This letter features reporting from "How China’s High-Tech ‘Eyes’ Monitor Behavior and Dissent" by Nick Schifrin and Dan Sagalyn
Dear Congresswoman Norton,
According to the World Economic Forum, analysts project that we will create 463 exabytes, or over 200 million DVDs of digital data daily by 2025. It is an astronomical amount only made possible by the omnipresence of data collection in modern digital society; every day, we trade personal data for the convenience of services like Twitter and Google. At the end of the day, how much privacy should we be willing to give up? What if our data is abused for unethical purposes, possibly by our own government? I am writing to you because I feel that intransparent data collection is chipping away at our basic freedoms.
Nick Schifrin’s Pulitzer Center story, “How China’s High-Tech ‘Eyes’ Monitor Behavior and Dissent,” demonstrates what happens when a government abuses data privacy. China is the world leader in surveillance technology. The country boasts one of the highest densities of CCTVs worldwide, each packed with the latest artificial intelligence software, such as facial and gait recognition programs to track citizens nonstop. State surveillance is extensive in cyberspace as well. Authorities continuously prowl messaging apps and social media for content that maligns the government. The state also has the categorical authority to request personal identifying information from private companies, such as biometric data and financial transaction records. Using this data, the government develops comprehensive profiles of every citizen. The digital surveillance state serves one purpose: to monitor, predict, and quash political dissent. People who protest in Hong Kong take extreme measures to ensure their safety and privacy, for fear that the information authorities already possess about them could be damning if they are caught in dissenting acts.
Even in the U.S., there needs to be more discussion on the increasing domestic surveillance, specifically those directed at political protests. I attend school in D.C., a city which is known as the center of politics in America as well as a focal point for demonstrations. Many of my peers have participated in public assemblies in D.C., and now, as the country faces nationwide racial unrest, I know many who are marching on the streets. What has been particularly concerning in the current protests is the excessive surveillance the police have been conducting. One tool utilized at protests is Stingrays, which are devices that connect to cell phones by pretending to be a cell tower and allow the police to identify phone owners through their mobile subscriber identity numbers, foiling the anonymity of everyone in the vicinity, even bystanders and nearby residents who are not part of the protest; authorities can even monitor text messages and calls through a Stingray. Additionally, police have been using cameras packed with facial recognition software to identify individuals in crowds. This is especially concerning as studies have shown the technology to be inaccurate and biased against people of color, according to NIST. Protestors are not safe online either. According to court records, the FBI scours social media and has indicted numerous people solely for allegedly suspicious Facebook posts. Because of these extreme surveillance tactics, people who protest are commonly advised to leave their phones at home, conceal their faces, and refrain from posting on social media. These recommendations alone dissuade many people from practicing their right to protest. It is unbelievable that people must take these precautions in, what is supposedly, the world’s freest country.
As such, there needs to be more transparent, definitive laws governing domestic surveillance of protests and related activities. By the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement cannot search an individual’s property without reasonable suspicion or explicit consent. However, currently, when one chooses to attend a protest, law enforcement collects vast amounts of sensitive information without consent. Why should a person’s political beliefs be suspicion for crime? If a protestor’s data is somehow collected, what exactly constitutes incriminating evidence? New legislation should start with modernizing the Fourth Amendment and make contemporary constitutional revisions that will be more expansive and inclusive of digital content, as they were written long before the rise of the digital era and are now outdated.
Laws should also demand transparency from law enforcement officials on the exact policies they use to surveil protests so that citizens can take appropriate measures to ensure their privacy and safety. This legal framework should also include measures for government-sponsored, private surveillance of social media platforms, such as the company Dataminr, which analyzes millions of tweets in real-time to inform law enforcement about the developments of protests. I also propose to restrict the amount and types of data law enforcement can gather at protests to prevent any abuse of power to wrongly accuse and conduct unfounded and unjustified investigations against protestors. In moderation, surveillance undeniably is a necessary part of national security and is integral at any large congregation; however, innocent activists deserve the peace of mind to exercise their First Amendment rights without fear of what and how their information will be collected and investigated. No matter one’s gender, race, or political views, we can all agree that everyone has the right to stand up for what they believe is right. When surveillance oversteps the boundaries of privacy and impedes the freedom of expression and assembly, it is no longer “surveillance;” it is a deliberate attack on democracy.
Simon Lee is currently a sophomore at Whittle School and Studios in Washington, D.C. He is the editor-in-chief of his school’s multimedia literary magazine, which he founded to give students a platform to share their creative voices. He is interested in computer science, specifically artificial intelligence, and how it can be used for social good. In his free time, Simon enjoys playing basketball and watching movies.