a white sign with a blue rectangle on top and white text reading "Recording." below, in black text, it reads, "audio and video for your safety." below is a cartoon image of a surveillance robot shaped like a rounded bullet
A sign informs the public about a 5-foot (1.5 meter) tall outdoor K5 security robot patroling the grounds of the Washington Harbour retail-residential center in the Georgetown district of Washington, D.C., July 26, 2017. (ROB LEVER/AFP via Getty Images)

The end of Roe v. Wade and its protections catapulted the idea of surveillance into the mainstream, especially for people who had never contended with it before. Of course, the government has long surveilled everyone—far before this decision—and the most obvious iterations of that can be seen among the most marginalized, against whom the information gathered through surveillance is levied to arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and more.

How and why is the government surveilling us?

The U.S government has engaged in surveillance since its inception. With modern-day technology and private-sector partners, the state’s ability to invade our privacy is ever-growing and can look many different ways. 

As it stands today, “U.S. technoculture has transformed in a way that makes surveillance a ubiquitous and persistent reality for all of us,” according to Sarah Hamid, policing technology campaign lead at the Carceral Tech Resistance Network. For the privileged among us, that can translate to Instagram suggesting content that keeps you engaged with its platform. “For others,” says Hamid, “that means intensified police contact, eviction and loss of livelihood, deportation, and carceral violence—not just for you but for your whole family and those you’re in regular contact with.”

Saskia Coplans, co-founder and director of information security consultancy Digital Interruption and security software developers REXSCAN, explains that law enforcement can get ahold of our data through many avenues. She says, “Open-source Intelligence (OSINT) is … where data available in the public domain via media, internet, public government data, professional and public publications, commercial data, and technical data is gathered and analyzed.” Coplans says this is an entire industry, made up of government agencies and companies that scrape information from the internet, buy, and sell this data. Law enforcement can use this publicly accessible data to obtain a warrant or subpoena to access private data that can lead to an arrest. But they’re also able to access your data by reaching out directly to companies that hold that information, many of which are happy to comply—with or without subpoenas. 

For us to truly understand the breadth and danger of surveillance, Vanessa Taylor, the creator of NAZAR, an independent journalism project on surveillance, says we need to “move away from a hyper-focus on ‘watching.’” Though watching people is certainly one part of it, Taylor asserts that “ultimately, watching is simply one mechanism to achieve surveillance’s overarching goal of social control.” That’s why the information gathered isn’t just used to prosecute people, but also to psychologically damage individuals and destroy social movements, most notoriously with the secret FBI program COINTELPRO. Through this initiative, the FBI spread rumors, tried to blackmail and smear activists, and even tried to convince Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself. Similar tactics can be seen with the more recent counter-extremism programs that target Muslim communities.

As Taylor notes, though we are all subject to government surveillance, those who are racialized and criminalized are most familiar with its many forms. Yves Tong Nguyen, a sex worker, cultural worker, and organizer with Red Canary Song and Survived and Punished NY, shares some of the insidious ways that the surveillance state operates. “Of course we know that police departments and DHS and ICE are data scraping location data to find out who goes to protests [and] gaining access to DNA tests to arrest people,” they say. But they also point out that things like medical records, bank records, and financial transactions can also be used against us, as is the case with sex workers already

What can I do?

This political moment is alarming, and it’s normal if you’re worried about what’s to come. But if this is your first time contending with the fact that surveillance is a threat to you, it’s a good idea to interrogate that a bit as you move through these difficulties. Realize that you’re not the first person to go through this, and you can draw on the knowledge and wisdom of others who have more experience. While leaning on them for guidance is important—don’t reinvent the wheel—it’s also integral to realize that your privilege was likely what was shielding you from explicit understanding of the surveillance state up to now. This isn’t easy, Hamid notes, but “doing so opens you up to entering into community with those for whom this has been a constant reality for decades now. In other words, communities that have built trauma-informed resources and strategies for how to contend with state surveillance.”

It’s likely that you’ve been engaging, to some extent, in unsafe online practices. Tong Nguyen says, “A lot of people who are more privileged just aren’t very safe online. They admit to doing illegal things or try to plan illegal things on unencrypted spaces and that puts people who are more marginalized at greater risk.” They suggest thinking about what you’ve already made available about yourself online, assess what you’re at greatest risk of, and choose some digital safety practices to implement from there. 

A great first step is to use end-to-end encrypted messaging, like Signal and ProtonMail. There are also digital drives and word pads that are encrypted, but Tong Nguyen doesn’t want us to forsake keeping records the old fashioned way. 

“I really am a huge fan of keeping things that are meant to be kept safe and away from surveillance on paper frankly,” they say. 

If you’re worried about what you’ve already posted or messaged about, now could be a good time to sanitize your data—aka deleting it from commonly used apps or sites like WhatsApp, Facebook, or Google. It’s not foolproof, as law enforcement can access it from the back end, but it is a good start. You can take steps to reduce your online footprint, like removing your address from data aggregator sites. 

You might also be engaging in actions, not just talking about things online. And the threat of surveillance doesn’t disappear there. As Taylor says, “Everyone needs to move with the assumption that they are under surveillance both on and offline. This means that when you tweet or post on Instagram, you should assume that it’s being analyzed and flagged by some program somewhere. It also means that when you attend protests, you should cover your face and identifying characteristics, like tattoos, if possible.” 

