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Addressing unjust US surveillance policies

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As the new administration’s rhetoric around maintaining public safety reaches a fever pitch, cutting-edge surveillance technologies are being rolled out and used on the American public — often without the public’s knowledge or consent, and often without judicial authorization.

With the Supreme Court allowing parts of President Trump’s Muslim ban to go into effect, Attorney General Sessions removing oversight of local police and expanding prosecution of immigrants, the expansion of a virtual border is widening and its targets — indigenous groups, communities of color and immigrant communities — are narrowing. But members of Congress hold the power to put a halt to this — or at least enact significant reforms to existing surveillance policies.

Last month, The Detroit News revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents went to the lengths of using a cell phone tower simulator known as a “stingray” device in its pursuit of a 23-year-old restaurant worker, Rudy Carcamo-Carranza. The tool pretends to be a cell tower and compels every cell phone in range to connect to it, allowing potential interception of text messages, emails, call contents and the location of phones themselves. The deploying of the invasive technique marks an expansion of its use to broaden and quicken Trump’s deportation crackdown. As a result of the high-tech capture, Carcamo-Carranza could face up to 10 years in prison.

While President Obama’s own deportation efforts earned him the title of “Deporter-in-Chief” — despite programs such as deferred action for childhood arrivals and the use of discretion in enforcement — ICE enforcement is unchained in comparison under Trump. The number of people detained by deportation agents has risen 40 percent in the first months of the new regime, while the amount of discretion used in who it is pursuing has dropped to virtually zero.

Despite any pretext of public safety, in the hands of discriminatory law enforcement and Trump’s mass deportation force, the increasing sophistication of the mechanisms by which human beings are targeted and found for jailing or removing from the country signifies the increased efficiency of government in targeting our communities regardless of the dreams, goals, flaws and families relying on the people caught.

Recent history shows other overreach of advanced technology on communities of color and indigenous groups. In August of last year, civil rights organizations, including the Center for Media Justice, filed a legal complaint that revealed that the Baltimore Police Department was deploying stingray devices almost exclusively in black neighborhoods.

The Intercept recently dropped a bombshell story that confirmed much of what the protestors at Standing Rock, known as water protectors, had suspected. At the request of Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access pipeline, a private security firm worked with local, state and federal law officials to surveil protestors and attempt to squelch the #NoDAPL movement with tools originally developed as counterterrorism and wartime tactics. The implications of law enforcement colluding with private companies to chill democratic dissent are damning and far-reaching.

Last month, community leaders, technologists, legal experts and policymakers from across the country formed a delegation that arrived in the nation’s capitol to discuss the increased surveillance of immigrants in the U.S. under the Trump administration and to ask Congress the following questions:

  • What will it take to secure civil rights protections for the American public as a whole?
  • What does it mean for us as a country when war technologies and counterterrorism tools are used against its own citizens and the people who come to the country seeking economic opportunity and refuge?
  • What does it mean for us as a country when the movements of those most vulnerable are surveilled and monitored simply because they were not born here?

Staffers for Senator Ron Wyden, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Al Franken and Representative Justin Amash each received a delegation in their offices and heard the group’s concerns as each delegate took turns relaying the realities of increased surveillance in their mostly immigrant and Muslim communities. Representative Keith Ellison himself met with us as he observed Ramadan and made a commitment to resist surveillance technologies in our communities.

Members of Congress should be taking active steps to prevent these spying and wartime technologies from being used against the communities they represent. And all of us must start asking more questions about what our government is doing, especially under the direction of those currently in charge.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin