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Edward Snowden’s WikiLeaks revelations sparked widespread media attention around NSA data collection and government surveillance

Edward Snowden’s WikiLeaks revelations sparked widespread media attention around NSA data collection and government surveillance and gave a platform to privacy groups advocating for more government oversight and transparency into domestic surveillance programs.

While media reports swirled with information about recent phone data collection and sharing, there was almost no coverage about the long-standing and continued practice of justified government surveillance on entire groups of Americans based on their race, ethnicity, or religious identity. Surveillance has been a government tactic to oppress, intimidate, and criminalize entire groups of Americans, and is often done in the name of “national security.”

We must work to ensure that new technologies are not used as tools to further oppress communities.

Last month, the Capitol Area Muslim Bar Association brought together Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York, Rachel Levinson-Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice and Professor John Brittain, law professor at the University of the District of Columbia Law School. They discussed the impact discriminatory surveillance has had on African American communities, religious and racial profiling of Muslim, Arab and Middle Eastern Americans by the New York City Police Department, and the future of discriminatory surveillance as technology and access to data continues to grow.

Professor Brittain discussed government surveillance of African Americans involved in the civil rights movement. From 1965 to 1971, the FBI surveilled Black civil rights activists and leaders through its COINTELPRO “Counter Intelligence Program” program. The U.S. government tapped phones, infiltrated organizing meetings, and kept an extensive investigative FBI file on Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, we celebrate King’s work in the Civil Rights Movement but must remember that the U.S. government criminalized his work for desegregation and economic justice and labeled him a threat to national security.

In addition to civil rights leaders, the U.S. government also surveilled everyday Black Americans affiliated with the movement. In her essay, Black America’s State of Surveillance, Malkia Amala Cyril writes, “Nor is dissidence always a requirement for being subject to spying. African Americans, J. Edger Hoover’s largest target group, didn’t have to be perceived as dissident to warrant surveillance. They just had to be black.”

This fact alone, that the U.S. government warranted surveillance on American citizens solely based on their race is troubling. It emphasizes once again that when we have national conversations about privacy and surveillance, we must talk about how surveillance has been used intentionally and systematically to enforce structural racism, and suppress organizing in communities of color.

This summer, the Intercept reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been surveilling Black Lives Matter activists since August 2014. DHS has tracked Black Lives Matter social media pages and monitored protests and events, including cultural and music events.

The ACLU expressed concern over racial profiling since many of these events occur in traditionally African American communities. Just like civil rights activists a generation before, we see once again, Black Americans organizing for justice and social change on the forefront of discriminatory surveillance by the U.S. government.

Linda Sarsour is an activist and the Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York. She spoke about the intersections of surveillance in African American and Arab American, Muslim, and Middle Eastern communities and discussed the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) campaign to monitor Muslims in the New York City area.

In 2012, the Associated Press released a reportdocumenting that the NYPD engaged in religious and racial profiling when the department created a Demographics Unit designed to spy and monitor Muslims living in New York City and the surrounding area.

The NYPD infiltrated Muslim student groups, surveilled Muslim owned business, restaurants, and community organizations, going so far as to establish NYPD sponsored youth soccer and cricket teams with the intention of spying on young people who played for the teams. The NYPD’s strategy was to treat an entire population as criminal, and monitor that community. After carrying out the Demographic Unit from 2002 to 2014, the NYPD confirmed that the program had led to zero leads, and zero arrests.

Sarsour organized against the NYPD’s surveillance program and discussed how her organization, The Arab American Association of New York (AAANY), was affected by the program. AAANY runs after-school programs, offers English classes, and provides free legal and immigration services. Three years ago I worked with AAANY’s youth development program and volunteered at an ELL summer camp for elementary school students. Around that same time, the NYPD included AAANY as well as local mosques and other organizations in a “Terrorism Enterprise Investigation.” The NYPD used this label to justify secretly spying and collecting information on any individual who stepped foot into a building the department labeled “terrorism enterprises,” infringing on Constitutional rights of Muslim Americans in New York.

In addition to being ineffective, surveillance also creates tension, fear, and self-censorship within communities being monitored.

Through this investigation, the NYPD could justify surveilling any student who walked into AAANY for homework help, a mother attending an English class, an employee coming to work, or a client seeking legal advice. In her piece, Being Arab or Muslim is not probable cause for NYPD spying Sarsour wrote, “Criminalizing an entire community is not effective policing and is a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

In addition to being ineffective, surveillance also creates tension, fear, and self-censorship within communities being monitored. Sarsour recalled visiting a college MSA meeting and seeing a sign that read, “no political discussions beyond this point.” This message was not indicating that the college students were engaging in dangerous or disruptive political discussions, instead, it was an indication that these young people were well aware that the NYPD was monitoring their college group.

While college campuses should be places where young people feel free to exchange ideas and opinions openly, this is not always the case for Muslim Americans in college today who have come of age in an era of extreme Islamophobia coupled with police surveillance in their schools, mosques, local businesses, and community spaces.

At FCNL, we “seek a society with equity and justice for all.” It is troubling when we hear of young people who are fearful of engaging in self-expression, and learn of government programs that target Americans based on their race and religion. Last summer, we learned that the FBI and the NSA monitored and collected emails of Muslim-American leaders including university professors, political candidates, and lawyers.

At FCNL, we seek a society with equity and justice for all. It is troubling when we hear of young people who are fearful of engaging in self-expression, and learn of government programs that target Americans based on their race and religion.

As we move towards a world where data can easily be tracked, stored, sold, and distributed, we must work to ensure that these new technologies are not used as tools to further oppress communities. Americans from religious minorities and communities of color have been at the center of government surveillance and have been leading resistance against discriminatory surveillance for decades. It falls on all Americans who seek justice and equality to recognize this history and center voices and leadership to combat discriminatory government surveillance practices.

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