Here’s the short version of what I’m about to say: Immigrants and visitors to the US—along with anyone participating in protests or visible resistance to the current administration—are the targets of intrusive governmental surveillance, including surveillance of their social networks. Both immigrants and political dissidents are being vilified by the administration and targeted for draconian and unconstitutional attacks. If your “friends”—or friends of friends—network includes people vulnerable to these attacks, you should assume that your constitutionally protected political speech may be used in bad faith to characterize your contacts as terrorists or criminals, and act accordingly.
Note: If this seems obvious to you, perhaps because you’ve already experienced some flavor of it, know that I wrote this post for your friends and family members and colleagues who haven’t thought about it yet.
So here’s the long version.
Loose lips sink ships
Using social networks to normalize behaviors like calling representatives and generally participating more fully in civic life is a great way to stay motivated—“look at me and my admirable behavior!” totally works—and anything that heartens us in this deeply weird historical moment is a gift.
That said, it’s impossible to tell what information you post on any social network—under any privacy setting—will be viewable by enforcement agencies and other members of the government at any given point. Therefore, you should assume that anything you post can potentially be used not only against you, but against your more vulnerable contacts. If you care about that possibility, you may wish to think carefully about posting things like:
- exaggerated political speech, including humor, that could be characterized as threatening or dangerous by government workers acting in bad faith
- protest photos of other people—especially from unpermitted actions—which can be processed using facial recognition systems whether or not you name/tag the people in the image
- your membership in groups that hold unpermitted protests or other actions that deviate from the blandest possible interpretation of political speech
Methods of civic participation favored by white middle-class Americans are less likely to be criminalized or regarded as especially radical, so postcard-writing parties and entreaties to call political representatives likely fall within safe bounds.
The major exception is if you’re planning to participate in high-risk protests or actions that make it likely that you’ll be arrested for civil disobedience. If that’s the case, you should probably straight-up delete your social network presence or at the very least unfriend/break connections with anyone who shares your views or may encounter immigration agencies, because law enforcement will absolutely go after your social networking data if you’re arrested, and that information could easily be used not only against you, but others. If you’re arrested for political dissent, and especially if you’re charged, vulnerable people could be penalized for a connection to you, so don’t let yourself be used as a means of repression.
But self-censorship is cowardly and aids fascism
Eh. I’m all for people taking informed risks when they’re risking their own safety. But until we know for sure that the administration’s trajectory doesn’t lead to mass internments and deportations, my protected speech on social networks may do harm to others who aren’t as shielded as I am, so being careful with it seems increasingly worthwhile to me. Maybe you feel the same way.
So I should just never say anything political again?
Nah. If Facebook (or Twitter) is your main source of political news, conversation, and encouragement, this will be hard and feel weird. But a lot of things are hard and feel weird right now. Some of this discomfort is good: it can keep us alert, and remind us that most of us are noobs when it comes to activism that brushes up against danger—and that if we’ve never had to censor our political speech out of concern for the risks to others, we’ve been unusually lucky and naive.
Some easy-to-use options that are less easily tracked and abused by intrusive agencies than the major social networks:
- Signal, an encrypted messaging app from Open Whisper Systems that runs on smartphones and laptops and is very very easy to install and use instead of Messenger, SMS, Messages, or DMs. You can send photos and do group messages, too.
- In-person meetings, workshops, services, vigils, and so on.
- Email—even regular unencrypted email—avoids the trap of offering intelligence and enforcement agencies a ready-made graph of personal relationships tied to political allegiances.
- Writing online outside of social networks. Remember blogs? Still pretty easy to set up, if lacking the rush of posting something where you can be sure your one annoying ex-colleague will see it and feel irritated.
This is not a call to go into hiding, but to question a technical and social system that channels our need for connection into corporate surveillance platforms that become weapons for an authoritarian state. That begins by getting smarter about what we say, and where. Be a danger to your opponents, not your friends.
This is all just alarmist speculation!
