranted surveillance.
Congress is debating legislation that would limit the NSA’s ability to collect bulk phone data and implement stronger guidelines for what information companies are required to share. The White House even opened up a 90-day review period to gather public input on big data and privacy. A report will follow that will outline the administration’s approach.
It is up to us to continue pressuring our elected officials at the federal and state level to end mass surveillance and keep our communities safe from spying. At stake is the ability of our communities to say what’s on their minds. The right to have a status update free from surveillance is tied to the right to improve the status of our communities.
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Steven Renderos is the national organizer at the Center for Media Justice. He is passionate about the role of media and communications in building movements for social change. He’s been a community organizer for the past 10 years, leading campaigns for affordable housing, immigrant rights and, most recently, communications rights.