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Privacy Perspectives | When surveillance perpetuates institutional racism Related reading: US House passes FISA Section 702 reauthorization bill




I have to be honest with you. I’ve been working as a journalist in the privacy space for the last six years, and privacy never really mattered that much to me. 

When I first understood, via Snowden, that the U.S. government was collecting data on all of us, I didn’t knee-jerk freak out. I thought about what I do online, the kinds of data that likely generates about me, and what kind of surveillance that probably meant as a result. I can’t say I was ever in the “if-you’re-not-doing-anything-wrong, you’ve-got-nothing-to-hide” camp, but I also wasn’t arms-up-in-the-air outraged that some corporation potentially handed my data over to the police. No, I didn't love the idea that the feds maybe knew I’d once Googled “is a yam different from a sweet potato?” but, it didn’t keep me up at night.

As a journalist, it’s kind of my job not to freak out. I’m to strip the emotion from the subject and report on the facts. So, I’ve spent most of my time nonplussed at the headlines – whether I’m writing them, or someone else is. 

But then I went to an event at Georgetown Law last week called, “The Color of Surveillance,” and the hair on my arms stood up straight for about eight continuous hours.

I’d missed it completely.

I’d missed the entire reason privacy isn’t just a concern for those of us logged into Ashley Madison or those of us researching something more nefarious than the difference between starches. I missed that it should matter to me because there are people for whom it has to matter, by virtue of their socioeconomic or racial status. And while I have the luxury, by virtue of my own socioeconomic status and race, of ignoring reality and letting this not be my problem, that’s not how wrongs are righted. Never has been.

There’s this Kanye West lyric that’s been chasing me around since I first heard it. West wrote, in 2004,  “Racism’s still alive they just be concealing it / But I know they don’t want me in the damn club / They even make me show ID to get inside a Sam’s Club.”

I never really understood why that particular lyric, of all the powerful rap lines I’ve ever heard, has stayed with me for so long. But sitting at Georgetown last week and hearing speakers, many of them African-American and/or Muslim themselves, describe the realities on the ground, I realized it’s exactly that kind surveillance, showing ID "to get into Sam’s Club," that seems so absurd, but which persists in much more dangerous contexts than just retail stores like Sam’s. 

Last week, I finally saw surveillance not as something mildly offensive to my own sense of civil liberties, but as a tool of institutional racism. It suddenly became clear to me, and I’m so embarrassed it didn’t prior, that the people most stripped of their privacy rights in this surveillance age are the people who are the most vulnerable. I’m white and grew up in middle-class Portland, Maine, and I really hadn't had a front-row seat to the kind of experiences I'm talking about here.

But the powerful surveilling the powerless is nothing new. It existed even in the earliest days of slavery. Surveillance and power have long been closely linked to institutional racism, from slave owners branding their slaves so they couldn't move freely and privately around to planation owners building homes tall enough to surveill the entire plantation. Slavery may have been abolished, but now we see racism and oppression in a new power structure in which the powerful hold the data on the less powerful, and in that way control a whole lot of things, including access to services, freedom of movement and, most egregiously, dignity.

Here’s one example. Khiara Bridges is a professor at Boston University who studied pregnant women applying to Medicaid. All of them poor, most of them of color. Her research has found a system “fundamentally flawed by design,” in which women relying on government assistance to have a child were required, before ever seeing a health practitioner, to be “informationally canvassed” via coerced consultations that ask the kinds of degrading questions white, privately insured women would never be asked at a healthcare facility. These women are routinely drilled on whether they’ve missed prenatal care appointments, whether the pregnancy was planned or accidental, whether they’ve ever abused controlled substances, been domestically abused, been homeless. And if they say yes, more information is gathered. That information is then funneled to other state bureaucracies including immigration, customs enforcement or even criminal justice. In order to continue their Medicaid care, the women are then tracked and surveilled in demeaning ways, which Bridges calls the “poverty of privacy rights.”

And because poor people are seen as social problems, they’re situated inside a tight government net where they can be patrolled, harassed and controlled as deemed necessary. After all, where are they going to go for medical care if not government assistance? That’s the trade off. You want our help? We’ll use your data how we see fit.

