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Recently, news broke that a counterterror division of the United States military was receiving in-depth user data from MuslimPro and Muslim Mingle, two apps widely used among Muslims, through X-Mode and Locate X, firms that streamline data collection and sell data stores to other firms. 

The story was not the first of its kind, and a familiar dynamic ensued. The initial response from many Muslims in America was to ensure safety. Have we been compromised, like when the New York City Police Department spied on mosques? Did a new potential threat emerge from the counterterror industry, like when the Obama administration recruited community leaders to a Countering Violent Extremism program

This story did not resonate in these ways, and so it receded from view. In time, another similar story will break. During the brief respite between now and then, it is important for American Muslims to understand this story not only as an isolated incident of Islamophobia, or a company “selling out.” Rather, we must also understand this as but one expression of a decades-long shift in the general political economy toward public-private partnerships, one that brought MuslimPro and the U.S. government together. Understanding what drives the different actors involved and how to prevent any challenge to the existing regime of data collection and government surveillance are pressing questions for those trying to oppose this unholy alliance between government surveillance and private industry, which is a pillar of the modern economy. 

Whereas the old, industrialized economic model centered upon factory production and market distribution of goods, our current post-industrial, financialized economic model rests upon the profitability of financial services. The United States inadvertently transitioned from the former to the latter through a series of political and economic decisions intended to stabilize the economy amid falling rates of profit in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, the burgeoning civil rights movement and anti-communist effort ramped up the need for an invasive government surveillance operation. In 1971, peace activists blew the lid off of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations, sparking a set of congressional hearings about government intelligence agencies’ violations of  privacy and civil liberties. Over the course of the next decade, attempts to impose a legislative charter on the FBI and Department of Justice failed to pass Congress. Instead, a dangerous precedent was set: The attorney general would set the guidelines for how the DOJ and its subsidiary agencies would operate. 

In the time since the Church Committee Hearings, U.S. attorney generals have overseen the systematic expansion of surveillance capacities, while federal agencies have largely avoided both public criticism and legal challenge. This is due to a deft sleight-of-hand on the part of the U.S. government. Rather than carrying out these functions themselves, they effectively outsource them to the same firms they relied upon during the macroeconomic crises earlier that decade: private finance and technology companies. 

The modern, financialized economy depends on the ability of private firms, as well as credit and lending institutions, to make accurate predictions about the future. The primary resource of this new speculative economy is raw data that can be aggregated to help firms make profitable decisions. Despite these tools—people’s consumer habits, risk quotients, content “bubbles,” location data, etc.—these firms have not been able to avoid the issue of falling rates of profit. If anything, deindustrialization has made the economy more crisis-ridden and reliant upon state intervention. This means that the collective dependence on data collection only grows, both among our most productive firms and our government surveillance and security agencies.

MuslimPro and Muslim Mingle are the tip of the iceberg. We need to think more quickly and expansively about what lies ahead. Now, the industries of state repression and productive activity interact to develop, manage, and scale “fourth industrial revolution technologies”: artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, autonomous vehicles, nano- and biotechnology, quantum computing, etc. Today, AI algorithms organize social media feeds and monitor workplaces, whether on the shop floor or on the apps governing platform work. They manage (receding) welfare systems and (expanding) systems of police surveillance.   

Many Muslims trying to understand these issues point to the role of Islamophobia in the counterterror division’s disproportionate attention on Muslim communities and its expression of systemic anti-Muslim bigotry. Individual Islamophobia insinuates itself in our civic and political institutions, while institutionalized Islamophobia reproduces broader social and political systems that oppress Muslims. While this perspective allows us to identify the use of Islamophobic rhetoric, it fails to identify the animating interest of MuslimPro or the U.S. government, just as it fails to apprehend their particular situation in a broader political and economic sense. 

Some of the loudest proponents of counterterror security during the War on Terror espoused a clear bigotry toward Muslims. However, the War on Terror also functioned to drastically expand investigative authorities for police and intelligence agencies, increase the budgets of U.S. counterterror departments, and pass laws foregoing civil liberties considerations. Islamophobia—the essentialist myth that Muslims, Arabs, or those who fit the description were worthy of suspicion—was the soft power that opened the space for these impositions of hard power.

Through public-private partnerships, the U.S. government effectively outsources counterterror operations to private, app-based companies. The government aids their private partners by maintaining lax regulations on data privacy and collection. For the private sector, this allows them to construct data-driven user profiles that can predict consumer patterns, optimize product updates, and micro-target their marketing campaigns. For the public sector, these profiles streamline their counterterrorism operations by helping them construct risk assessment methodologies and check human behavior against these tools. 

We have to think critically about what this approach means for our collective futures, because there are a litany of public-private partnerships doing just the same. We all stand to be affected by the commodification and securitization of the digital commons.

Adam Beddawi

Adam Beddawi is the D.C. policy manager at ACCESS (the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services).