Self-Policing In Response To Pervasive Surveillance

On Thursday night, in the course of conversation with some of my Brooklyn College colleagues, I confessed to having internalized a peculiar sort of ‘chilling effect’ induced by a heightened sensitivity to our modern surveillance state. To wit, I said something along the lines of “I would love to travel to Iran and Pakistan, but I’m a little apprehensive about the increased scrutiny that would result.” When pressed to clarify by my companions, I made some rambling remarks that roughly amounted to the following. Travel to Iran and Pakistan–Islamic nations highly implicated in various foreign policy imbroglios with the US and often accused of supporting terrorism–is highly monitored by national law enforcement and intelligence agencies (the FBI, CIA, NSA); I expected to encounter some uncomfortable moments on my arrival back in the US thanks to questioning by customs and immigration officers (with a first name like mine–which is not Arabic in origin but is in point of fact, a very common and popular name in the Middle East–I would expect nothing less). Moreover, given the data point that my wife is Muslim, I would expect such attention to be heightened (data mining algorithms would establish a ‘networked’ connection between us and given my wife’s own problems when flying, I would expect such a connection to possibly be more ‘suspicious’) ; thereafter, I could expect increased scrutiny every time I traveled (and perhaps in other walks of life, given the extent of data sharing between various governmental agencies).

It is quite possible that all of the above sounds extremely paranoid and misinformed, and my worries a little silly, but I do not think there are no glimmers of truth in there. The technical details are not too wildly off the mark; the increased scrutiny after travel is a common occurrence for many travelers deemed ‘suspicious’ for unknown reasons; and so on. The net result is a curious sort of self-policing on my part: as I look to make travel plans for the future I will, with varying degrees of self-awareness about my motivations, prefer other destinations and locales. I will have allowed myself to be subject to an invisible set of constraints not actually experienced (except indirectly, in part, as in my wife’s experiences when flying.)

This sort of ‘indirect control’ might be pervasive surveillance’s most pernicious effect.

Note: My desire to travel to Iran and Pakistan is grounded in some fairly straightforward desires: Iran is a fascinating and complex country, host to an age-old civilization, with a rich culture and a thriving intellectual and academic scene; Pakistan is of obvious interest to someone born in India, but even more so to someone whose ethnic background is Punjabi, for part of the partitioned Punjab is now in Pakistan (as I noted in an earlier post about my ‘passing for Pakistani,’ “my father’s side of the family hails from a little village–now a middling town–called Dilawar Cheema, now in Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, Tehsil Wazirabad, in the former West Punjab.”)

The Offensive Stupidity Of The No-Fly List

Last Friday (July 31st) my wife, my daughter, and I were to fly back from Vancouver to New York City after our vacation in Canada’s Jasper and Banff National Parks. On arrival at Vancouver Airport, we began the usual check-in, got groped in security, and filled out customs forms. The US conducts all customs and passport checks in Canada itself for US-bound passengers; we waited in the line for US citizens. We were directed to a self-help kiosk, which issued a boarding pass for my wife with a black cross across it. I paid no attention to it at the time, but a few minutes later, when a US Customs and Border Protection officer directed us to follow him, I began to. We were directed to a waiting room, where I noticed a Muslim family–most probably from Indonesia or Malaysia–seated on benches. (The women wore headscarves; the man sported a beard but no moustache and wore a skull cap.)

I knew what was happening: once again, my wife had been flagged for the ‘no-fly’ list. The first time this had happened had been during our honeymoon to Spain some eleven years ago; the last time my wife had been flagged was on our return from Amsterdam four years ago. (That’s right; my wife had been allowed to fly to the US from Europe, but her entry into the US was blocked.) On each occasion, she had been questioned–in interrogatory fashion–by a brusque official, and then ‘let go.’ There was no consistency to the checks; sometimes they happened, sometimes they did not. For instance, my wife was not blocked from traveling to–or returning from–India in 2013. At the least, the security system being employed by the Department of Homeland Security was maddeningly inconsistent.

But matters did not end there. It was not clear why my wife had been placed on the ‘no-fly’ list in the first place. Was there something in her background data that matched those of a known ‘terrorist’? This seemed unlikely: she had been born in Michigan, grown up in Ohio, attended Ohio State University, gone to graduate school at the City University of New York, and then law school at Brooklyn Law School before beginning work with the National Labor Relations Board as a staff attorney. (During her college days, she had worked with a student’s group dedicated to justice in Palestine, but that seemed like slim pickings. On that basis, you could indict most Jewish students who attend four-year liberal arts colleges in the US.) But she is Muslim–or, as my wife likes to say, ‘she was born into a Muslim family’–and still retains her Muslim last name after marriage. That could certainly be a problem.

After the first instance of our being detained at an airport, we had expected no more detentions; after all, the US’ security officers would have noticed that a particular passport number, belonging to a particular American citizen, had been incorrectly flagged at a border check; they had ascertained to their satisfaction that all was well; surely, they would now remove that name and number combination from their lists and concentrate on their remaining ‘targets.’ The first check would have acted as a data refinement procedure for the learning data used by their profiling software; it would now work with a cleaner set and generate fewer ‘false positives’–like my wife. That’s how learning data systems are supposed to work; the ‘cleaner’ the learning data, the better the system works.

But that had not had happened. Over the course of the past eleven years, my wife was detained again and again, leading up to this last instance on last Friday. On each occasion, the same procedure: ‘Follow me please; sir, you stay right here.” (Mercifully, in Vancouver, perhaps noticing we had a child with us, the border officers allowed me to accompany her to their chambers.) And then, the questioning, which sought to establish her  credentials: “What’s your father’s name?” What’s your mother’s name” “Where do you work?” and so on. Finally, “Thank you, ma’am. You can go now.” But none of the information gathered in these sessions had any value whatsoever as far as the no-fly profiling system was concerned. That remained magnificently impervious to the empirical particulars of the world outside; as far it was concerned, my wife was still guilty. Sometimes.

