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“Surveillance Pandemic”: Tech’s Growing Involvement in Covid and Policing

“Surveillance Pandemic”: Tech’s Growing Involvement in Covid and Policing

On the 23rd of June 2020, social justice organization Mijente partnered with Vice News Motherboard to sit down with highly notable whistleblower Edward SnowdenThe Intercept’s Naomi Klein, and Motherboard’s Edward Ongweso Jr, for a conversation on the “Surveillance Pandemic.

Mijente is self-described as “a political home for Latinx and Chicanx people who seek racial, economic, gender and climate justice.” The catalyst for this conversation stems from the increased use of surveillance by tech companies sold to police departments and government agencies that directly lead to the dangerous abuse of law enforcement. Mijente has started #NoTechForICE an organization fighting against invasive technologies used to detain and deport migrants. No Tech For ICE, outlines the ways that companies such as Amazon Web Services, Palantir, Northrop Grumman, Microsoft, and Salesforce, negotiate contracts that endanger already at-risk communities that are prone to criminalization. The three panelists, mediated by Mijente’s Senior Campaign Organizer, Jacinta González, discussed the realities of surveillance in America amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

 The conversation began with a brief introduction from each panelist outlining how surveillance has come to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Klein began by outlining the invasions of privacy that were enacted in the aftermath of 9/11 in an effort to stop terrorism. Klein referred to this as “crisis opportunism,” a policy that erodes the privacy of citizens by turning various companies into “counter-terrorism companies.” These tech companies have working relationships with organizations like the NSA or ICE and tap into private data from a third party which allows for data to be misappropriated.

Edward Ongweso Jr. opened up the conversation around the relationship local police departments have with technology. He explained that there is no objective reality when it comes to technology, but rather technology reifies the racist and oppressive values of the policing system itself. Ongweso highlighted the truth behind “predictive policing” which uses data and algorithms to find areas where they believe crime is more likely to occur, victimizing minority communities and unequivocally putting Black communities at risk of police violence. Ongweso stated, “Tech and police departments have worked with each other closely because tech needs Government and police departments to provide that veneer of legitimacy.” This “legitimization of narratives” as Ongweso notes, becomes a circular dependence on the parties involved in upholding this system.

When asked his views on what new threats activists and community organizers face in this climate of surveillance, Edward Snowden recounted his own experience of realizing the media feeds us ideas of who to believe and when to feel safe. Snowden admitted that in his younger and more impressionable days he, “drank the kool aid, [I] believed the government was fundamentally good.” Over time, through various experiences, he began to see that every system is more complicated than we are led to believe, with various motivations and agendas beyond the public good. “We see the FBI as the good guys… but you have to remember that it’s that same FBI…that declared MLK Jr. the greatest national security threat in the United States two days after he gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Snowden added. He further claimed that we would “always be the enemy” in the eyes of the FBI even as citizens of this country. Snowden claimed that intelligence agencies and law enforcement have the same vocabulary when it comes to issues of stability. This mass surveillance used against protests is about power and control.

Snowden proceeded to go into detail about the logistics of surveillance from the tracking of our cellphones, to drones, to dismantling the idea that anyone, no matter how careful, could truly be exempt from surveillance. “We are all being forced to abide by rules we did not choose for ourselves,” from the microscopic font legalese agreements we accept on our iPhones to Facebook, AT&T, Google, cell towers, weather servers, and Gmail servers, we are all unknowingly agreeing to be closely monitored at all times. But what’s worse,” Snowden continued, is that we now need these devices to survive. We need them to work, to travel, to engage with others, to pay bills, etc, almost all of our actions, he explained are, “intermediated by a screen.” This gives tech companies the upper hand. Our dependence on these devices that now own us more than we own them, are turning us from subject to object and making us vulnerable to the agendas of corporations. Snowden explains how tech now determines who gets loans, how students are educated, who gets access to medical care, and ultimately access to justice. All of this is to say tech decides the “haves and have nots” of society, namely institutions versus families. These tools were designed for the war front and are now used to gain leverage against those the government is supposed to protect.

The call to action, then, is this: We must demand that the use of technology be reassessed at the highest level. We must demand that our right to privacy is put back on the agenda and prioritized, not as a luxury but as a fundamental human right. This has to start with individuals calling out companies that are misappropriating information. And we are beginning to see this happen —  over 1,600 of Google’s employees are demanding that Google cut ties with the police in an effort to protect its users. The technology that exists now is dangerous and is costing people their lives. “technologies that exist now are being seen as permanent because it exists,” said Ongweso. This should not be the case. Just because a type of technology is possible does not make it ethical or responsible on a global level. He called for a “return to luddism,” referring to the 19th-century movement amongst factory workers enraged by technology that was depriving them of employment. He drew a parallel to the luddites and modern technology saying, “they were destroying devices that were threatening their lives and their livelihood.” We are seeing the same violence take place today.

In their closing remarks, each panelist contributed a way to move forward with all of the prior information in mind. Snowden encouraged everyone to take the time while reading or watching the news to stop and ask, “Did you agree to this?” “Is this how things should be?” and strongly reflect on the ways you can make changes and speak out against oppressive powers controlling the narrative. Whether it is police brutality, surveillance, or any other type of injustice, it is crucial to take a stand. Snowden said, “It is only when we have the grossest of abuses, like George Floyd and a million, ten million, a hundred million people, who are willing to actually, not just believe it is wrong, but to stand up and show it is wrong, to go out there bodily and act against this that we are able to change things in at least a beginning way.” 

Tying the conversation back into the pandemic, Klein added how companies have taken advantage of the desires and necessity for convenience that people are facing in the midst of the crisis. Ongweso adds here that these conveniences are built on exploitation and blatantly “undemocratic tactics.” Klein comments on how the few spaces that were originally not centered around a platform but took place in person like classrooms, doctor’s offices, and social gatherings have now been mediated by technology. This extent of technological interference has been enabled because of the needs created from the pandemic. However, in a hopeful vein, Klein commented, “People have not enjoyed this — most people would still rather meet and operate in person. This is the human element that technology can and will never fill. This moment has shown an increased awareness of the injustice pervasive in society, and people are unwilling to look the other way…The thing that brought people out of their homes, was not the mall or nail salons… but was protest, was taking real risk, standing up against police barbarism and anti-blackness.”

 While technology is central to containing the Coronavirus, crucial to facilitating a work from home environment, and is often used as a tool to fight terrorism, it is increasingly used to satisfy corporate agendas and aids in the racist practices that are pervasive in this country. The largest takeaway from this conversation is the reality that there is a surveillance pandemic happening right now that affects all of us. It is our job to push back and demand reform that makes this a safer place for all. The issue of surveillance cannot be tackled by any one group but requires a united demand to reform the entire idea of privacy in this country, Snowden summarizes, “If you want to change things, you have to make the country safe, the only way to protect anyone is to protect everyone.”

 View the conversation at length here.

Click to learn more about Mijente and #NoTechForICE

Tags: Covid, Tech, culture