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We Are Living in a Digital Police State. You Can Thank Big Tech.

DHS and Silicon Valley have dumped money and new surveillance tech into local police departments across the country.

Monitors show imagery from security cameras seen at the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative on April 23, 2013, in New York City.

Since the 9/11 attacks, private tech companies have partnered with the U.S. government to rapidly expand the digital police state through federal grant programs that critics say shield from public scrutiny billions of dollars funneled to local law enforcement. Expansive anti-terrorism efforts at all levels of government failed to thwart recent mass shootings by white supremacists, not to mention the January 6 attack on the Capitol, but advocates say Muslim, Black, Brown and immigrant communities are still targeted by the surveillance dragnet, particularly in big cities with large police forces that seek out federal money for high-tech cameras, military-grade weapons and spying gadgets.

Without private tech companies, there would be no Department of Homeland Security (DHS), according to a new report released December 6 by a coalition of racial justice and digital rights groups. The Bush administration created the DHS shortly after 9/11, and companies such as Microsoft and LexisNexis leveraged the crisis to position themselves as “key partners” to the government, pushing for militarized counterterrorism technologies by lobbying policy makers and promoting new surveillance software and data collection products. The report claims the creation of DHS “forcibly” reframed federal immigration services, emergency response and data analysis under a mission to “secure the homeland,” a reorganization that codified a false link between immigration and terrorism and put Muslim communities in particular at risk.

Since 2003, DHS has provided nearly $28 billion in grants that boosted police budgets and helped law enforcement at all levels purchase and deploy highly controversial surveillance technologies that brought the global “war on terror” into “our neighborhoods,” according to Aly Panjwani, senior research analyst at Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) and a coauthor of the report. The grants also fund emergency and disaster services — the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) is a DHS agency — making it difficult for local leaders to turn the funding down.

“The way that emergency response funding is tied to law enforcement funding makes it very difficult for cities and city council members to say no to these grants,” Panjwani said in an interview with Truthout.

Additionally, a list of tech companies enjoy multimillion-dollar contracts with DHS agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which harvests massive troves of personal data to target undocumented people and stands accused of human rights violations. What began as “counterterrorism” 20 years ago has effectively militarized policing across the U.S., Panjwani said. Now, immigration enforcement and “national security” are a big business.

“This counterterrorism apparatus has exploded and ballooned to the point that everything feels like counterterrorism now,” Panjwani said.

Activists and civil rights groups have tried to wrap their heads around the scope of the digital police state for years, but law enforcement agencies regularly blockade public records requests. Panjwani said his team ran into the similar roadblocks, but their report, “DHS Open for Business: How Tech Corporations Bring the War on Terror to Our Neighborhoods,” focuses on how a specific DHS grant program, the Urban Area Security Initiative, has militarized policing in Boston, Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago, and has generated profits for the same tech companies that lobby lawmakers to fund DHS. Since 2003, tech companies spawned an alphabet soup of industry groups that bring private contractors together with federal employees to lobby for favorable budgets and legislation. As Panjwani and his coauthors put it:

Since its founding, DHS has relied on a state of “emergency” to carry out its operations. Twenty years later, this state of “emergency” has not ended and immigration policing, “national security,” and surveillance have become big business. Our report investigates how DHS funding and corporations drive demand for “homeland security,” expanding militarized policing in our communities.

Through our research, we found that DHS fueled a massive influx of money into surveillance and policing in our cities, under a banner of emergency response and counterterrorism — and with the support of its corporate partners like Microsoft, LexisNexis, ShotSpotter, Palantir, and Motorola Solutions.

Of major concern to civil liberties groups are “data brokers” and law enforcement “fusion centers,” which provide and analyze huge amounts of personal and location data to build the digital police state’s backbone far from public view. Companies such as Palantir, Amazon Web Services, Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis operate massive information databases, including databases of sensitive personal information of millions of people, that can be used to identify and track people when combined with data from a gang database or a license plate reader, for example. Palantir and other firms have faced protests for working with ICE and DHS to fill immigration prisons and deport people, but the relationship between data brokers, local law enforcement and the federal fusion centers where data is processed is less known.

Data brokers are in the business of selling personal data, often gathered online, to law enforcement as well as private firms and web advertisers. Fusion centers located in each state, on the other hand, are the “black boxes” created by DHS and the feds where that data ultimately ends up for processing, according to the report. In the early 2000s, some of the same corporations that sell surveillance technology lobbied for the development of fusion centers and contributed to DHS’s reliance on consumer databases by Experian, LexisNexis, and its subsidiary, Accurint. At fusion centers, law enforcement agencies at all levels of government — state, local and federal — share information, making fusion centers the “center of the data broker economy.” According to the report:

Almost two decades of research shows that data fusion centers enhance racialized policing, mass surveillance, government spying on social movements, targeting of Muslims, and immigration detention and deportation. Between corporate lobbying and public-private partnerships, the fusion center network has boomed: there are at least 80 fusion centers across the US and its territories today.