It’s totally speculation, though it’s based on a bunch of research and my longstanding suspicion of agencies of control. But I have no interest in trying to make you scared, or to sell you on some kind of super-smart insidery narrative.
So let’s go through the four major points behind my concerns. I’m going to focus on the potential harm to two groups of people: immigrants and visitors to the US, and political dissidents within the US. (A lot of people fall into both groups, which makes them doubly vulnerable.) If you don’t feel like a guided tour, skip to the end.
1. Border control is intrusive and often lawless
The agencies overseeing US border control and immigration are frighteningly powerful and very interested in the political views—and social networking data—of those within its remit. They’re also part of the executive branch of government.
The Department of Homeland Security last year received permission to request social media accounts from all non-citizens at the US border. And when Trump’s executive order barring entry to citizens of many Muslim countries went into effect, US border control immediately began scrutinizing the Facebook pages and demanding that travelers from the affected countries unlock their phones and allow unlimited access by border control agents.
Since I started drafting this post a couple of weeks ago, border control agents have begun demanding that people entering the US unlock their phones so that agents can look through their emails and review private social media feeds and messages. As with so many other border control procedures, it’s not clear that this procedure is legal, but at least one journalist (from Canada, even) has previously been denied entry to the US after refusing to turn over his phone and potentially endanger his confidential sources. (In his case, border patrol agents demanded to see his phone to look for pictures of him “posing with dead bodies.” Imagine the same people finding photos from protests critical of the current administration and how they might elect to respond.)
In an excellent roundup on the whole situation, The Atlantic notes that Israel already profiles visitors and demands access to their email and social media messages to determine whether they’ll be allowed into the country. This is what that looks like when it’s applied to a US citizen at the Israeli border:
Okay, we are going to do something very interesting now!” Her face transformed from a harsh stare to a slight smirk. She proceeded to type “www.gmail.com” on her computer and then turned the keyboard toward me. “Log in,” she demanded.
“What? Really?” I was shocked.
I typed in my username and password in complete disbelief. She began her invasive search: “Israel,” “Palestine,” “West Bank,” “International Solidarity Movement.”
Looking back, I realize I shouldn’t have logged in. I should have known that nothing I did at this point would change my circumstances, and that this was an invasion of my privacy. Yet all the questions, the feeling that I had to defend myself for simply wanting to enter the country, and the unwavering eye contact of the security officers left me feeling like I had no choice.
And now it’s happening to US citizens at the US border as well:
“I travel all the time, and I was never asked to unlock my phone,” said Mr. Elsharkawi, an electronics salesman from Anaheim, Calif. “I have personal photos there, which I think is normal for anyone. It’s my right. It’s my phone.”
Eventually, he relented, and a Homeland Security agent looked through his phone for about 15 minutes, he said.
A NASA scientist, Sidd Bikkannavar, said he had a similar experience to Mr. Elsharkawi’s in January, when he was detained at the Houston airport until he handed over a NASA-issued phone for inspection, he told The Verge.
More broadly, it’s important to remember that US border control is extraordinarily powerful, extraordinarily corrupt, and regularly commits human rights abuses like six hours of illegal, abusive, physician-assisted searches.
In an interview I found quite affecting, WNYC radio producer Sarah Abdurrahman explains what it’s like to be detained by border control with your family, all US citizens. An excerpt from the interview details a record of casual cruelties, even to toddlers:
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: James Lyle is an attorney at the ACLU of Arizona. He says […] people have reported physical and verbal abuse, as well as denial of food, water or medical care by Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, which is under the Department of Homeland Security.
JAMES LYLE: The accounts are so widespread and so consistent, that it’s very hard to see this as anything other than a systemic problem and not just a couple of bad apples here or there.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Lyle told me the story of four-year-old Emily Ruiz who was detained for 20 hours at Dulles Airport.
JAMES LYLE: She was crying hysterically, and agents refused to let her speak with her parents for over 14 hours. They kept her in a cold room, with no bed, blanket or pillow and didn’t give her anything to eat, other than a cookie and some soda.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Even though she was a US citizen, CBP ultimately deported the little girl. She returned to the US three weeks later and was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder.