Or, for further evidence, we can look to black men. It doesn’t take much research to find a startling number of examples of police harassment. According to research presented by Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, 30 percent of suspicious activity reports in Los Angeles are written on blacks – even though they make up less than 10 percent of the total population.

Besides arrests, Khan reported, there are more covert surveillance methods employed, in which housing authorities are forging partnerships with police to track movements of residents; government-subsidized cell phones are distributed and their GPS-chips used to track, and in recent years, police are instituting wartime counter-insurgency tactics used to smoke out terrorist cells in Iraq and Afghanistan to surveil black, low socioeconomic-status men.

Think about walking around your own neighborhood and having policemen watching your every move suspiciously, waiting for a reason to pull you aside for a “chat.”

We’ve all heard the Foucault reference a million times, but, it’s relevant here, too: being watched changes how you move, how you think. Forget about locking up black men. The way they are harassed and stalked creates, as Foucault described it, the prison of the mind. And that kind of policing is something black men in many neighborhoods experience every day.

And now, other communities of color or ethnicity are affected as well. If you've watched the news once since 2001, you understand what's happening to Muslim communities. 

And technology is only making surveillance easier. Between facial-recognition technology, algorithms used for “predictive policing” and, most recently, Stingrays, the watching done by the human eye historically will be and already is being done faster, easier, cheaper and en masse.

Georgetown’s Alvaro Bedoya said that, to him, “privacy is black kids being able to make mistakes without the law watching their every move.”

I like that. That’s the way I grew up. I made mistakes in my neighborhood all the time. In public. But in my public, there was even still some privacy, or at least obscurity. And I was allowed to get smarter, more mature from those mistakes rather than be forever marked by them.

As always, we’re keeping the vulnerable vulnerable. Asserting power just because we can. Because he who owns the data, who makes decisions on who has access to what based on that data, holds the power. 

And that’s why privacy pros, in this context, are so important. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the need to continue making ethics-based decisions and not just compliance-based decisions, and I can’t think of a context more worthy than the restoration of human dignity—for everyone.  

As privacy pros, you get to make decisions that have real impacts on people’s lives, though it may sometimes seem more abstract than that. Decisions like, should we even collect this data to begin with? If we do, who might own it someday? And it may seem absurd that these questions are related to social injustice and an imbalance of power, but guess what, they really are.

Maybe privacy matters more to me than I thought. 


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  • comment Xavier Le Hericy • Apr 13, 2016
    Thank you for these powerful words.  They will stay with me and certainly color my own thoughts.
  • comment Justin Furlong • Apr 13, 2016
    This article is eye opening but also misleading, it is more of a poverty issue then a race issue. The fact is that the government is not excluding whites from their studies, they are tracking everyone that applies to those programs regardless of their race. They are tracking personal information on poor people, who do not have the resources to protect their personal information.  If you conducted the same study in Kentucky or West Virginia, the result would be that people who are having their information tracked and violated are white. The  The data is shaped to fit the agenda of the conference, and may be accurate based on the studies that were presented. However, digging deeper will reveal that it is a socioeconomic issue not just a race issue.
  • comment Angelique Carson • Apr 13, 2016
    Justin, I think there's truth to that. This article specifically focuses on race as opposed to every marginalized group because that was the focus of the event I attended.
  • comment George Lyle IV • Apr 13, 2016
    Justin Furlong - 
    I rarely log into comment pages, but comments like yours absolutely frustrate me. Stories like this are not saying that these bad things only happen to Black and Brown people, it's that those minorities are disproportionally affected by them.
    Think of it this way - poor Whites are just poor; while poor minorities are poor AND discriminated against in many ways that most poor whites will never experience. At all socioeconomic levels Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be 1) pulled over by police, 2) end up in court on drug charges, and 3) spend time in jail for those charges. This is true despite Whites being, on average, MORE likely to use drugs and have drugs on their person(s).
    Please stop perpetuating this simple-minded "me too" attitude about this issues. Again, no one ever said that poor Whites aren't also struggling. Just because they weren't mentioned in this one specific article in this single corner of the internet doesn't mean they've been totally forgotten about.