When the FBI branded Martin Luther King Jr a “dangerous” threat to national security and began tapping his phones, it was part of a long history of spying on black activists in the United States. But the government surveillance of black bodies has never been limited to activists – in fact, according to the FBI; you only had to be black.
In the current fight between Apple and the FBI, black perspectives are largely invisible, yet black communities stand to lose big if the FBI wins. A federal judge in California is set to rule on Tuesday whether the FBI will be granted a request compelling Apple to unlock the iPhone of a San Bernardino shooter.
While seemingly about protecting national security – the same rationale used to justify 20th century surveillance of MLK, the Black Panther Party and others – this case is about much more. It could establish a legal precedent used to suppress the growing movement for black lives that is deposing public officials and disrupting the daily assault on black people in cities across the country.
Building off the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s, a 21st century movement for black lives is coming of age, mobilizing the same courageous methods of non-violent direct action, using the same local-to-local strategy, and making many of the same demands. An intersectional approach is replacing old identity politics, and a newfound digital landscape is making communication possible in more directions and at previously unimaginable speeds. The movement for black lives is attracting the brightest minds and bravest bodies. Black activists are developing new ways of grassroots organizing in an information economy.
Like its predecessors, the democratic movement for black lives has been met by anti-democratic state surveillance and anti-black police violence. New “smart” policing methods are being used by modern-day gumshoes who, fueled by the false rhetoric of black criminality, experiment with high-tech tools to the detriment of black democratic engagement.
In the 20th century, the FBI admitted to overreaching and violating the constitution when it used its counter intelligence program, COINTELPRO, for domestic surveillance that spied on black activists. Last year, FBI director James Comey admitted in a congressional committee hearing to flying spy planes that monitored protests in the wake of police killings of black people in Ferguson and Baltimore with the agency working in tandem with local police. In Chicago, home of the infamous “red squad”, police collected “First Amendment Worksheets” on black organizations such as We Charge Genocide, and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition.
There are reports from activists on the front lines of protests about police employing “kill switch” technology to cut off live-streaming, using Stingrays to intercept phone calls, or flying drones overhead for crowd control, but such claims are unconfirmed as police refuse to reveal their techniques and are not compelled by law to do so.
Twentieth century surveillance is alive and well in the 21st century, and is one powerful reason why, in a digital age and era of big data, the fight for racial justice must also include a fight for the equal and fair application of first and fourth amendment rights.
A letter was sent by some of us in the Black Lives Matter movement to California federal magistrate judge Sheri Pym, who is overseeing the Apple case, warning of the dangerous implications of siding with the FBI. It was signed by Beats, Rhymes & Relief, the Gathering for Justice, Justice League NYC, writer Shaun King, Black Lives Matter co-founder and Black Alliance for Just Immigration executive director Opal Tometi, as well as the organization I work for, the Center for Media Justice.
I signed because, as the child of a Black Panther, I grew up with the persistent threat of police spying. The police “watched” my family in the name of “safety” and “national security”, but I knew that we became targets of government surveillance because my mother advocated for black bodies abandoned and abused by state violence.
That is why the FBI case is not only against Apple, but is also against communities of color and communities of resistance. It is against democracy. It is against the black immigrant worker who has fled political persecution, the black and Latino youth putting themselves on the line to catalyze deep change, the gender non-conforming bodies subjected to daily assaults, the Muslim communities regularly targeted by bias and hate crimes. We don’t have the same protections others take for granted, we are instead treated as perpetually guilty.
Reports have surfaced that the Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring the movement for black lives since the initial uprisings in Ferguson. We know that police are watching the tweets we write, the Facebook event pages we set up, and the demonstrations we organize in the streets. If we are arrested, our phones will be confiscated. Whether or not police can look into our phones, whether or not they need a warrant, is being tested in court. This is not a vision of some distant dystopic future, this is happening right now. This is why the FBI case against Apple, is also against us.
For black communities and others pushed to the margins of political and economic power – democratic engagement and the exercise of our human and civil rights in a digital age demands the ability to encrypt our communications.
It isn’t just Black activists either – Latino activists are raising a similar rallying cry. Consider the prospect of a President Trump, who has notoriously expressed his anti-immigrant views, and sided with the FBI in its fight against Apple. With record numbers of deportations already at hand – could undocumented immigrants be rounded up using the information transmitted from their cellphones?
A newly developed open source app for iPhones called Signal, which encrypts phone calls and text messages, has become a favorite among organizers as well as Edward Snowden. It allows for free and instant encryption of messages that cannot be cracked by anybody wanting to eavesdrop. Activists across the world have adopted the app as one way to protect their right to organize.
Yet encryption technology is for more than just activists. Whether protecting from identity theft or government surveillance – all communities need to protect their data in the digital age. We cannot have a healthy democracy without everyone’s voice.
Black voices, and other voices of color, have long been missing from the debates on government surveillance – but not anymore. We’re here, and we are calling on companies to protect the rights of consumers, and on legislators to protect the rights of residents. One way to do both is to pass the Encrypt Act 2016, which would, if passed, prevent the government, or a contracted company, from altering the security functions of computers and cellphones, or decoding encrypted information, in order to conduct a search. Even now, members of congress are bizarrely moving to ban encryption at the state level using the rhetoric of terrorism and black criminality.
Encryption is necessary for black civil and human rights to prosper, but isn’t enough. While it protects our democratic right to organize for change, we must fight for a world in which those rights are not under persistent threat. The Apple v the FBI case is a test case for democracy. It will determine, for this and the next generation, who has the right to communicate, and therefore the power to define reality.
In the encryption debate, the stakes are high for black people. Indeed, we are in a fight for our lives. I believe that we will win.