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The Racial Reality That Makes Online Security Bills So Scary

Jamilah King Apr 21, 2012

The Internet’s been ablaze this week with news about CISPA, a new cybersecurity bill that’s set to be introduced on the House floor next week. Vocal critics have likened it to SOPA, the doomed anti-piracy bill that caused widespread outrage and protests earlier this year. Even though the two bills are markedly different, they both touch on very sensitive topics for people: just how public is the private information we share? And who has the right to share it?

It’s a concern that’s uniquely important to communities of color. First, there’s the offline reality that black and brown bodies are surveilled, followed, and monitored at extraordinarily high rates. And then there’s the way in which race plays out online, from the how and if we get there to what we do and how much we pay once we’re plugged in.

Those facts make CISPA especially worrisome for communities of color. Whereas SOPA became a point of outrage because of its threat to shut down websites suspected of illegal piracy, CISPA makes it easier for private companies and government agencies to share information about so-called “perceived threats.” That would mean giving a formal go-ahead to a type of spying that’s already put people on edge. The New York Times recently published an investigation into law enforcement’s widespread practice of tracking cell phones, and there have been several high-profile instances in which private companies like Google and Facebook have been forced to hand over private user data to law enforcement.

CISPA’s supporters maintain that the bill, and others like it, are for the public good. “Today the U.S government protects itself using classified and unclassified threat information that i identifies from attacks on its networks,” said a staffer on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence after the bill was introduced on April 10. “However, the majority of the private sector doesn’t get access to this information because the government has no mechanism today for effectively sharing.” 

But others who are working directly with communities of color to increase Internet access worry that these bills are building yet another barrier to true nationwide adoption of the world’s foremost communications tool.

“It’s a delicate issue, ” says Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a senior research fellow at the Open Technology Initiative at New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Gangadharan’s been conducted preliminary research into local programs that help spread Internet access into communities of color. “If students learn about how much tracking is going on and how much tracking is possible, that functions as a deterrent to them wanting to go further.”

Gangadharan hears the concern most frequently from Spanish-language students who go to public spaces — libraries and community centers — to get online. The concern, she says, is about reciprocity. “The fear of being exploited or taken advantage of, or losing control over one’s destiny, dignity in a digitally mediated society is really present.”

To get more of a sense of why cybersecurity bills like CISPA put so many people on edge, I reached out to Larisa Man, legal anthropologist and adjunct professor of media studiesan adjunct professor of media communication and culture at New York University.

For starters, CISPA isn’t SOPA. Whereas SOPA outraged folks because it would’ve shut down websites, CISPA makes it easier for companies like, say, Google, to share information with government agencies like the CIA about perceived threats. That still makes folks uneasy, no matter what side of the law they’re on. Why is this stuff so scary?

The collaboration between private companies and government agencies is scary because most people know that neither corporations nor the “security” aspect of government have the public interest at heart, and especially not the interest of marginalized communities.

First, government agencies have a terrible, and specifically racist, sexist, xenophobic, heterosexist, and classist track record on how they define or perceive threats to security. There’s no reason to think they will be any better online, and with even more information to project onto, it could be worse.

Second, corporations are under no obligation to consider the public interest aspect of privacy. There’s nothing built in to their structure that requires them to consider our rights. In fact they are bound not to, if it goes against shareholder value. We’ve seen again and again that companies make grand statements about morality or ethics or rights, but then when it’s a question of profit or even just slower growth they abandon those statements.

There’s been a lot of news lately on how much law enforcement agencies use social media to monitor crime. What’s being done to ensure users’ online privacy?

Very little is done without massive, organized public pressure. Businesses have no incentive to protect our privacy — although they have an incentive to make us feel like they are, or to get us to accept lack of control over our data as inevitable. They profit from using our data. Although there has been pushback in the form of legal advocacy, especially via the ACLU’s the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I would like to see more community-based mobilizing. And I’m not talking about marches and vigils, we need to get more creative to think about how to pressure these giant entities.

These debates often get lost in a lot of wonkery. Why is this especially important for communities of color?

Communities of color, immigrant communities and the poor suffer first and most often from government surveillance, and from surveillance on the job. Marginalized people have always relied on private social spaces where folks can vent, discuss, share ideas, and support each other, and now many of those spaces are mediated by digital technology.

Those communities are especially vulnerable if government is invited into private social spaces, because these communities are not treated as if they have inalienable rights, but instead conditional rights to housing, to raise their own children, to bodily autonomy, to life itself. Even Medic Alert surveillance, when it involved the police, ended with police shooting a Kenneth Chamberlain dead in his own home! Giving the government more rights and abilities to eavesdrop and profile simply makes that kind of thing more likely, I’m afraid. And it could lead to less dramatic but serious things like credit ratings, health insurance, access to affordable housing, all thing we can lose based on being profiled.

This article was originally published by Colorlines.

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