The Skewed Narrative of Mass Surveillance

Ilana Ullman is one of the ten 2016 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2016 Milton Wolf Seminar, an annual event co-organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies, the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and the American Austrian Foundation. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2016 Seminar discussions.

The 2016 Milton Wolf Seminar, titled “The Paris Effect: Journalism, Diplomacy, and Information Controls” focused largely on the effects of terrorist activities, such as the November 2015 Paris attacks, on “countering violent extremism” (CVE) efforts and state attempts to control media and internet systems. As was correctly pointed out during the seminar, the “Paris Effect” could unfortunately just as easily be labeled the Beirut, Lahore, Brussels, or Istanbul Effect, among others. With this caveat in mind, one apparent broader result of the “Paris Effect” has been the enactment of substantial national security legislation. Following the January 2015 terrorist attacks targeting the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, the French government passed a bill granting itself new surveillance powers, which the United Nations Human Rights Council described as “excessively broad”. In the wake of the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, states including Belgium, Poland, and Hungary were also quick to propose new bills granting their respective governments additional national security powers.

During the seminar, one participant was skeptical that France’s legislation had a significant impact on civil liberties and media freedom, while others disagreed. But how exactly can the media, and more broadly, society, accurately gauge the impact of surveillance?


The Current Narrative of Mass Surveillance

“Narrative”—the word and concept—dominated much of the seminar discussion, beginning with the very first session, entitled “Narratives of Global Conflict and Negotiation Post Paris.” Much of the recent debate about surveillance has been shaped by the 2013 revelations by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden. Competing narratives of mass surveillance, therefore, have been largely focused on the “Five Eyes” countries–the multinational intelligence alliance comprised of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand–and their electronic surveillance programs that Snowden exposed. This narrative is often reduced to a polarized conflict—liberty vs. security, hackers vs. spies, the NSA vs. Snowden, or the Five Eyes intelligence agencies vs. internet users everywhere.

Though the scope of these surveillance programs is in itself concerning, the reductive narrative of a polarized conflict is fundamentally skewed, as it tends to obscure a key point: mass surveillance does not target or affect all people equally. In fact, from Uganda’s LGBT community to Iran’s Baha’i community, pervasive surveillance, often under the pretext of “national security,” has almost invariably had a differential impact on already-marginalized groups. Throughout history, and in a variety of different contexts, government surveillance has disproportionately targeted minority populations, including ethnic and religious minorities.


Tibetans, Uyghurs, and China

The Chinese government is known for its tight control over the internet. China is a perennial offender on Reporters Without Borders’ annual “Enemies of the Internet” list; and Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report routinely classifies it as “Not Free.” But in addition to the “Great Firewall” and the censorship and surveillance written into Chinese software programs, surveillance measures are particularly intense and intrusive in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) research, this has included “questioning them [Tibetans] about their political and religious views, subjecting thousands to political indoctrination, establishing partisan security units to monitor behavior, and collecting information that could lead to detention or other punishment.” HRW’s China director, Sophie Richardson summarized, “The Chinese government’s decision to extend its Tibet surveillance program indefinitely is nothing less than a continuous human rights violation. The new normal is one of permanent surveillance of Tibetans.”

Chinese surveillance of Tibetans also extends beyond the geographic borders of Tibet. The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has documented many instances of hacking and phishing attempts targeting Tibetan leaders and organizations in the diaspora. While many of these attacks are not necessarily advanced from a technical standpoint, they have displayed a sophisticated understanding of social engineering, and have also evolved and changed tactics in efforts to thwart Tibetan digital security education campaigns.

Xinjiang, also known as East Turkestan, is a province in Western China home to China’s Uyghur population, a Turkic ethnic group, the majority of whom are Muslim. Danny O’Brien, International Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, referred to Xinjiang as “the world’s laboratory for Internet repression.” Shortly after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the New York Times reported that local police in Xinjiang shut down mobile phone service for residents using measures to evade surveillance, such as virtual private networks (VPNs) or not linking their identification to their accounts.

According to Reuters, Uyghurs living in exile have been subjected to a “global campaign of intelligence gathering and harassment” from the Chinese government, aimed at fracturing the community and destabilizing its leaders. In a 2011 court case in Munich, which hosts a large Uyghur diaspora community, three Chinese men received suspended sentences for spying on behalf of the Chinese government. According to court records, one suspect “regularly reported to his intelligence service contact person – by telephone or in personal meetings – on planned Uighur demonstrations and events. He also passed on information about Uighur exiles and the WUC [World Uyghur Congress].”

However, while Chinese government surveillance of Tibetans and Uyghurs may be an extreme version of surveillance targeting marginalized communities, this practice is by no means limited to China.


Civil Rights Activists, American Muslims, and the United States

During the 1950s and 1960s, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) counter intelligence program called COINTELPRO targeted individuals and leaders in a variety of civil rights organizations, ranging from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to the Black Panther Party, with invasive and illegal surveillance. The FBI wiretapped Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s phones, bugged his hotel rooms, and conducted physical surveillance of his movements. William Sullivan, one of Hoover’s deputies, sent Dr. King an anonymous letter threatening to expose his “immoral conduct” and using somewhat vague, but ominous, language that seemingly encouraged him to commit suicide. This was one of the main factors that led to intelligence sector reform initiatives like the 1975 Church Committee, and it continues to have ramifications for the agency well into the twenty-first century. In 2013, FBI Director James Comey implemented a policy requiring all new agents and analysts to visit the monument to Dr. King in Washington, DC, explaining, “It will serve as a different kind of lesson—one more personal to the bureau—of the dangers of becoming untethered to oversight and accountability.” However, just how far this lesson has permeated remains to be seen.

