The Cost of State Surveillance

The Cost of State Surveillance

Surveillance programs are not only damaging to their targets but ineffective in achieving their stated aims.

Illustration by Molly Crabapple

This article is one in a series of arguments on policing in our summer issue.

Following the Capitol riot, the specter of terrorism returned to U.S. public life. In January the Transportation Security Administration investigated “hundreds of names” for potential inclusion on the No Fly List. Elected officials pushed for the passage of a new domestic terrorism law. Reporters conducted eager interviews with people who work on “deradicalization,” and millions of dollars were earmarked for groups that work on combatting “domestic extremism.”

The pattern is familiar. After 9/11, many of the counterterrorism measures implemented across the United States were based on the “religious conveyer belt” theory. Supporters of this largely discredited theory imagine radicalization as a step-by-step process that begins with exposure to “extremist” ideas and ends with violent action. With this notion in mind, law enforcement agencies expanded their surveillance of Muslim communities—listening not only for criminal schemes but signs that indicated someone was becoming radicalized: giving up cigarettes, growing a beard, or the “politicization of new beliefs.” And how else to spot the signs of perfectly lawful conduct that might one day result in violent action, if not by spying on entire communities?

In 2011, the Associated Press revealed that the New York Police Department’s “Demographics Unit” was covertly spying on mosques, student groups, and Muslim-owned businesses across New York City. The news changed the lives of many Muslims. People stopped attending mosques or frequenting stores and restaurants they knew had been infiltrated. Signs went up in the offices of Muslim student associations across New York City, instructing members to never discuss politics in the space. (Surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers continues today despite the shuttering of the Demographics Unit.)

In the years that I’ve reported on the domestic toll of the War on Terror, the stories that have unsettled me the most haven’t been about people affected in manifestly harmful ways, like being prosecuted on trumped-up terrorism charges or deported without reason. What really disturbed me was learning how profoundly these surveillance practices had penetrated the most intimate spaces and inner lives of Muslim Americans.

In my reporting I spent time with a group of young women at Brooklyn College who were spied on by a female undercover police officer as part of a terrorism investigation. The cop counseled the women on their relationships; she sought their guidance on how to be a better Muslim; she even attended their weddings. The Brooklyn College students only found out that “Mel” was a cop when two Queens women were arrested on terrorism charges, for a plot in which the undercover officer played a central role. In a short documentary made a few years later, one of the former students, “R,” talked about how she tried to keep herself safe. “I won’t say certain things, I won’t hang around certain people, I won’t look a certain way, I won’t even think about certain things.”

In addition to using law enforcement to gather intelligence on Muslim communities, Western governments have also co-opted the nonprofit and social services sectors. The UK program Prevent, created in 2003, aimed to “stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism” by identifying those at risk of radicalization and providing them with “rehabilitative interventions.” As outlined in one government document, such signs may include “feelings of grievance and injustice,” “a desire for political or moral change,” and “‘Them and Us’ Thinking.” As the years have passed, Prevent has grown and gained statutory power. In 2015 legislation was passed mandating that any person employed by the public sector—which in the UK means doctors, social workers, university professors, and many others—has a legal obligation to report anyone they think could be at risk of radicalization. Since then, we’ve learned that activists who give “vocal support for Palestine” have been specifically targeted under Prevent. Children deemed to be at risk of radicalization have been removed from their homes.

These programs are not only damaging to their targets, but ineffective in achieving their stated aims. The NYPD’s Demographics Unit never generated a single lead. Only a tiny percentage of people referred under Prevent (5 percent) end up in deradicalization programming. These programs failed because the conveyor belt and similar theories fundamentally misunderstand the nature of political violence. Ideas are not viruses. They do not infect populations, or take over our bodies and minds, absent a social and political context that enables that to happen. It’s fair to say, though, that these programs are designed to operate in another way: they demonstrate the true reach of state power to assert control over communities under suspicion.

In March, the Department of Homeland Security announced it will provide $20 million in grants through the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program, a revamped version of a U.S. initiative loosely based on Prevent, with funding included for countering white-supremacist ideologies. It’s important to recognize that state surveillance has different effects on racialized communities than on those who promote far-right ideologies; the latter benefit from existing social power differentials. But even if we might feel a touch of schadenfreude imagining how these programs might operate—will a white man be flagged for buying a tiki torch, or watching too much Tucker Carlson?—it’s important to remember that one problem with these programs is they don’t work. Not only that: these programs concentrate even more money and power within the state’s surveillance apparatus and legitimize their reach into our lives.

This moment offers an important opportunity to unmake the “extremist” discourse of the past and focus on the tactics and strategies that will actually enable us to challenge white supremacy. We don’t need more funding for the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, or more experts on extremism. We don’t need to give law enforcement agencies the authority to determine which ideas are safe and which ideas are dangerous, and to police the public accordingly. What we need are political movements and community groups committed to changing our political and social realities. Law enforcement agencies have long been a menace to political movements. They are impediments to, not partners in, social change.

Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter who writes about prisons and national security, particularly as they intersect with science and social movements. She’s been published by a variety of outlets including the Guardian, the New York Times, the Intercept, and the Nation. You can follow her on Twitter @stahlidarity.