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To Reduce the Power of Police, We Must Protect Our Privacy

9/11’s aftermath has driven home the fact that, in an age of mass surveillance and information sharing, privacy is power.

9 11 surveillance

By Toni Smith-Thompson

In the fight for racial justice, we must protect our privacy.

Twenty years after 9/11 and the onslaught against privacy rights that followed, it’s no longer a conspiracy theory to say we are being watched and tracked nearly everywhere we go. Cameras capture our driving and walking patterns, phones track our locations and online habits, and our faces and fingerprints are digital keys to our electronic devices.

But that doesn’t mean privacy is dead. It means we must fight to take it back.  

In the past two decades since September 11th, governments have dramatically expanded the range and depth of mass surveillance. Some of our most intimate personal moments are now kept and stored indefinitely for police and other law enforcement agencies to sift through, with nearly no transparency around how information is being stored.

This invasion of privacy is justified by government claims that these intrusions into our lives are necessary to keep us safe. But evidence suggests that mass surveillance actually puts us in more danger. Nonetheless, proponents of this theory have used it to target and criminalize mostly Black and Brown communities. 

Simultaneously, cultural currents have shifted our social activities onto trackable digital systems such as social media platforms, shopping rewards programs, and mobile device apps, migrating our personal information from paper files to electronic databases. These databases, in turn, are owned by companies that sell the details of our personal lives to our government. 

Together, mass surveillance and information gathering are used by government agencies and private corporations to make determinations about our lives, our communities, and how our society is shaped. The insidious and ubiquitous nature of these systems of surveillance has led many to accept their loss of privacy as par for the course in an ever-advancing technological world.

That doesn’t mean privacy is dead. It means we must fight to take it back.

For Black and Brown people, this trade-off is particularly harmful. Racism and bias are baked into mass information gathering practices, which means people of color get subjected to disproportionate levels of surveillance and tracking. 

Law enforcement agencies track activists to their homes and intimidate them. They coerce and detain people based on their appearance, and they work with private companies to further their spying. These are just a few of the ways the erosion of privacy targets and harms people of color. 

This evisceration of privacy has real-world impacts. A NYCLU report found that 85 percent of survey respondents in heavily-policed communities in New York City actively change some things about their behavior, relationships, use of space, or schedule to avoid police surveillance. They change their appearance and their demeanor. They rearrange their social experiences, such as choosing not to visit friends and family. People also told us they negotiate their environment by changing their route to where they are going and spend less time in public space – all to avoid the police. 

Mass surveillance and information tracking has already infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives, but we can still limit the size and scope of surveillance, the types of data that’s gathered about us, and who has access to that information. Taking these steps to protect our privacy is part of the fight for racial justice.   

Part of this work requires us to destroy the myth that only those who wish to conceal wrongdoing should fear the prying eyes of the government. Privacy gives us agency over our information and our lives and limits the power of law enforcement. It allows us to think and conduct ourselves freely, without fear that law enforcement or private companies will violate the physical and electronic spaces we inhabit with our loved ones.

We need to claw back law enforcement’s often secret and virtually unchecked access to our information by exposing their hidden tactics and documenting their public activity. But we must also shift the balance of power by limiting their access to our lives.

New York can lead the way by protecting our personal information online, banning government biometric surveillance, – like facial recognition technology – and stopping the use of dragnet warrants that scoop up innocent people’s information based on broad location or keyword searches. We should also end our state law enforcement’s “Countering Violent Extremism” partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security. These racist and harmful programs wrongly and unfairly target AMEMSA communities and other people of color.

These steps can start to peel away the government surveillance powers that have become entrenched over the last 20 years, and begin to give New Yorkers their privacy back.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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Civil Liberties Union