Privacy SOS

The recent dramatic expansion of intelligence collection at the federal, state and local level raises profound civil liberties concerns regarding individual privacy and other freedoms and protections we used to take for granted.

No one who has a bank account and makes a financial transaction, or uses a phone or a computer to send emails or browse websites, or who visits a library, books a rental car or purchases an airline ticket is outside the net of surveillance. The profiles that have been compiled on you by commercial data brokers might well have found their way into government databases, errors and all. If you are a student, your educational records might have been given to the government. If you don’t “look American” and are traveling on a bus or train in the large areas of the country that have become a Constitution-Free Zone, you may be forced to show proof of citizenship or risk being detained as a threat to the homeland.

If you are not a newcomer, you may be unaware of how much things have changed for tens of millions of people who are. In the past, people who overstayed their visas or were out of status for other reasons – which often included the failure of the immigration service to process paperwork in a timely fashion – were rarely put in detention, but usually allowed to leave the county voluntarily. 
In the aftermath of 9/11, the notion that anyone who crossed our borders could be bent on doing us harm has fed a rising xenophobia and made the nation a less welcoming place. As Congress failed to reform the immigration system to open a path to citizenship for long-term residents who lacked legal status, the federal government focused its resources on enforcement. Over the decade, the cost of “securing” the Mexican border rose to $90 billion. In many localities, police worked alongside ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials to realize the goal of the immigration bureau’s Operation Endgame: to find and deport all “removable aliens” by 2012. 
As that year approached, nearly 400,000 people were being deported each year. They had often been detained in harsh conditions that made it difficult for them to communicate with the outside world, mount a legal defense, secure adequate medical treatment or even to be located by their families. 
The “zero tolerance” enforcement of immigration rules, the implementation of new deportation programs like the misleadingly named ‘Secure Communities’ and the anti-immigrant initiatives undertaken by many towns and state legislatures have made the self-proclaimed “Nation of Immigrants” a minefield for non citizens, both documented and undocumented.
Targeting immigrants as if they are an “enemy” has strained the social fabric and contributed to a climate of fear and polarization. You may feel this is the price “they” must pay in order to keep “us” safe – without realizing the broader implications of database surveillance programs like ‘Secure Communities’ and ‘E-Verify’ that are initially aimed at non citizens, but soon have an impact on everyone.

You may feel that you have nothing to hide since you haven’t done anything wrong. It is unlikely that eight-year-old Mikey Hicks has done anything to earn government suspicion, but he has endured extra screening at airports for the last six years. The government’s terrorism watchlist contains well over a million names. We don’t know much about the process used to add 1,600 people to the watchlist on a daily basis. We do know that the use of data mining to assemble a chain of associations and digital linkages could have serious consequences for anyone flagged by an algorithm primed to detect suspicious behavior.

You may also be in favor of Operation Tips–like programs that train people to look out for and report anything suspicious. After all, Times Square street vendors – and not the surveillance cameras that ringed the area – alerted police to the smoking van involved in a recent failed terrorist attack. But how would you react if you were the subject of an anonymous tip that led to a police investigation? Stories abound of completely innocent people being caught in the net of suspicion because of something that was seen, heard, imagined, or misconstrued, or maybe reported on the tip line out of simple malice or because it matched the criteria of a Suspicious Activity Report.

Along with human eyes, you are increasingly likely to be watched by the kind of high tech surveillance camera network that is being erected with tens of billions of dollars in DHS grants. Even Liberty, Kansas (population 95) now has a DHS-funded surveillance camera. Modern cameras are not just extremely powerful. They have the potential to be fitted with facial recognition software, eye scans, X-ray vision, radio frequency identification tags and 3-D tracking devices. The digital information they record can be immediately fed to fusion centers and law enforcement databases to enhance your personal profile. Images of your naked body can be stored in data banks compiled by full-body scanning machines, as was done in a Florida courthouse.

Are you really ready for the new surveillance society?

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.