The Intercept reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) conducted social media surveillance of the Black Lives Matter movement’s activity beginning with protests in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, and that undercover officers attended protests in New York and monitored individual activists. According to documents obtained by VICE News through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, DHS monitored social media accounts belonging to prominent activist and recent Baltimore Mayoral Candidate, DeRay Mckesson, referring to him as a “professional protester” who is “known to law enforcement.”

During the protests and unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, the FBI conducted multiple surveillance flights, mostly at night. This was only revealed to the public after local aviation enthusiasts noticed unusual aircraft flying overhead and discovered multiple similar flight patterns in publicly available flight data during the same time period as the protests. In documents responding to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) FOIA request, the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) disclosed they had logged 36.2 flight hours, during which they conducted video surveillance and “other electronic surveillance.”

According to the ACLU, since at least 2002, the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division has engaged in surveillance of mosques and Muslim individuals, student groups, businesses, and communities. Targets were largely located in neighborhoods mapped by the NYPD in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, with high concentrations of “ancestries of interest,” which included “American Black Muslim,” along with 28 countries, the majority of which were Muslim. Plainclothes police officers, known as “rakers,” infiltrated target locations, eavesdropping on conversations, logging individuals who attended meetings and services, and “baiting” individuals into making statements about terrorism. Following the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, then-Republican Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz suggested reviving the program, which he claimed was dismantled due to “political correctness,” and deploying it in cities throughout the US. In reality, in addition to raising numerous civil liberties concerns, the program was also ineffective: during its entire six years, the program yielded no new leads or cases.


Gauging the Differential Impact of Surveillance

The differential impact of surveillance can be difficult to measure because one of its effects—self-censorship—is largely invisible. A recent study by communication professor Elizabeth Stoycheff examined the potential “chilling effect” that the NSA surveillance revelations have had on Americans’ willingness to voice opinions online. A randomly selected subset of study participants was first shown a “terms of agreement” statement intended as a subtle reminder that their online actions were subject to US government surveillance. They, along with all study participants, were then shown a fictional Facebook news post about US airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. Participants were then asked to indicate their willingness to voice an opinion on this issue, how they believed other Americans felt on this topic, and the extent to which they believed online surveillance is justified. The study concluded that a chilling effect was present among participants in the treatment group who believed their opinions differed from those held by the majority of Americans and those who felt surveillance programs are necessary for national security. In subsequent analysis, Stoycheff also found evidence of similar self-censorship among racial and ethnic minorities. In sum, the study found that those in the minority—both demographically and in terms of public opinion—were more likely to self-censor.

The differential effects of national security policies are, of course, not confined to surveillance activities alone. During the session “Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication,” one participant raised an example from Turkey, where in August 2015, the Turkish government arrested three VICE journalists and accused them of working on behalf of a terrorist organization. Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, both UK citizens, were released after eleven days. Their Iraqi Kurdish colleague, Mohammed Rasool, remained behind bars until he was finally released on bail in January 2016 following significant international pressure. Unlike Hanrahan and Pendlebury, who returned to the UK, Rasool was not permitted to leave Turkey and was ordered to report biweekly to a police station.

With the NSA revelations leaked by Edward Snowden, the subject of surveillance reform has resurfaced in mainstream US public debate. This debate, however, has neglected to address adequately how marginalized communities in particular can be, and have been, subjected to abuses of surveillance powers. Even the bulk of this discussion has itself excluded minorities. As one illustration, an analysis of 13 high-level discussions and hearings on encryption, a key issue within the surveillance debate, revealed that 75% of speakers were white men, 15% were white women, and only 10% were people of color.

While recent terrorist attacks have certainly underscored the urgency and importance of national security, hastily written and overly broad national security legislation remains cause for serious concern. For governments as well as human rights watchdogs in the media and elsewhere in civil society, an essential aspect of providing adequate oversight of national security powers involves ensuring that these programs are not misused to target specific communities. An important initial step in this process is to change the skewed narrative of mass surveillance by amplifying and incorporating a greater number of diverse perspectives in broader public conversations about the impact of mass surveillance and throughout the policy creation and reform processes. Without a common understanding that not all are surveilled equally, “the Paris Effect” will likely include new systems of mass surveillance that will continue to disproportionately target society’s most vulnerable groups.



IullmanIlana Ullman is a Master’s student at Central European University, studying Public Policy with a specialization in Media, Information, and Communications Policy. Her background involves the intersection between human rights and information and communications technology. Her research focuses on the impact of national security and law enforcement policy on free expression and privacy, particularly for journalists, activists, and members of marginalized communities. She is writing her thesis on surveillance of the Baltimore protests after the death of Freddie Gray and its significance within the broader debate around US government surveillance. Previously, she worked in the Global Internet Freedom program at Freedom House, where she focused on internet governance issues, led digital security trainings, and provided support for projects promoting and protecting human rights online. She holds a BA in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland, College Park. She can be found on Twitter @ilana_u.


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