From COINTELPRO to Prism: Why the Government Spies on Communities of Color
The logo of the National Security Agency hangs at the Threat Operations Center inside the NSA in the Washington suburb of Fort Meade, Maryland, on 25 January 2006.
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WASHINGTON D.C. – Revelations of a massive cyber-surveillance program targeting American citizens holds particularly chilling consequences for immigrants and communities of color. Given the history of such programs, going back to the pre-digital age, these groups have reason to fear.
Who is mined, who is profiled, and who suffers at the hands of an extensive regime of corporate and government surveillance raises issues of social and racial justice.
PRISM, the National Security Agency’s clandestine electronic surveillance program, builds on a history of similar efforts whose impacts have affected racial and ethnic minorities in disproportionate ways. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counter Intelligence Program (“COINTELPRO”), established in 1956, represents one of the forbearers of PRISM. Created at a time when political decision makers worked to promote the idea of national security in the public consciousness, the program targeted first Communist sympathizers and later domestic dissenters under a broad remit which allowed COINTELPRO to monitor and interrogate groups that threatened social order at the time.
Though COINTELPRO targeted whites and nonwhites, journalists and researchers have shown that some of the program’s most controversial—and life-threatening—targeting focused on African Americans, or what the FBI categorized as “Black Nationalist Groups.” The lion’s share of COINTELPRO targeting fell upon the Black Panther Party. The agency also targeted mainstream civil rights groups, like the NAACP, Congress for Racial Equality, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as mainstream civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Other minority groups, including those representing Arab Americans, Filipino Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, also found themselves under COINTELPRO’s watch.
Though COINTELPRO was eventually dismantled and held up as an example of overbroad, abusive exercise of government surveillance, subsequent administrations have expanded government surveillance programs, including most recently with the aid and abetment of digital technologies. Former Attorney General Ashcroft, for example, amended guidelines to permit the FBI to purchase data profiles from commercial data mining companies (e.g., Axciom) without cause for suspicion. Ashcroft’s guidelines also permitted the FBI to store such information for an indefinite amount of time.
For communities of color, this expansive, digitally enabled form of surveillance has had particular dire consequences. For example, the availability of big data has facilitated government efforts to map and monitor Arab American populations. As reported in Wired Magazine, the FBI’s analysis was extensive: it included and tracked ordinary Arab Americans, suggesting that the FBI suspected and classified all Arab Americans as potential terrorists. Moreover, as the ACLU (which was responsible for surfacing FBI mapping and monitoring documents) has argued, the commercial data purchased by the FBI and other agencies is riddled with errors, which once stored indefinitely become truth. Using a set of indicators that correlate with terrorist activities, analysts compute the likelihood that a person represents a threat to national security. That is, flawed data become part of routine analysis and reanalysis that wrongly targets individuals.
Despite the Obama Administration’s attempts to define PRISM’s consequences narrowly, it is fair to speculate that the burden will fall unfairly on communities of color. Like domestic surveillance under Ashcroft, PRISM collects electronic communications and also stores information indefinitely, a process which again risks wrongly classifying and targeting communities of color.
In fact, little is known about the parameters used to define algorithms that search PRISM data or a combination of PRISM and other commercial data. As privacy advocates have argued, characteristics that define everyday behavior of some ethnic and racial minorities –the use of cash versus credit, purchase of a pre-paid cellphone, or mobility (e.g., moving residence frequently) — may also be used as parameters to identify likely terrorist activity. Until there is greater transparency in the nature of data analysis, including the possibility to examine and assess the accuracy of the analysis of telecommunications records, email communications, and other commercial data, ethnic and racial minorities will remain at risk of discriminatory data profiling.
For now, there are three potential avenues for addressing the unique problems that government surveillance poses to communities of color. First, community members can speak up and express their concern about the overbroad nature of government surveillance and demand that decision makers scrutinize its particular effects. That means not only contacting members of Congress and urging them to reform laws like the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act and Patriot Act, but also asking them to lead a broader national conversation on surveillance, online privacy, and justice. Questions of surveillance go beyond national security; they connect to the ability of groups to define themselves as opposed to being defined by flawed algorithms, to partake in everyday transactions and routines without recrimination, and to express themselves without fear of being erroneously categorized and linked to terrorist activity.
Aside from pressuring Congress, communities of color can also explore using technology to protect themselves against undue surveillance. This entails using search engine tools like DuckDuckGo, which keep online searches anonymous, or privacy protecting plug-ins like Ghostery that prevent corporate entities from collecting and storing data about an individual surfing the Web. Increasingly, these tools are becoming more user friendly, making it easier for the ordinary individual — as opposed to a person with a programming background — to avoid being tracked and targeted.
Lastly, communities of color can connect with organizations that advocate on their behalf to begin thinking holistically about privacy and surveillance in a digital age. A holistic approach means thinking about when, how, and why to share information about oneself and one’s community. With these small steps, we can begin to reclaim our own digital reputations rather than leaving them to corporate and government data analysts.
Seeta Peña Gangadharan is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute (OTI). Her research focuses on the nature of digital inclusion, including inclusion in potentially harmful aspects of Internet adoption due to data mining, data profiling, and other facets of online surveillance and privacy.