JAMES LYLE: The fact is it’s not necessary to abuse citizens and permanent residents or anyone to do the work of a Customs and Border Protection official. And yet, there aren’t any meaningful mechanisms holding Customs and Border Protection officials in check, and so there’s a real sense of impunity.
These stories are shocking, but they’re not scattered incidents—they represent a well-documented pattern of abuses of power.
If this stuff is news to you, as it is to many US citizens, it may be hard to come to terms with. A quick Google search will produce hundreds of personal narratives and media stories about abuses by our border control, or you could check the ACLU’s extensive documentation linked from any of their stories on the subject. You might want to take a moment and get a sense of the scope of the problem, and let it sink in.
If, after that, you accept these statements about border control’s tendency to overreach and current use of social media searches, you should be concerned that social networking data can be used to punish and exclude immigrants and visitors to the US whose contacts post political speech.
A reminder: all of this took place during previous administrations, so this is where we were before the current president was sworn in.
2. The US suppresses political protest, often violently
US law enforcement and governmental agencies have a history of violence toward political dissidents—and of pervasive domestic surveillance.
Consider the state of political protest in the US before this administration. Under the Obama and G.W. Bush adminstrations, peaceful protestors in the US were gassed, beaten, maimed, and jailed without cause. Legal observers and journalists covering protests have been brutalized and charged with rioting.
And our broader history is particularly brutal. Popular culture remembers that police beat and firehosed peaceful civil rights protestors, and set attack dogs on them. We vaguely recall that the National Guard murdered student protestors at Kent State. Few of us know much about the COINTELPRO program in which the FBI secretly directly and illegally attacked political dissenters and organizations within the US for fifteen years; the program was only exposed when a dissenting group burgled an FBI field office and gave the documents they stole to the media.
This is a good point to note that ten US states are attempting to criminalize or increase existing penalties for peaceful civil disobedience tactics practiced largely by Black and progressive groups as economic terrorism. (Among the tactics officials are attempting to criminalize: persistently shouting at current or former politicians).
It’s wonderful that the Women’s Marches last month were blessed with a protective, relaxed police response. But the day before, DC police used intense violence against Inauguration Day protestors, including the elderly and those clearly marked out as legal observers, then charged protesters and journalists with felony rioting. US News and World Report notes that the felony riot charges were justified with a reference to an event that took place after the arrests themselves:
Curiously, the charging papers for the mass-arrested group state a property damage estimate in excess of $100,000 and describe a big-ticket limo fire that occurred Friday afternoon in a different location and after the mass arrests took place.
Many protesters on January 20th were not peaceful; many were. As is often the case in the US, the presence of the former was used to justify the use of physical violence and unconstitutional legal force on the latter.
If you accept that—contrary to our national view of ourselves as a tolerant nation dedicated to free speech—we have selectively and violently targeted political protestors for abuse, you should probably be concerned for the future of political dissenters if our government happens to take a turn toward greater authoritarianism.
As for the question of surveillance, that’s easy. Thanks to whistleblowers, we know a little bit about some of the US government’s domestic surveillance tactics. We know they pursue social network data, both with warrants and without them. Again, this was all true during previous administrations.
This is the best documented and widely discussed piece of the argument, so I’m going to assume you accept this point. If you do, you should probably accept the idea that it’s very likely that all of your social network data will be available to any sufficiently motivated governmental agency.
3. The current administration is uniquely dangerous
Our current president and his administration have demonstrated their desire to make the US more dangerous for both immigrants and dissidents.
After the recent executive order banning entry for citizens of several majority-Muslim countries, the mass revokation of visas, and the chaos that has ensued, I don’t think I need to make much of a case that our president is willing to crash longstanding political and governmental norms to target immigrants. His campaign was built in part on caricaturing Latino and Muslim residents of the US as dangerous criminals, whether they’re recent immigrants or not, and he shows every sign of continuing to hold these positions as president.
