Data Profiling and Social Justice -- Remarks prepared for Eyebeam's “PRISM Breakup”

Blog Post
Oct. 11, 2013

Presentation by Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Senior Research Fellow at Open Technology Institute, at PRISM Breakup in New York City, Saturday, October 5, 2013.

Thank you and good morning everyone.

The question that I want to pose to you today is: Are we all equally affected by the surveillance state?

If you look at the balance sheet of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Administration’s PRISM program, you’d say yes. Here’s a massive surveillance program that examines our phones’ metadata, sucks up a majority of our email communications, documents and analyzes our social networks, and infiltrates the companies that create secure, anonymizing tools for communication in order to weaken them.

But for the comprehensive nature of this government data collection, its occurrence strikes me as abstract and intangible. If you think we’re all equally affected by surveillance, ask yourself these questions: Is a public access point like a library, job center, or community organization the only place you can access the Internet? Do you have to pee in a cup in order to qualify for public assistance? Have you ever been targeted on your phone or online for a payday or subprime loan? Have you ever been stopped by the police because of stop-and-frisk practices? Do you have family members or friends who are in jail? Are you an immigrant? Are you undocumented? Have you ever been part of a controversial social movement like the environmental justice movement or Occupy? Are you Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, chances are you’re part of a group that’s been tracked, targeted, and profiled. You use the Internet in places that generally have few privacy protecting options. You give up biometric data that is analyzed—and likely stored in a database—in exchange for a welfare check that you hope will help make ends meet. You’re preyed upon as someone vulnerable to financial desperation. From the streets you live on, to the social media profiles you create, you’re monitored under suspicion of illegal activity as a criminal, as someone who disrupts and threatens the social order, as someone who is wholly un-American.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, surveillance is anything but new. Welcome to our world Edward Snowden. This stuff happens to some of us everyday, and the consequences are no less than the loss of personal dignity, economic deprivation, imprisonment, deportation, and more. Widespread surveillance forms part of a longer history of exploitation and exclusion that is anything but abstract.

There are two trends in the history of surveillance in the United States.

First, it’s a history of persistent institutionalized racism. Surveillance is part of a set of structures and practices that keep certain groups separate and unequal in society. A sampling of modern American history demonstrates the point: lists, logs, maps, and the cataloguing of people and their habits are engines of data-driven discrimination. At the turn of the 20th century, state and local electoral officials monitored voter registration lists in order to levy poll taxes, administer “good citizenship” tests, and keep African Americans from participating in elections. In the Thirties, the real estate industry (enabled by the data gathering interests of the federal government) established a race and class-based system of classifying neighborhoods as wise or unwise investments. In the Forties during World War II, the United States government relied on census data to identify people of Japanese descent, round them up and put them in internment camps. In the Fifties, in response to a burgeoning civil rights movement, white vigilante and supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan patrolled neighborhoods and looked for what today might be referred to as “suspicious” activities among African Americans. By the Sixties, border control—to stem the tide of Mexican American immigrants—had reached new heights as quotas of the Bracero program were closely monitored.

Second, it’s a history of intolerance for political diversity, dissent, and expression. A surveillance society embraces censorship and authoritarianism, and in the United States, we’ve developed a uniquely American brand or style. Namely, if you’re threatening the liberal-capitalist order, you may be subject to surveillance.

So, in the late Teens and early Twenties, for example, the Palmer Raids—raids waged by then Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer—targeted radicals, anarchists, suffragists, labor organizers, and other political dissenters. Palmer designed an extensive surveillance program that indexed hundreds of thousands of names of individuals, organizations, and publications, broke up meetings of political activists, and targeted predominantly new, White European immigrants who, as “aliens,” lacked the same civil liberties protections as citizens.

In the Sixties, censorship and political intimidation focused on civil rights and antiwar groups believed to be a threat to American democracy and to national security more generally. With its Counter-Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reached the height of this massive monitoring and infiltration program designed to dismantle social movement networks, the majority of which represented communities of color. From the Black Panthers to the American Indian Movement, COINTELPRO agents infiltrated movement organizations to find out who participated in meetings, campaigns, and mobilizations designed to question the contradictions of American democracy.

These two examples of profiling and discrimination reveal an underside of American democracy that trades tolerance and respect for political expediency, for political power.

When taking stock of surveillance, I think this history begs that we talk about social justice. But for the most part, our current debate on dragnet government surveillance and the role of corporations in invading our privacy remains preoccupied with civil liberties. Punditry is pitched to the tune of the Fourth Amendment, and debates about the trade-offs between national security and individual privacy spin in a constant cycle. We hear about public opinion polls that focus on the same. On the one hand you have those who say, “But I have nothing to hide,” or “If I had something to hide, I might be a terrorist,” or “I don’t mind the government reading my emails [or corporations facilitating that process] if it means defending America.” On the other, you have people who argue, “The government has no business monitoring my personal business. No way, no how.”

But these arguments miss the forest for the trees. When you look at the consequences of a surveillance state, issues of discrimination, censorship, and political intimidation become apparent, and you begin to understand the debate on privacy and surveillance in broader terms. Surveillance and privacy issues aren’t only about individual liberty or personal freedoms. They’re about collective justice and self-governance. Surveillance and privacy issues aren’t only about national security. They’re about defending the core values of equality, of having control, autonomy, and power.

Seen in this light, the significance of the revelations about NSA surveillance are less about the technical sophistication of its design and broad overreach, but rather more about the ability of PRISM and related programs to exacerbate an already active system of surveillance that constrains the movements and expressions of historically marginalized groups. That makes data collection, storage, analysis, and profiling inherently a social justice issue.

To come back to the original question: are we all equally affected by a surveillance state? Profiling hurts some more than others. But if you believe that society requires we be treated as equals and that we get rid of discrimination, exploitation, and exclusion, then the answer is yes. Until the groups who bear the burden of a surveillance society find justice, we are all implicated. I hope we can work together to do something transformative.