Why Surveillance Matters (to All of Us)

The current debate in Congress over whether to allow Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act to expire has revived the interest of many in the question of surveillance reform. This is, of course, an important national conversation to have, as we have seen that bulk electronic surveillance programs—like those operated under Section 215—are ineffective, illegal, and contrary to fundamental constitutional values.

But if we are going to discuss surveillance reform in this nation, we should not limit this conversation to include only those programs designed to collect data by tapping the Internet, collecting cell phone metadata, and other technological means, such as those revealed by Ed Snowden in 2013. Rather, it is critical that we acknowledge the pervasive, low-tech surveillance programs that have lived on for decades in the service of more pedestrian goals like social services, public health, and public safety. Poor and minority populations have long been subject to levels of state scrutiny that populations with greater wealth and power would not tolerate. To ignore these programs and their effects by calling it something other than what it is—surveillance—we do a great disservice to our fellow citizens and ourselves.

A recent study conducted by the ACLU discovered that Black people in Minneapolis are 8.7 times more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses than white people, and Native Americans were 8.6 times more likely to be arrested than white people for these same offenses. The report does a nice job of analyzing this disparity, looking at factors such as relative wealth and de facto racial segregation, but a significant portion of the problem can be attributed to the system of structural surveillance that has been accreting over decades, and rapidly expanded via the war on drugs and the rise of broken windows policing.

These programs are often invisible to wealthier, more powerful segments of the population, not because they are state secrets (like the programs revealed by Snowden), but because these populations are not the objects of these programs. The ACLU report noted that white people simply hanging out were often ignored by police, while Black people were often arrested for “loitering" or “lurking” with the intent to commit a narcotics offense. Since this offense does not require the officer to actually find narcotics on the arrestee’s person, police patrols have a great deal of discretion when arresting and charging with this offense. The ACLU study showed that Blacks were over 25 times more likely to be arrested for this offense than whites. The structural surveillance system is in place and functioning, but filters out certain segments of the population.

The ACLU study is just one among many that clearly demonstrate the existence of a structural surveillance system that, while ubiquitous, targets only certain segments of the population, often those with little or no power to stop it. Any national conversation about surveillance reform is incomplete without addressing all forms of surveillance—high tech, low tech, and no tech. To ignore the problem is a tacit approval of the increased calcification of structural surveillance, adding new layers. So you think you have nothing to hide? Someday, one of those new layers may include you.


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