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Surveil and Control

By Grace Raih for Boston Compass (#131)

January 16, 2021

The police exist to maintain capitalist interests, protect wealth and safeguard property along racial lines. From their inception, they have monitored and suppressed those who seek to disrupt or reimagine the systems of power in this country. Throughout American history, the police have been weaponized by the status quo and their power to observe and control has only intensified in the era of mass surveillance. The expansion of law enforcement monitoring systems are a threat to everyone's privacy, but the harsher consequences of these technologies fall mostly on communities of color.

Modern American policing began with slave patrols—militias who would hunt escaped enslaved people and return them to bondage. The first urban police forces were not created to investigate crime, but to regulate the behavior of lower income populations, immigrants and union organizers. Efforts to liberate Black people in the mid-twentieth century led to the monitoring of groups like the Black Panther Party, whose members were brought down under the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. Nixon’s War on Drugs, sparked to criminalize Black communities, is still used as justification for racially motivated police surveillance. Heavily redacted documents released by the FBI in 2019 revealed the agency had conducted a national intelligence collection on “black identity extremism”, a contrived category used to monitor BLM protests and actors.

Those who continue to push for reform as a solution to police violence cite the expansion of technology as an instrument of accountability within departments. The desire for a mechanical fix to a social problem has great appeal: it appears to have a scientific basis, and is also easier to implement than actually confronting the role of white supremacy in the formation and function of the police.

Digital rights advocates have been sounding the alarm on surveillance for decades, calling for an end to devices that violate civil liberties. Predictive policing software is a popular police tool that uses algorithms to predict future crime. Historically biased arrest data for a neighborhood is inputed, turning out data that reflects racially biased policing practices and encourages added patrol. This fuels over-policing and shows that innovative machinery is not inherently neutral. StingRays are devices that mimic nearby cell towers and force phones to connect and transfer call data and locations to cops. They are often operated without warrants in Black and lower income neighborhoods, allowing for the unchecked tracking of those residents.

Following Ferguson, reformers pushed body cameras as instruments of culpability, but their legacy proves to be sealed footage and media lawsuits. Facial recognition technology has also expanded, despite being known to misclassify Black faces at much higher rates than white ones. The cameras that capture this data are disproportionately placed in Black and lower income neighborhoods, furthering the cycle of criminalization.

Technology is not removed from human error and bias, nor is it non-political. Reforms only throw more money towards these advanced ways to surveil, control and criminalize, as if a racist system could be absolved through transparency. These technologies do not confront the history and reality of how police operate in society and put forth a false belief that an inherently biased and brutal system could be cured with sophisticated equipment.

— Grace Raih


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