It’s also a good idea to create a safety plan with the people you’re attending with, including arrangements for potential arrests (jail support, legal aid, etc.) and exit strategies if things escalate in a way that’s unsafe based on your own risk profile. Try to connect with local organizations that have experience organizing and attending actions if you’re new to it. You don’t have to start from scratch, and more seasoned organizers will have information that can help you. 

For in-person actions, it’s not just your physical safety that needs to be prioritized; digital safety is still important. Consider leaving your phone at home, or taking measures to block your phone’s signals, like buying or making a Faraday bag. If you have your phone on you, disable facial recognition and touch ID, opting instead for a long alphanumeric pin code (rather than the standard 4-digit one). Do not post pictures from actions that include identifiable details of you or others (faces, unique clothing, or tattoos). 

Considering others’ safety

It’s important that when thinking about surveillance and safety, we’re considering how to keep our community safe as well. To do so, “people need to zoom out to view surveillance at structural levels,” as Taylor puts it. 

Though it’s important to develop a personal strategy to stay safe online, as detailed above, Hamid urges us to keep in mind that, like all struggles, the need for privacy is interconnected. We can’t do it all alone. “There are a lot of incentives that make us think about digital safety as an individual pursuit … privacy is packaged and sold to us today as a discrete consumer commodity, instead of a collective right and responsibility,” she says. 

Not only is this expensive and unsustainable for individuals, but it also doesn’t get to the root issues. To really tackle the problem of surveillance, she and other organizers at CTRN stress that digital safety needs to be reframed as a collective project. “Your digitally tracked activities don’t just put you at risk—they put your family and loved ones at risk, and vice versa. Similarly, your safety plans need to be designed with those people, bringing them into the conversation and strategizing ways to effectively share the burden.”

Instead of relying solely on individual responsibility or costly risk mitigation strategies, work with a pod of people to anticipate needs and use community support to meet them in advance. Hamid suggests things like: planning how you’ll communicate with your pod in an emergency, setting aside cashier’s checks, and cash burners in the event someone in the community needs them, then pulling from these resources when the time comes. 

At the end of the day, thinking about safety as a group endeavor will make us all safer. “Individual solutions will always create a world in which those who are made most vulnerable among us will bear the burden of a parasitic and expropriate data consumption market,” says Hamid. But “society doesn’t have to be organized like this—other ways of living and being are possible.”

How does this all relate to abortion?

We must avoid separating abortion-related surveillance from the history of surveillance in general. It’s extremely useful to view the current struggles we’re facing as interconnected with past movements and other current fights. As Taylor points out, “Roe was a privacy-based decision,” and with that framing, the “the criminalization and surveillance that we will see moving forward are going to build on pre-existing networks.” 

Consider how the government deals with so-called domestic terrorists or domestic violent extremists. Taylor points out that the state has already identified pro-abortion advocates as violent extremists—which is loosely defined and up to the state’s discretion. This means that they will use the strategies they’ve already been employing against radical movements against the abortion movement. Taylor warns us not to dismiss this reality because we don’t see “political advocacy as extreme.” Because the government certainly does. 

Hayley McMahon, a public health researcher who studies structrual barriers to abortion access, says you need to “assume you are being surveilled” with regards to abortion. All of the digital safety ideas from above still apply, but there are specific things you can do to keep yourself safe as an abortion supporter or as someone who might be seeking or helping someone seek an abortion. 

McMahon points out that, though it is important to think about the way apps—like period trackers—are using our data, that is not the only way people who might need abortions are being tracked. She says we should focus on the ways people are already being investigated and criminalized. “People have largely been reported to police by their clinicians and people they know,” says McMahon. “Text messages, search histories, and social media DMs are what we have seen be presented as evidence in these investigations and trials.” Her priority is helping people manage those risks.

Perhaps the most critical thing in keeping yourself and your community safe while supporting abortion and abortion-seekers is to stop individualizing the work. Abortion advocates, many of whom are Black and brown, have already spent decades creating and perfecting the way practical support organizations work to be as safe as possible. McMahon says engaging in the “camping” discourse online is extremely dangerous. “Maybe if you’re new to this work, you don’t understand how violent the anti-abortion movement is—how often they stalk, harass, and threaten abortion providers and advocates. You are giving these people the information they need to target you.” If you want to get involved, reach out to a PSO (not through the patient form) and find out how to plug in, instead of engaging in ways that might be unsafe for you or others. 

It is so important now to be cognizant of what you are discussing about abortion and where you’re doing it. Even if you think something is legal or constitutionally protected now, it may not be in the near future. McMahon points out that “Republicans and the Federalist Society—with a lot of help from Democrats—have filled the courts to the brim with far-right justices and judges at every level.” Because of this, “it is not unimaginable that we see SCOTUS allow states to start criminalizing speech about abortion in states where it is illegal.”

The anti-abortion lobby is already working on legislation to this end. South Carolina is already using this model bill to try to pass a law criminalizing the sharing of information about abortion. This is one reason why it is so important to work with organizations that are used to the ever-changing abortion landscape. They have built expertise through experience, and that will be imperative for us to lean on in the coming months and years.

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...