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.”)

San Bernardino, Selective Surveillance, And The Paralyzed Gun ‘Debate’

Here are two related thoughts running around in my head since the San Bernardino massacre.

On past occasions, whenever one of these quintessentially American mass shootings would be carried out, I would wonder about what could happen to jolt the gun-control ‘debate’ in this country out of its well-worn grooves. (The scare quotes are necessary because there really isn’t a debate: some anguished wails and a stony silence don’t amount to one.) After some casting about, I thought perhaps a mass shooting carried out by ‘Islamic terrorists’ would do so. Surely, even the NRA and its Republican minions would agree then that guns had gotten into the wrong hands, and agree for stronger forms of gun control and regulation. After all, guns for Americans is all very fine, but surely not guns for Muslims?

But even as I thought this, it would seem to me that there was no way that a Muslim (or ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’) person would be able to buy the kinds of weapons and munitions needed to carry out such a deadly assault. Given the heightened surveillance of Muslims in America by its law enforcement agencies, and the paranoid response to even innocent activities like schoolboys building electronic devices, it seemed inconceivable a ‘brown Middle-Eastern looking foreigner’ would be able to walk into a store and buy armaments like the ones described below:

two .223-caliber semi-automatic rifles, two 9mm semi-automatic handguns, and an explosive device…The rifles used were variants of the AR-15: one was a DPMS Panther Arms A15, the other was a Smith & Wesson M&P15. One of the handguns was manufactured by Llama and the other is a Springfield HS2000. All four of the guns were purchased legally in California four years before the attack….the DPMS weapon used a high-capacity magazine, which is not legal in California. The couple had 1,400 rounds for the rifles and 200 for the handguns with them at the time of the shootout. 2,000 9-millimeter handgun rounds, 2,500 .223 caliber rounds, and twelve pipe bombs, along with a cache of tools that could be used to make improvised explosive devices. [From Wikipedia entry on the shootings]

Surely, even if such a sale was made, a phone call to the FBI or local law-enforcement agencies would follow? “Hello, FBI? I just want to let you know that an Ay-rab just boughta whole lotta guns and ammo. Something’s fishy, know what I mean?” I considered the possibility of electronic, online purchases and ruled those out as well. That would be even easier to track and investigate with the fancy profiling algorithms used to slot Americans into No-Fly lists. “Our program indicates a non-trivial probability that this purchase warrants investigation by G-men“. Right?

I was wrong on all counts. ‘Suspicious’ people can buy guns and ammo and materials for making explosives easily. It’s only when they try to live their lives as normal people that they are flagged as such. Moreover, when an ‘Islamist’ or ‘jihadist’ mass shooting will take place in America, it will provide the perfect cover for gun fans: guns don’t kill people, Muslims do. Even worse, it would spark the kinds of fascist fantasies passing for normal thought these days.

This American nightmare isn’t going away anytime soon.

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.

Glenn Greenwald on Civil Liberties and Their Willing Surrender

Today, at Brooklyn College, Glenn Greenwald delivered the 39th Samuel J. Konefsky Memorial Lecture. I was lucky enough to be in attendance and thoroughly enjoyed watching this top-notch muckraker and gadfly in action. I have often seen Greenwald speak on video but this was the first live presentation I have witnessed. It was everything it was promised to be: Greenwald was passionate, precise and polemical. The title of his talk was ‘Civil Liberties and Endless War in the Age of Obama’ and so, appropriately, Greenwald began by offering a definition of ‘civil liberties‘: a set of absolute, unconditional constraints on governmental and state power, ones defined and defended by the people. These should be so stark and clear that no abridgments should be possible or tolerated; those who suggest or support these show themselves to not possess a true understanding of the concept.

With this uncompromising bottom line clearly articulated, Greenwald then presented a tripartite analysis of why, despite the presence of the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the state of civil liberties in the US today appears to be quite as problematic as it is and why the US populace has so easily acquiesced to this denial of their constitutional privileges.

First, the US has been since 2001, in a state of ‘perpetual war’, against poorly defined enemies, with no geographic or temporal limitation. This war ensures the endless invocation of natural security as a reason for the attenuation and abuse of civil liberties, whether it be surveillance, indefinite detention without trial, or the assassination of American citizens without trial. The lessons of history have been learned well by the administrations that have held power in the US over the past dozen years: war provides refuge for roguish government behavior of all kinds, and nothing quite prepares a populace for the surrender of civil liberties like the threat of an enemy, one whose threat can only be repelled by increasing the powers a state commands.

Second, the surrender of civil liberties is made more palatable when their abuse by the state appears to be directed against a demonized minority. The gullible majority, convinced that these systematic corruptions of the Bill of Rights remain confined to just this hapless lot, and convinced that their liberties are being protected as a consequence, gladly sign on and form cheering squads, unaware that soon the baleful eye of the powers-that-be will be turned upon them. In the American context  Muslim-Americans have borne the brunt of the the post-911 ravishing of the Bill of Rights. There is little sympathy for them in most parts of the American polity, but the damage done to what is considered ‘normal’ is real enough. Our civil liberties were, and are, next.

Third, yesterday’s ‘extreme’ or ‘radical’ is today’s normal. When the Patriot Act was first passed, it provoked vigorous debate and contestation even in a country still traumatized by 9/11. Its renewals have provoked little debate and attention. We live in a post-Patriot Act US. Its draconian provisions are now the new normal. In this context, I’d like to note once again, the seemingly-useless but very-effective-in-getting-citizens-used-to-the-idea-of-random-searches subway searches in New York City.

Greenwald spoke on a great deal more, including, most importantly, how concerted, determined, political activism by the citizenry still remains, the only and best way to safeguard and preserve the Bill of Rights.

My brief notes above are merely a sampler; catch him at a speaking venue near you if you can.