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Targeted Surveillance, Civil Rights, and the Fight for Democracy

On October 13th 2015, CMJ Director Malkia Cyril gave a lunch keynote address at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference. The original speech transcript is below.


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Go to 5:00 to watch Malkia’s speech.

Thank you. I am honored to be here. I am honored to represent those who, too often, aren’t called to this table, aren’t heard in these halls.

I’m talking about he 450,000 migrants in U.S. detention centers. The 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. The 9 million under the control of the justice system. I am talking about the 883 people killed by police this year.  I am here for people like my Uncle Kamou Sadiki, a former Black Panther who will spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit. People like my mom, Janet Cyril, also a Black Panther, who faced the FBI head on when they burst into our house and demanded she testify against the San Francisco 8 in a secret court proceeding. She said no, and died two weeks later from sickle cell anemia. I’m here for Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, whose Black bodies were murdered on video, and still incited zero police accountability. I am here for the thousands who have taken to the streets in the name of Black Lives Matter. I’m here for the 200 organizations of the Media Action Grassroots Network. I am honored to speak for them. Martin Luther King said in 1958, everything we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see. I hope I am a long shadow.

I’m especially grateful to speak with you today, because we are on the precipice of an outstanding political moment. A moment when migrant activists have put their bodies on the line to block deportation buses; when a movement for Black Lives has taken to the streets led in large measure by women, queer people, the disabled, and those whose voices are usually ousted from the collective practice of democracy. A moment like 1963, when in all parts of this country, attacks on Black bodies by white police officers and vigilantes went unaccounted for, despite being in full view of a historically divided public.

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

1963, when the U.S waged a seemingly never-ending war halfway across the world for a democracy we could not taste, touch or see right here at home. 1963, when widespread outrage over these epic inconsistencies between the story of America and her truth transformed into a civil rights movement. We are living in that kind of moment today. We know what this moment looks like, because we’ve lived through it before as a nation. We know that moments like these don’t come often, and while it’s hot right now, they don’t stay.

So, we have some tough decisions to make.  The decentralized power of the Internet has made much of this moment possible. But I ask myself, will the technology serve a future of equity and democracy? Will it fuel a new era of civil action, a renaissance of human rights? Or will it drive a widening wealth gap, a more militarized state, a political economy characterized by structural inequality and persistent discrimination?

I submit that the answer to that question is up to you. Look around, see who is and who is not in this room.

On the one hand, this digital age and era of big data holds extraordinary promise for all of us. It allows us to reach into parts of the world we never could before, learn in seconds what might have taken months or years. But, while these technological advances may speed and ease what this nation and economy can do, the issue at hand is what we will do.

For Black people to move about the streets safely in 1700’s America, we needed a pass. That was the surveillance technology of that time. A white person had to vouch for you, and every white person was deputized to enforce that system. I do not want you to vouch for me today, I vouch for myself. In the 21st century, almost two thirds of incarcerated people and those under the control of the justice system are racial and ethnic minorities. Over 40% of us are Black. We live on databases, in ankle bracelets, between checkpoints. This did not start with the NSA revelations and it will not end with policies that limit the NSA, this is embedded into the structure of this nation– we need more. Today, we have some new technology doing some very old work.

Here’s the thing. Technology can only serve democracy to the degree that it is democratized. People like me have always been watched. The only difference is the tool, and the time.

It was August, 2013. A man, Jimmy Barraza, a migrant worker in New Orleans, was unloading a carful of groceries when agents pulled up with pistols drawn, handcuffing him as well as his teenage son, a United States citizen.  It was a typical random raid. The probable cause? He was Latino. A mobile fingerprint check of Mr. Barraza, who is also Honduran, revealed an old court order for his deportation. A judge said the ends justified the means. I disagree. I say, not in my name. We have some tough choices to make.

Will we be a nation that uses the Internet to bypass existing legal protections and facilitate mass deportation? That uses sound technology to clear protestors from the streets? Uses federally funded drones to spy on Muslim American communities with neither their consent nor probable cause? Will our right to record police officers in the commission of their duties be consistently violated with threats, arrests, and illegal searches, and by the law itself in places like Texas? How much longer will the communities I speak for here today live scanned, tracked, and traced?

Cause that’s how we live today. That’s what migrant and Muslim communities are living with. That’s what Black people and all those disadvantaged by mass incarceration are living with. That’s what those working at or below the minimum wage are living with. That’s what the movement for Black lives is living with. That’s how I grew up. It’s why I am here today.  Because the Internet and the movement for civil rights and racial justice have grown up together—and privacy is not the fight we’ve been called to.

The fourth amendment, for us, is not and has never been about privacy, per se. It’s about sovereignty. It’s about power. It’s about democracy. It’s about the historic and present day overreach of governments and corporations into our lives, in order to facilitate discrimination and disadvantage for the purposes of control; for profit. Privacy, per se, is not the fight we are called to. We are called to this question of defending real democracy, not to this distinction between mass surveillance and targeted surveillance. I  know people like to claim a difference, but that’s a distinction being made for us by those who would seek to continue this notion that there are those less than human, whose rights should not prevail in a court of law, for whom the constitution should not equally apply.

