Government Surveillance: Not All Communities Are Treated Equal

The problem of pervasive surveillance technologies drums up passionate defenses of individual freedom and civil liberties, but what about collective rights?

Organizers on the frontlines of social justice battles–from immigrant rights to criminal justice, from economic justice to communication rights–met on September 27, 2013, at the New America Foundation (NAF) in Washington, DC, to dig into this question during a private roundtable gathering cohosted by NAF’s Open Technology Institute and the Center for Media Justice.

Throughout the day, roundtable participants drilled down on definitions of surveillance and its effects on low-income communities, communities of color, immigrants, Indigenous peoples, political dissidents and political organizers in these communities. Seen through the lens of discrimination, surveillance is about control and power, and it affects entire groups, tearing families apart, displacing social networks, while creating a culture of fear and isolation, and an inextricable shadow of suspicion.

Surveillance has tangible, immediate consequences. Its occurrence is not abstract. People lose their jobs, are deported, and are incarcerated.
Seeta Gangadharan
Surveillance has tangible, immediate consequences. Its occurrence is not abstract. People lose their jobs, are deported, and are incarcerated. Surveillance happens on a routine basis in a physical way, impairing the physical movements of people, including on the streets of their own neighborhoods.

Related, roundtable participants stressed the importance of identifying the human experience of surveillance, rather than starting with what technologies of surveillance do. Details on data collection, storage, sharing, and analysis can be excessively technical and conceal the real harms that different communities face.

In a lunchtime session with privacy policy advocates, participants discussed the distance between the privacy and social justice worlds. Surveillance affects all types of people, privacy advocates (typically civil libertarians) and social justice activists included. But from the perspective of organizing, these two worlds do not always work with reciprocity.

Take for example an immigration rights activist who might take interest in the privacy problems of E-Verify, an electronic database designed to verify individuals’ legal status, but find it de-prioritized as a cross-sector coalition pushes for broader immigration reform.

Or another example: privacy advocates might back off from supporting a women’s rights organization that advocates for curbs of hate speech online, because such curbs call for the identification of otherwise anonymous speakers.

Policy advocates and organizers also agreed that though members of historically marginalized communities feel the consequences of a surveillance state to a greater degree than other populations, there is a lack of consensus on when and how stories of harm are collected and shared. Affected communities often need to speak for themselves and connect their experiences to a longer history of struggle. They also need to propose solutions that make sense to their particular contexts versus being told what’s right for them.

This event marked one of the first conversations to connect the privacy and surveillance concerns raised in the wake of revelations of the PRISM program, a massive government surveillance program of electronic communications, to impacts on historically marginalized communities.  The event built upon earlier dialogues that have taken place within particular issue areas and attempted to reach across social justice movements and coalesce common concerns. Groups like those represented in the room will take these conversations forward. As the unfair consequences of a surveillance state become more apparent, privacy’s social justice stakes will not be ignored.

This article was originally authored by Seeta Gangadharan and published by the New America Foundation on October 22, 2013.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Kodda