The federal government, along with state and local governments, spends billions of dollars every year on security and surveillance technology — in theory, to prevent things like the attack on the U.S. Capitol that happened last week. It’s sophisticated, comprehensive and creates a whole lot of privacy concerns, but it also might not be accomplishing the right things.
I spoke with Alvaro Bedoya, director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Alvaro Bedoya: Historically, surveillance technology has tracked our technology — our phone calls, our cars, our computers. And increasingly, surveillance technology tracks our bodies — who we are physically in the flesh, fingerprint, iris, DNA. But really, the big area of growth is face recognition. And so you have a [Department of Homeland Security] biometric system with a heavy reliance on face, you have an FBI face-recognition network that taps into many state driver’s-license databases. And you have, right now, a focus on tracking immigrants. That, I think, is something that we need to start to reckon with after what happened at the Capitol.
Molly Wood: Well, it’s been interesting to see, too, that there’s a debate about whether to refer to those events of January 6 as terrorism, because that activates this very specific infrastructure that has very little to do with domestic white nationalism.
Bedoya: Yeah, I think that word, “terrorism,” is used to strip people of rights in courts of law. For centuries, our country tried people for all sorts of very serious crimes, and they were tried, by and large, in courts of law that afforded them a full set of rights. But starting in the Bush administration and continuing today, the moment that this word is used, it is typically used to disenfranchise folks from a whole series of rights that they get in the court of law. I mean, whatever you call it — you had pipe bombs, you had the death of a Capitol police officer, so this is extraordinarily violent and dangerous crime — I leave it to the authorities to say what words they should use for it.
Wood: What is there to say about this huge security apparatus that you have described when, in the case of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack, it was all on the public internet?
Bedoya: Exactly. We have built a security state around the idea that immigrants are dangerous. And as you said, the reality here is that these are not the people who stormed the Capitol. And frankly, these are not the people who are dangerous. And so we’re not going to surveil our way out of a nationwide failure to reckon with white supremacy. That is something that will take years, and that will be much more difficult than running up surveillance budgets for face recognition or any other surveillance program.
Wood: If we put into place even more surveillance as a result of this event, aren’t we likely to put into place even more of an apparatus that will disproportionately discriminate against people of color?
Bedoya: That’s exactly right. The great bait and switch of the Department of Homeland Security is that after 9/11 people were scared, and people were rightly scared of terrorism. And so they built an agency that they thought was going to help them catch terrorists. But in reality, it is an agency that catches undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom have never committed a crime other than perhaps entering the border illegally. You know, the great bait and switch of the national security state is that we were promised an agency to combat terrorism, [and] we were given an agency that prosecutes immigrants and that persecutes immigrants. If you look at all those surveillance programs that DHS has paid for with taxpayer dollars — license-plate scans in the top 50 metropolitan areas, face-recognition scans [in] about a dozen states covering about 60 million Americans’ faces on their driver’s licenses, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] tapping into getting utility companies’ address information on the largest utility companies in the country. This is all done under the guise of national security. But in reality, it is used to create an infrastructure to find and deport undocumented people.
Wood: How hopeful are you that change will happen, that we might approach law enforcement differently?
Bedoya: I see in President-elect [Joe Biden] someone who recognizes that the nation is in pain. And my hope for him and his administration is that he will take this money from this security state that clearly is not protecting us and invest it in education to teach people that vaccines are real and climate change is real and racism is real. But I also think that this could be an excuse to redouble the trends that started under George W. Bush, expanded under Barack Obama and were tripled down under Donald J. Trump, to promise Americans safety and deliver them deportations and a system that watches Black and brown people and catches them when they are alleged to have made mistakes.
Related links: More insight from Molly Wood
Over the past several days, the thing where these pro-Trump extremists can’t help but post pictures of themselves online has proven to be a pretty obvious weakness in their plan. Even as the attacks were happening on Jan. 6, the Reddit community and others immediately started gathering tweets and photos and posts to save for law enforcement in case they were later deleted. As of Friday, at least 20 gigabytes of data was being hosted online, available for anyone to see. No further surveillance apparatus required. Later this week, we’ll talk about how these images can also become propaganda as extremists look to recruit future extremists with pictures of their success. Stay tuned and stay safe.