The White House, under the guidance of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, has even announced that it will publish a list of crimes committed by immigrants, a tactic previous used by…Breitbart. (The SPLC has the actual numbers to counter the “extrapolated” aka largely made-up, figures used by white nationalist and other far-right groups to paint immigrants as a force of special evil.)
The president has also repeatedly claimed that popular opposition to his campaign, and now his presidency, is a hoax—that protestors are paid actors or criminals, which casts them as illegitimate threats to democracy. And he’s been pretty clear about which approaches to protest he considers admirable:
When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it, then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
When pressed during his campaign to explain his apparent endorsement of the massacre in Tienanmen, he said he was merely noting the strength of the government’s repressive actions—and called the protests a “riot” in the process. For those who remember only the photo of a man standing in front of a tank, a reminder that the Chinese government killed somewhere between 200 and several thousand unarmed citizens in the Tienanmen protests.
And, famously, our president admires Vladimir Putin’s leadership style.
“He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
Reminded by his interviewer that Putin’s government kills journalists, the president—then candidate—responded “I think our country does plenty of killing also.” Just as a reminder, when Russian citizens criticize their goverment online, they get jailed, sometimes for years.
Our president is a man who wanted a military parade with pavement-crushing tanks through DC for his inauguration/Day of Patriotic Devotion. He’s jovially discussed beating protestors at his rallies. He has targeted organizations and individuals for public shaming and attacks for crossing or displeasing him, including members of the press.
What does this have to do with your online habits? As protests across the US continue to build, and begin to be normalized as a non-extreme activity, the risk that the president and his administration will enact a retaliatory crackdown on protestors and activists continues to grow. And if they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it before the protests achieve critical mass.
I don’t think that this administration will succeed. If they put a lot of middle-class white protestors in jail, I think they will suffer real political damage. But I think the harm they could do in the meantime is considerable.
If you accept that our president has expressed admiration of violent repression of political dissent, and continues to cast both protesters and immigrants (documented or not) as threats to national stability and security, you should probably be concerned that his leadership will endanger both non-citizens and political dissidents.
4. Facebook will sell you for scrap
It’s very easy to forget what we know about Facebook, and to believe that it’s neutral or even generally in favor of liberty. Tech companies are all about openness, after all, and we’re all on Facebook so it must be okay…
Facebook is a machine for turning your emotional responses into money. It has no values. What it does have is a long record of anti-privacy actions, inviting your friends to snitch on you, collusion with governmental surveillance, facial-recognition databanking, and at least one deliberate attempt to secretly influence users’ emotional states. The European Commission has warned EU citizens not to use Facebook if they prefer that their private data not fall into the hands of US intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Facebook changes harmful policies when they’re discovered and when grassroots action threatens its profits, full stop. (Twitter, by contrast, has such strong commitments to transparency and free speech that it refusing to kick Nazis off its platform even when their abuses threaten its profits. Whee.)
If you believe Facebook will keep your data safe and never let it be used against you or your most vulnerable contacts, by governmental or private entities, you’re putting your faith in an entity that has demonstrated bad faith for years.
You can also delete your account, but Facebook reserves the right to keep information that others have shared about you. Because to Facebook, that information isn’t yours.
So if you know someone who leaves Facebook to protect themselves against any of the risks I’ve outlined, everything you’ve added to the company’s profile of that person remains available to both Facebook and its partners.
If controlling your speech feels frustrating, let it remind you that we are living through a moment of unusual danger. Do the things (make the calls, fund the lawsuits, do the work of mutual aid). Know your opponents (they’re probably not your fellow voters). Keep connected to your communities. But don’t despair and don’t withdraw.
We are in dicey times, but we’re not dead yet, and even if things don’t get science-fiction bad, we’re going to require resilience and raw cussedness to destroy the cultural, political, and economic machinery that got us here. Much of our courage and support comes from the people we read and talk to and love online, often on the very networks that expose us—and our friends—to genuine enemies of freedom and peace. We have to keep connected, but we don’t have to play on their terms.