Surveillance Isn’t Colorblind

Rapidly developing technology exposes communities of color to near-constant surveillance and over-policing

During the 1960s, the FBI and NSA followed, wiretapped, and bugged Martin Luther King Jr. – all under the veil of proper legal process. Today, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security spy on Black Lives Matter activists under the guise of “counterterrorism” and “situational awareness.”

“Everyone is being watched, but not equally,” Georgetown Law’s Alvaro Bedoya noted in a recent panel discussion in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, invasive technology has made it easier for law enforcement to target groups or individuals. Homeland Security has been monitoring Black Lives Matter protests for nearly two years and collecting information on activists’ activities from Facebook, Twitter, Vine, and other social media platforms.

While mass surveillance is a problem for everyone, these tools aren’t used blindly. Due to biases shaping police practices, people of color, religious and ethnic minorities, and political dissidents are far more likely to be victims of unwarranted monitoring.

The growing use of facial-recognition technology and massive databases that store and record sensitive information – from fingerprints to iris scans – has helped make it all way too easy. Government agencies use such tools to spy on our online activities, monitor our movements, scan our bodies and faces, and record our interactions with authorities.

The FBI, along with state and local police, is able to search the databases storing this information without any real oversight. The FBI has even requested that its new database, which contains more than 411 million photos, be exempt from federal privacy laws, judicial review, and appeals processes designed simply to update records and correct factual errors.

These databases contain a disproportionate number of records on communities of color and immigrants. Why? Because racial bias in law enforcement skews the number of police stops and arrests of people of color, and immigration policies sweep up anyone applying to become residents or naturalized citizens.

Also troubling is the fact that black people are much more likely to be misidentified than white people in facial-recognition programs. The end result is a dangerous mix of bad data, bad oversight, and bad outcomes.

Stingray technology is also a major concern: It allows police to collect sensitive data by intercepting wireless signals sent by thousands of phones in a targeted area.

Law enforcement often uses stingrays in a discriminatory fashion to target certain communities. These tools are increasingly used to investigate minor infractions, exposing some neighborhoods and demographic groups to near-constant surveillance and over-policing.

While new surveillance tools are rapidly developing, our privacy laws aren’t keeping up. For example, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the main law protecting our online communications from unauthorized government access, hasn’t been updated since 1986, when the Internet was in its infancy and there was no such thing as the World Wide Web.

Far too often, police race to adopt new technologies without considering the potential harms or consulting with the communities they serve. Law enforcement should be required to be fully transparent about the adoption of any new technology. And if police want to deploy new tools, the proper privacy safeguards must be in place.

We must remember the surveillance that haunted Dr. King – and do better.

Sandra Fulton is the government relations manager at Free Press. Reprinted from OtherWords with permission.

7 thoughts on “Surveillance Isn’t Colorblind”

  1. We should do better but sadly most wont. Most condemn spying on themselves but have no problem if the spying is shifted to their neighbor of a member of their outgroup

  2. “black people are much more likely to be misidentified than white people in facial-recognition programs”

    Hey, the law-enforcement-industrial-complex needs this today because of the difficulty of fielding an all-white jury.

  3. “Databases contain a disproportionate number of records on communities of color and immigrants”. Might have something to do with a greater propensity of these communities to commit crimes. It would be strange if differing communities had the exact same results of any form of behavior. Different inputs cause different results. Get over it.

    1. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. They also pay more per capita in taxes and consume less per capita in “social benefits.” They subsidize the welfare benefits of the white American middle class that spends half its time whining about their presence. If it wasn’t for “illegal immigration,” Social Security would likely have laid down and died 10 years ago instead of 15 years from now.

      1. Less likely? Depends on the immigrant subgroup. HB-1 Visa residents cannot be compared to wetbacks. The ‘statistics’ you cite leave out illegal migrants. The numbers are contrived to rig the result. If you divide the country in to subgroups – Asians, Blacks, Hispanics and Whites, the results are wildly divergent. Kindly note that native-born Americans include all races which skews the numbers against Whites and Asians. Asian Americans are stopped less than Whites. Does that mean that Whites are being discriminated against by the police? And your bald assertion about the Social Security finances is baseless.

        1. “The ‘statistics’ you cite leave out illegal migrants”

          Stipulating, for the sake of argument, to the claim that there’s any such thing as an “illegal immigrant” (US law says there isn’t), no, my “statistics” do not leave them out. In fact, my “statistics” RELY on them.

          “Illegal immigrants” [sic] pay income and Social Security taxes under false names and Social Security numbers, but don’t get Social Security benefits or income tax refunds. They are the reason why your grandma still gets a check that covers more than cat food.

          1. My friend code-named “Pancho” (spanish slang for Francisco like Pepe for Jose or Chuy for Jesus) has a business where he repairs and resells appliances. He pays beaucoup in taxes He’s also been here “without papers” for 30 years. He owns his home, lives quietly and without riot (quoting St Paul there) among his neighbors. There’s a clause in the income tax forms about a Taxpayer ID which is also used by Corporate Entities.
            The statistic fluctuates year to year, but there’s a count done of How Many People file taxes using this number.

            Also ICE commonly called La Migra use those statistics and there own guesstimates about the number of undocumented immigrants and publishes THAT every year as well.

            Just in case anybody would question where the statistics originated.

            Pancho and my aunt Lupe are of course anecdotal and many would jump my ass for using such personal knowledge, especially when portraying People as exactly that… PEOPLE and not some kind of mass criminality. Such as the anti-immigrant movement does.

            If they would police themselves the way the recent immigrant community does, or even speak up when somebody starts spewing hate, the conversation would suddenly get more civilized.

            Pancho pays property taxes, sales taxes, collects and pays the state sales tax for the products he sells, doesn’t take away anybody elses opportunity to buy used appliances, repair and resell them.and actually employs an accountant to keep his records very squeaky clean and transparent.

            I’d like to see the Corporate Sponsors of the anti-immigrant mob do as good a job of it as Pancho does.

            And for that matter, the Corporates who foster the hate speech might not even give three quarters of a fat rats rectum about immigration, but stir stuff up to keep the Peasants at each others throats, thereby drawing attention from their own crimes.

            I met his accountant, sold a computer to her. I do for computers what Pancho does for washers and stoves.
            If anybody wants to bitch, whine and snivel about him doing that kind of business they could jolly well learn how to repair appliances and how sell them legitimately and just do the same damn thing. It takes diligence and a work ethic that the Haters say immigrants don’t have.

            The only difference between our legal status is that Pancho was born in Oaxaca and I was born in Kansas.

            Want another kicker? We’re both American Indian. A large portion of the population of Mexico is. America, by the way, is not limited to the United States. It’s two freakin’ continents. I would greatly appreciate it if the non-native scions of Europe who think they run the whole damn world would stop a) using the name America exclusively for their own ethnic group ,
            b) quit bitching about how Mexicans or blacks or Chinese have the same immigration options as people from Ireland or England or Germany had. Especially since there’s a lot of Anglo-American hate laws regarding immigration and the New Immigrants don’t have the same immigration opportunities.

            And c) just start treating people as People without the really stupid Imperialist attitude that European Americans have the duty to rule the whole world.

            I would thank them profusely if they ever get out of that rut of stinkin’ thinkin’. It kind of sullies the very name American and gives the rest of us a really bad reputation for ignorant hatred.

            I’m patiently awaiting that glorious day.

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