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The Walls Have Ears: Digital Dragnet

from the April 21, 2021 Bulletin

technology border militarization surveillance ICE


Earlier this month, Jacinta Gonzalez of the economic and social justice group Mijente moderated an engaging online discussion that elicited questions from a wide range of activists about how we can push back against the expanding use of surveillance technologies — against migrants first and foremost, but also against us all as well. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar offered commentary throughout this bilingual Digital Dragnet program, and we’ve excerpted below the insights she and other contributors shared.


Representative Ilhan Omar: ICE — the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — used to rely on collusion with various police departments and jails to identify, detain, and deport migrants. But more and more, it is using surveillance technology and data gathering to control those coming across the border, as well as those already here. There is support for this “smart wall” from both Republicans and Democrats.


Congress must reject “solutions” that expand the carceral and surveillance states. We must advocate for immigration policy that emphasizes human responses. And we must protect civil liberties as the bedrock of democracy.


Norma Herrea, Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice: The borderlands have become a hyper-militarized zone. On a recent nature walk, we were stopped and questioned by five different law enforcement agencies within twenty minutes! And greater surveillance by drones and other equipment has forced migrants to take more dangerous routes, causing more deaths. Biden has signed new contracts with surveillance companies.


What can be done to reverse this trend?


Rep. Omar: In the negotiations around the proposed “US Citizenship Act,” some of us are pushing for investment in border communities so people aren’t living in a police state. We also can influence foreign policy not just in Central America, but globally, to address the root causes of migration.


Naomi Klein, The Intercept: The Biden administration has a contract with Clearview AI, a facial recognition corporation that already contracts with 3,400 law enforcement agencies across the country. A new biometric database, HART, is being created by military contractor Northrup-Grumman with a price tag of $4 billion.


Can the federal government be stopped from creating massive databases like this?


Rep. Omar: Our country was not founded on the idea that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of.” It was founded on the principle that the authorities must have good reason to search or seize our property or our information. The biometrics industry is not regulated. That’s why it’s exploded. Mining and selling data has become the new oil! We need to enforce antitrust law and set limits on what these companies can collect. And, yes, the legislative branch can stop the creation of massive new databases and can conduct oversight over surveillance contracts. Congress must become the check on executive power.


Cat Brooks, Anti-Police Terror Project: In the Black Lives Matter movement, increased surveillance has resulted in retaliation against activists. And “data-driven policing” also means more surveillance on communities of color. The data allegedly show people in these communities more “prone to crime.” Third parties like utility companies and the credit reporting agency Equifax, meanwhile, are selling all sorts of information to the police. The media/legal conglomerate Thomson Reuters is apparently selling to police the same data they sell to law schools about the myriad cases they have in their data banks.


How can this increased surveillance be stopped?


Rep. Omar: Buying data has allowed the police to get information without a search warrant, violating “search and seizure” protections. Other countries have rules about who owns our personal data. Some don’t allow third parties to sell your information without paying you for it, or without your informed consent.


Tara Houska, Giniw Collective: At Standing Rock we didn’t just suffer physical attacks. Custom and Border Patrol agents surveilled anti-pipeline protesters.


What safeguards would help indigenous people struggling to protect their land?


Rep. Omar: Flight records of Custom and Border Patrol drones confirm that this agency was surveilling Native American protests and the homes of activists. It’s so ironic since these are the people farthest from being immigrants! This activity falls totally outside of CBP’s mandated activities, and we must monitor the agency closely.


Dominique Diaadigo-Cash, community organizer: We also face low-tech “soft" surveillance embedded in social services and nonprofit organizations. “Violence prevention” programs have targeted Muslim communities, even though white supremacists have conducted the most violent extremist acts.


Rep. Omar: Many of these programs take place in schools. Religious leaders and teachers have been enlisted to identify young people allegedly at-risk for extremism. These “soft” programs show no evidence of success. They should be done away with!


Get involved in stopping the digital dragnet. Find out how at NoTechForICE.com!

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