But there is no true distinction.  When all or part of a society is surveilled, outside of the scope of a specific investigation and with neither transparency nor legal parameters, without protections of any kind, that is mass surveillance.  Spying on Black people who live in Bed-Stuy because we are Black and live in Bed-Stuy, Muslim communities in New York is mass surveillance. Spying on entire neighborhoods in Los Angeles because gangs exist there, is mass surveillance.  Spying on migrants in New Mexico or Arizona or Louisiana is mass surveillance. Spying on low-wage workers at McDonalds and Wal-Mart, is mass surveillance.  The time for distinction between the systems that watch you and those that watch me has long passed.

Today mass incarceration and mass surveillance walk hand in hand. Mass deportation and mass surveillance walk hand in hand.  Economic inequality and mass surveillance walk hand in hand. Yet, the movements built to solve these problems do not. They remain fractured.

Family, we have some tough decisions to make. Will the Internet and its digital derivatives be the most democratic communications system the world has ever known? Or will it be the greatest legal facilitator of inequity in the 21st century? Whether the Internet disrupts the status quo or reinforces it depends on us.

Last year, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said 2015 would be the year of technology for law enforcement. And indeed, it has been. Predictive policing has taken hold as the big brother of broken windows policing. Total information awareness has become the goal. Across the country, local police departments are working with federal law enforcement agencies to use advanced technological tools and data analysis to “pre-empt crime”. I have never seen anyone able to pre-empt crime, but I appreciate the arrogance that suggests you can tell the future in that way. I wish, instead, technologists would attempt to pre-empt poverty. Instead, algorithms. Instead, automation. In the name of community safety and national security we are now relying on algorithms to mete out sentences, determine city budgets, and automate public decision-making without any public input. That sounds familiar too. It sounds like Black codes. Like Jim Crow. Like 1963.

What does that mean for the rising tide of civic action emerging from all corners of the nation today? It means that our democracy, just like our bodies, are under direct attack by the technology we love. The technology I fought hard for during the ongoing battle for net neutrality. The technology I continue to fight  to ensure low-income access to as we battle to expand the Universal Service Lifeline program. I believe in the Internet. But I don’t control it. Someone else does.

We need a new civil rights act for the era of big data, and we need it now.

No more piecemeal approaches. No more federal bills that leave people like me out. Without this level of rigorous constitutional protection, it means the 21st century will supplement 1963’s informants with 2016’s facial recognition software. It means there may be no telephone truck outside of my house reminding us that Ma Bell and Cointelpro are in cahoots- instead it will be AT&T, Verizon, Sprint in partnership with law enforcement. There will be Stingray cell phone interceptors, fusion centers to share information, biometric scanning software, license plate readers, and yes, body worn cameras. And as I, a proud member of the Black Lives Matter Network, attempt to organize to save my life in my city, will not know who is watching me, why, or what I can do about it.

I will be my mother again, in 1963. But we can prevent that from happening.

At my mother’s funeral in 2005, my uncle Jamal Joseph, one of the Panther Party’s youngest members talked about J. Edgar Hoover’s targeted attack against Black communities. He reminded us that files obtained during a break in at an FBI office in 1971 revealed that African Americans, Hoovers largest targeted group, didn’t have to be perceived as dissident to warrant surveillance.  They just had to be Black. Not much has changed, today.

Speaking of surveillance, my niece sent me a quote on Facebook that said, “War is when the government tells you who your enemy is. Revolution is when you decide for yourself.” Surveillance has always been used to define our enemy for us, both foreign and domestic. To create racialized profiles that would determine who has access to the state, to its resources and its protection, based on “empirical observation”. The point of surveillance at this level is not simply to invade our privacy, but to carry out the primary economic and social objectives of both state and economy, which too often are at odds with our own, at odds with human rights and the course of humanity. It’s time to revolt and reject the use of technology to uphold the caste system in this country.

MLK said, “Everything we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.” I’ve always wondered what he meant by that. Though the iconic civil rights leader spoke those words in 1958, almost 60 years ago, they are no less true in today’s digital age, when inequality is driven by an information economy whose Black codes and Jim Crow laws are coded in 1’s and 0’s; automated and hidden from view, but no less of a yoke around the neck, no less a warrantless search of the selves I carry in my cell phone, my computer; no less discriminatory and dangerous today.

But thank goodness there are victories. In L.A. my colleagues at the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition are fighting against the use of suspicious activities reports and drones. The ACLU and others just won the passage of an unprecedented Electronic Privacy Act by California’s Governor Brown. The national online civil rights group is making FOIA requests right now to shed light on the secret surveillance of Black Lives Matter by law enforcement agencies.

We are fighting back; because we are 1963, we are 2016. We are the culture jedi of the 21st century, armed with our bits and our bytes and our love and our humanity. We are a rising tide, and we will rise again and again and again until we win. Thank you.

About the Author

Malkia A. Cyril is co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice (CMJ). For more than 20 years, Malkia has organized social justice coalitions, resources, and advocacy for media rights, access, and representation across the United States. You can follow Malkia on Twitter @CultureJedi

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