Surveillance Kills: Racial Justice in the Age of Big Data

Written by Julie Quiroz

September 24, 2014

Surveillance kills people: we need to start saying what this is. This isn’t about the techies and Snowdens of the world; this is about our communities, our people, our lives.

– Lara Kiswani, Arab Resource & Organizing Center

At check and cash places, someone can file a suspicious activity report on you just based on how much money your check is for. If you’re a day laborer working in Beverly Hills and you show up for work ‘too early,’ apparently that’s suspicious too. 

– Mariella Saba, El Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California

The voices of Kiswani and Saba echo two themes which emerged in the 2014 Media Justice Knowledge Exchange sponsored by Center for Media Justice and Consumers Union.  According to the newly-released Knowledge Exchange report Digital Discrimination: Big Data, Surveillance, & Racial Justice:

  1. A veil of secrecy surrounds how and when information is collected and used, making it hard to gauge the depth, breadth, and impact of surveillance.
  2. Low-income communities and individuals who experience everyday acts of surveillance are operating within a culture of fear and shame that often prevents them from telling their stories.

Kiswani and Saba, along with 20 organizers and advocates, came together in this year’s Knowledge Exchange facilitated by MSC Innovation Fellow Liz Butler.

Begun as a bold experiment in 2007, the Knowledge Exchange has slowly nurtured relationships, collaboration and alignment between policy advocates working for media reform and organizers demanding media justice. The Wireless Bill of Rights and Voices for Internet Freedom were both born at the Knowledge Exchange.

Building on the work of the past gatherings – and using tools such as the Movement Pivots developed by MSC — the 2014 Knowledge Exchange focused on two core questions:

  • How can we connect currently isolated fights – such as constitutional protections, human rights in migration and criminal justice, and financial equity — into a movement capable of ending community surveillance and ensuring digital privacy?
  • How can we develop strategies for viable racial equity solutions in the age of big data?

Today, Digital Discrimination came out featuring the frontline observations of Kiswani and Saba and so much more. Reading through it, what struck me most deeply were the words that appear, quietly and powerfully, on page 13: the call to engage communities on the ground in deciding “what a surveillance-free future would look like.”

A future free of surveillance. Led by communities most targeted for discrimination, harassment, and violence.

That is a vision worth rolling up our sleeves for.

Feature photo: Tom Giebel, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Julie Quiroz

Julie Quiroz lives in Michigan and leads New Moon Collaborations, a fiscally sponsored project of Movement Strategy Center.

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