From COINTELPRO to PRISM, spying on communities of color
Seeta Pena Gangadharan | 7/10/2013, 10:59 a.m.
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 first targeted 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 John Ashcroft, for example, amended guidelines to permit the FBI to purchase data profiles from commercial data mining companies, such as 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 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. In this way, flawed data becomes 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.