Nearly every day in my neighborhood, I walk by signs placed at eye level outside homes and businesses, warning me, “This property is under surveillance.” Despite their ubiquity, these signs always make me pause. If what is surveilled is property, then what does that make those of us who live under the constant scrutiny of cameras at the grocery store and the bank, in hallways and elevators, at street intersections and public parks? My resentment at being observed wherever I go strikes some of my friends and family as a strange quirk. Even my teenager rolls her eyes at me.
But as Assia Boundaoui shows in her chilling documentary The Feeling of Being Watched, I have reason to be concerned. Boundaoui, the daughter of Algerian refugees who settled in Bridgeview, Illinois, recalls waking up at 3 am when she was 16 to find two men atop a telephone pole outside her window, fiddling with equipment and soldering wires. Terrified, she ran to her mother to report the incident, expecting that the police would be called. “Calm down,” her mother replied. “It’s probably just the FBI. Go back to sleep.”
The year was 2001, but the surveillance of the Arab community in Bridgeview started years earlier, under an FBI probe known as Operation Vulgar Betrayal. Boundaoui interviews her family, friends, neighbors, and members of the congregation at her local mosque. Some of them relay disturbing anecdotes, like having cars parked outside their homes for hours on end and men in suits going through their trash cans. Others refuse to speak to her on camera. An effect of decades of law enforcement surveillance is a sense of paranoia that has become pervasive in the community, as well as a deep fear of speaking out about anything political.
To fight this fear and silence, Boundaoui filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the FBI and, when they were rejected, sued to compel the release of the requested documents. She eventually prevailed in court, and more than 33,000 redacted pages have since been given to her, documenting years of surveillance of the entire Arab community in Bridgeview. The Feeling of Being Watched, which was shown at several film festivals and recently screened on PBS, made me reflect on how the government violated the privacy rights of hundreds of people with impunity. It managed to do this because the surveillance targeted a vulnerable constituency: Arab refugees and immigrants, along with their American children.
This is by no means the only surveillance operation focusing on nonwhite communities in the country. A few years ago in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series, the Associated Press revealed how the New York Police Department conducted secret surveillance of Muslims in the city. Plainclothes officers were sent into largely Muslim neighborhoods, where they visited mosques and businesses, infiltrated student groups, and gained access to private homes in order to collect data. The program originated with a CIA officer in 2003 when he started working with the NYPD. After a decade of surveillance, however, the police failed to generate a single credible terrorism lead and shuttered the program when it came under public scrutiny.
Other victims of targeted surveillance include Black Lives Matter activists in New York, whose smart devices mysteriously switched off—as if controlled remotely—while they were recording BLM demonstrations in 2014. New York City police took and circulated pictures of the marchers protesting the killing of Eric Garner, a black man who was arrested by police for selling loose cigarettes and placed in a lethal chokehold by an NYPD officer. And in October an investigative report by Univision showed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents tracked the mobile phones of undocumented immigrants, using stingray spying devices ordinarily seen in counterterrorism probes. These secret programs are part of a long history of covert government surveillance going back at least to CoIntelPro, an FBI program that began in 1956 and was directed against communists, Black Power activists, anti-war demonstrators, feminists, and many other domestic groups.
Some people might justify these surveillance programs as necessary for security. Others might dismiss them as harmless, especially in the context of omnipresent technologies with embedded tracking capabilities. But if you haven’t committed a crime or given your consent to being watched, then law enforcement agencies have no business monitoring you. When the government does otherwise, it subjects communities that it perceives as undesirable to a form of social control.
Increasingly, however, surveillance is the work of private companies—Facebook and Google, for example—that share data with law enforcement. Since tech companies are accountable to shareholders rather than users, their mechanisms of data sharing fall outside the realm of democratic oversight. Facebook has flouted so many laws and been fined so many times that it is frankly alarming to have the company in possession of so much private data. Yet our lawmakers seem to be in no hurry to force it to abide by basic standards of privacy.
My apprehensions about surveillance stem from experience. I grew up in Morocco during a period of state surveillance and repression that came to be known as the Years of Lead. Hardly a week went by when my parents didn’t warn us that walls have ears, by which they meant that we should watch what we said in public and steer clear of anything remotely political, lest we get reported to the king’s intelligence services. It is the great irony of my life that although I now live in the “land of the free,” the warning still applies.
If American constitutional protections mean anything, then we need greater transparency and accountability when it comes to government surveillance programs. And considering how rapidly the technology changes, it is imperative that we bring corporate surveillance under democratic oversight as well.