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From COINTELPRO to PRISM, spying on communities of color

Seeta Pena Gangadharan | 7/10/2013, 10:59 a.m.

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 cell phone or mobility (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, e-mail 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.