With law enforcement notorious for resisting information requests, the entirety of what goes on at fusion centers remains unknown. However, advocates can track grant funding through DHS programs such as the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) and then connect the dots when local police departments reveal, often in criminal indictments, that they are using military-grade gear, “predictive policing” tools, facial recognition technology or gadgets like the Stingray, a highly controversial device that tricks cellphones into sharing their location with police.

Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League in Boston, said Massachusetts has two fusion centers, a statewide center like most states, and a fusion center housed within the Boston Police Department, a major UASI beneficiary. Activists have campaigned against police surveillance at fusion centers in Los Angeles and Oakland, California, but Ahmad said the campaign to shutter the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) won widespread support in the local community after a scandal over the targeting of Muslims, immigrants and racial justice activists.

“The community has really stood against the gang database since seeing an immigrant youth get deported over this, and now we’re waiting for the mayor to finally delete it,” Ahmad said in an interview. “People in the community, they ask me, why do these officers know my name? They stop me on the street and say, ‘they are harassing me, and I don’t get it. I must be on some kind of list.’”

In 2018, civil rights groups obtained internal documents showing that Boston police and BRIC used a tool called Geofeedia to monitor Muslims and student activists on social media. BRIC searched for posts containing everyday words in Arabic as well as words and hashtags such as #MuslimLivesMatter, #BlackLivesMatter and “protest.” BRIC explicitly targeted First Amendment protected speech and association, collecting thousands of social media posts about “political and social activism, current events, religious issues, and personal matters irrelevant to law enforcement concerns,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“For someone like me, or really any Muslim around Boston, which there are tons of Muslim folks here, and particular immigrant and refugee communities as well as Black Muslims who have been here a long time — these are the words we are using in our daily lives,” Ahmad said.

Ordinary citizens discussing ordinary affairs became justifiable targets of surveillance, but in 2022, white supremacist outsiders slipped right through. Over the Fourth of July, more than 100 white supremacists gathered in Boston and marched in a central part of town, alarming people across the city. The Boston police said they “did not have intelligence” indicating that the nationally known Patriot Front was gathering in Boston, despite DHS grant funding for BRIC and a contract with a private surveillance firm known as Centra that has also done clandestine work for the CIA, according to DigBoston.

BRIC had already installed high-tech surveillance cameras across the city and pushed to connect them into one regional video dragnet that could be used with a highly controversial “gang database” to track thousands of people, the vast majority of them Black and Latino men, often based on how they look and the clothes they wear. The acting mayor withdrew the proposal after public outcry, and the current mayor, Michelle Wu, has shown interest in shutting BRIC and the gang database down, Ahmad said. Last year, activists won a rare victory when the Boston City Council rejected a $850,000 DHS grant that would have paid for six additional BRIC analysts.

“They were actually saying ‘no’ to extra money,” Ahmad said.

However, Ahmad said the city council approved other DHS grants because they tie BRIC funding to badly needed federal support for emergency services and disaster preparedness.

“The fact is that there is this surveillance center that essentially gives DHS and the FBI access to our communities, so there is a lot of the concern around BRIC locally, and that’s why we’ve built such a solidarity-based campaign around our framework to abolish BRIC,” Ahmad said. “It’s Muslims getting surveilled for literally speaking Arabic on social media, and then you have the gang database that has led to the deportations of undocumented youth and incarceration of Black folks. It impacts all of our communities.”

Aware of these critiques of the digital police state as well as the nationwide surge in far right violence, Democrats and the Biden administration are working to focus federal law enforcement on the threat of right-wing extremism rather than Muslim activists or people wearing colors loosely associated with gangs. However, they face plenty of pushback from Republicans, not to mention the white nationalists and other extremists already embedded within law enforcement. Advocates say more surveillance will not prevent extremist violence, but surveillance will empower law enforcement to suppress protest against white supremacy, just like it always has.

Panjwani said activists are not asking for “equal opportunity enforcement” against violent extremists and social justice movements. The digital police state that exploded after 9/11 has never achieved “national security,” but it has boosted police budgets behind closed doors and provided more tools to target the marginalized and vulnerable. We must question the entire framing of “counterterrorism” and “national security,” and decouple law enforcement funding from issues such as immigration and disaster preparedness. Surveillance does not make communities safer, Panjwani said, but it is dragging all of our personal data and even real-time whereabouts into the dark depths of the digital police state.

Still, plenty of questions remain unanswered about the surveillance technology currently used by law enforcement and how taxpayers are paying for it. Unless DHS and its law enforcement partners begin cooperating with the journalists and researchers filing public information requests, we can only imagine what happens when our data ends up in the black box of a fusion center or gang database.