When the interrogation of my wife had ended, I asked the border officer: “How do I get my wife off the list?” His reply: “I don’t know.” I then asked: “Do you have any idea why she was flagged today?” His reply: “She has a pretty common last name.” I stared at him, dumbfounded. When Sinn Féin was rated a quasi-terrorist organization, did the US flag every Irishman at JFK who bore the last name Adams? Could it really be possible that this profiling system was as stupid as this officer was making it out to be? But that hypothesis was not so implausible; there was nothing in my wife’s background that would indicate any reason to place her in the same class as those folks who might be potential 9/11’ers. Moreover, this profiling system remained dumb; it did not ‘learn’; its conditional probabilities stayed the same no matter what its handlers learned about its learning data.

It’s tempting to call this a Kafkaesque situation and let it go at that. (And perhaps throw in a few complaints about the petty harassment this generates; the Muslim family I saw waiting with us missed their flight, and the solitary male was rudely told to move at one point.) But there is more here; this system, this ‘silver bullet’ that is supposed to keep us safe and for which we should be willing to give up our civil liberties is useless. And dangerously so. Its very strengths, to look for patterns and evidence and generate plausible hypotheses about the guilt of its subjects, are compromised by its design. I’ve speculated why my wife’s entry in the no-fly list has not been deleted and the only plausible explanation I can come up with is that whoever makes the deletion takes a very tiny risk of being wrong; there is an infinitesimal probability that the ‘innocent’ person will turn out to be guilty, and scapegoats will then be found. Perhaps that fear of being indicted as the ones who the let the Trojan Horse through stays their hand.

Whatever the rationale, the end-result is the same: a useless, dangerous, and offensive security system that on a daily basis–I’m quite sure–subjects both citizens and non-citizens of the US to expensive and humiliating delays and interrogations. And makes us safer not at all.

Machine Gun Men: Not Your Grandfather’s Police

It was a common sight in New York City: soldiers, paramilitary or regular in origin, wearing battle fatigues and carrying assault rifles and machine guns, standing guard in various bustling points of urban interaction–train stations and bus terminals most commonly. Typically, these were deployed after some mysterious, unspecified warning would be made public by the Department of Homeland Security: threat levels had escalated to red or yellow or blue or orange (the precise spectral arrangement of this rainbow of danger always remained a little intractable to me.) As I would walk by these armed gentlemen, their guns locked and loaded–ok, perhaps not locked–looking suitably menacing to all and any evildoers, I would often wonder about the nature of the threat they were supposed to be guarding us from.

Did the Homeland Security folks imagine that an armed commando raid was going to be carried out in the heart of New York City, that a platoon of miscreants would alight from the 10:17 coming in from Hempstead, and open fire indiscriminately, scattering hand grenades as they went, and that our brave machine gun toting protectors would respond, responding with a spray of bullets their own, in these enclosed, hermetic spaces? That seemed unlikely, given the inevitable collateral damage that would result, and the known methodology of those who had thus far committed acts of terror in and against the US. (Unless, of course, you are counting the various gun-toting serial killers who go on periodic rampages in the US. But those folks aren’t terrorists, surely? Just misguided patriots.)

What did seem more likely, as I speculated about random searches in the New York subways, was that this kind of policing, complete with machine-guns and the soldiers was designed to accustom us to the presence of a militarized force as peacekeeper, protector and enforcer in our daily lives. It can search, and it can intimidate. You might engage in conversation with a beat cop, and you might even enter into a verbal dispute; you almost certainly will not do so with a black-clad figure with one hand perennially on the trigger of a high-powered munition.

We should keep these considerations in mind when we look at photographs of machine gun toting police in Ferguson, brought out to maintain ‘order’ in the wake of protests and unrest following the shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown. Under what circumstances are these guns to be deployed? Bear in mind machine-guns are classic anti-personnel weaponry, intended to set up killing fields of fire to stop an armed assault by heavily armed soldiers in its tracks. They are intended to pump hundreds and thousands of bullets quickly into a space of combat, rendering it deadly  to those caught in its crossfire. Did the police envisage a situation in which a group of protesters ransacking and damaging a store, or throwing rocks at the police, would need to be treated thus? If such a situation was not envisaged, then presumably, the machine-guns were there for show: to let us know the police have them, to intimidate and suppress, and to condition us to the increasing militarization of our law and order enforcement mechanisms.

But it won’t end there, of course. Just like shootings of unarmed men by the police are now passé so too can become the use of machine guns by the police. If they are always available, always at hand, it will not take too long before some policeman, used to the idea that he is this society’s bulwark against the forces of darkness–literally-will open fire, comfortable in the knowledge that only administrative leave awaits him.

When those killings will be protested, an even greater number of machine guns will be used to police them. And so it will go.

As I noted yesterday:

One can only speculate about the future contours of such a charged relationship. Perhaps the citizenry will be stunned and beaten down into cowering submission, or perhaps, someday, realizing the forces arrayed against them are only bored and amused by the conventional street protest and the filed judicial complaint, those famed gigantic arsenals of privately owned weaponry in America will be deployed to refuse and resist.

PS: At various points in writing this post, I committed a Freudian typing slip, one made easier by the location of letters on my keyboard: I persistently typed in ‘machine funs’ instead of ‘machine guns.’