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As the United States changes over the years, so do the ways in which the government surveils the population. With the reauthorization of the Patriot Act (during Ramadan no less), Americans—especially Black, brown, and Muslim Americans—are set for the continued infringement of their right to privacy. The added bonus, of course, is that the government can continue to legally surveil our online activity without a warrant.

The codification of surveillance doesn’t only take place through the Patriot Act, but through other programs as well, often framed as anti-terrorism. In 2011, the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) task force was created under the Obama administration. As Nabihah Maqbool, Muslim Advocates legal fellow, has previously written, “CVE programs fund programs that promote contact between police entities and young, Black Muslims.”

In attempting to implement so-called anti-extremist programming in communities, Maqbool says the government “deputize[s] communities to surveil and report on their own members to federal and local law enforcement, assuming individuals are able to assess ‘pre-crime’ acts of guilt that are expressed through emotions and political views.” This translates to the targeting of marginalized groups in order to disrupt community building and can be seen in action on the streets of Portland and amongst Black Lives Matter organizers since Ferguson.

In April 2019, CVE was relaunched by the Trump administration under a new name: Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP). Kristin Garrity, a DC-based researcher on Islamophobia, white supremacy, and CVE, notes that the TVTP program is nearly identical to CVE. By launching TVTP, the government is simply rebranding a controversial program, further entrenching “surveillance and carceral control in the lives of Muslims, and particularly Somali Muslim youth,” according to Garrity. 

This type of surveillance and targeting of marginalized groups is far from new. According to Kade Crockford, the director of the Technology for Liberty Program with the ACLU of Massachusetts, new tech and innovations “enable a supercharged dragnet surveillance never before possible.” Though the FBI wanted to monitor every Black college student in the U.S. during COINTELPRO, they realistically couldn’t do so using only mail covers, informants, and other forms of analog surveillance. The present technology changes that reality. Kade says that it is now conceivable that “the FBI or another government agency [could] monitor every Black college student in the country today, using social media surveillance, proprietary algorithms, license plate readers, bulk location data from cell phones, and other means.” The reauthorization of the Patriot Act makes this type of surveillance allowable without any probable cause.

This is especially troubling as the continued use of surveillance technology by law enforcement almost always targets Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC). Crockford points out that this is by design as “police disproportionately focus their attention, generally, on poor people and Black and brown communities, across the United States” because of things like “white supremacy, fear-driven narratives about the racialized ‘other,’ and the origins of policing in this country.”

Though it is often framed as a defensive mechanism against terrorism or other threats, Fatema Ahmed, executive director of Muslim Justice League, notes how surveillance has always been a strategy designed to impede community building amongst marginalized communities—particularly Muslims, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), queer and trans folks, and organizers or activists. These practices continue today, where Muslim, Black, brown, and Indigenous youth, including those who are immigrants and/or disabled, are being surveilled in schools through things like gang databases and mental health registries. Undocumented immigrants are surveilled; their location data is tracked by ICE to find and arrest them. Fusion centers, predictive policing, and facial recognition software proliferate the scale of surveillance in the U.S. As it relates to the current moment, protestors are being “proactively” arrested and charges of arrested activists are being bolstered through social media surveillance. This should alarm us because as “technology continues to develop, so too will surveillance by law enforcement,” according to Garrity.

Despite decades of watching the police become more efficient at surveilling, particularly through the use of new and emerging technology, folks continue to propose tech-based reforms to solve the underlying issues of policing. Ahmed says this is misguided because tech “like facial recognition, license plate readers, and drones” actually “exponentially increase the reach of police surveillance by sucking up tons of information about us and using dangerous algorithms to automate policing.”

Ahmed notes how law enforcement has become far more effective at racially profiling and targeting marginalized communities, building profiles not only by watching people in unmarked vehicles, but also gathering information about people from sites like Facebook. There is very little or no oversight on the use of technology by police departments. Maqbool notes that “police can access footage from bodycams and from private vendors like Amazon’s Ring services.” The ability of law enforcement to use more covert tech to spy on marginalized communities is also borne of previous police reforms mandating officers’ use of bodycams and other surveillance tech—similar to many reforms proposed in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

We cannot solve the racism of policing by granting them unfettered access to our data and unlimited money to spend on technology that makes them better at oppressing marginalized communities. Ahmed does think that there is an increase in concern surrounding tech-based surveillance as it relates to policing. This concern has prompted some corporations to pause their contracts with law enforcement, but Ahmed worries that “these temporary suspensions” will “get a lot of attention and praise, and then later on those corporations will go back on it without many people noticing.”

All of the experts on the subject are clear: Police do not keep us safe, but our communities can. When police surveil Muslim and other marginalized communities, they suppress “our freedom of speech and association—we censor ourselves and we fear being outspoken with our community,” says Ahmed. As such, we need to build community in the face of surveillance, without increasing reliance on the same technology that puts our communities at risk. Kade says it’s clear what makes a community resilient and strong: “housing, healthcare, education, good jobs, and public transportation, so that no one goes wanting for basic life necessities.” As the richest country on earth, we have the capability to invest in communities rather than in more expensive, more efficient tech-based policing and surveillance which makes us all more unsafe.

Reina Sultan

Reina Sultan is a Lebanese-American Muslim freelance journalist and one of the co-creators of 8 to Abolition. She is a PIC abolitionist and anarchafeminist, working to dismantle systems of white supremacist...