Government programs and tactics designed to track Muslims in communities around the United States may face heightened scrutiny in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting the use of cellphone data in criminal investigations, and a high-profile settlement reached in a lawsuit targeting a New York City Police Department program.
Advocates at a conference hosted at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, The Color of Surveillance, said this week that efforts to monitor Muslim communities create a destructive and discriminatory environment reminiscent of past government efforts targeting Jewish and black Americans.
In New York City, the police department reached settlements that include reforms and stricter guidance in investigating religious or ethnic groups. New York University graduate student Asad Dandia and U.S. Army Sgt. Farhaj Hassan, lead plaintiffs in separate lawsuits filed against the NYPD, said the impact of surveillance on Muslims continues to run deep in their communities.
In these cases, police used video surveillance, informants and community mapping. Under the settlement, the department is barred from launching investigations if race, religion, ethnicity or national origin, among other limitations, is a substantial or motivating favor.
A recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Carpenter v. United States, creates a higher privacy standard in investigations by limiting the use of cellphone records. It could have sweeping implications for other types of digital information. The opinion, however, added it “does not consider other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security.”
In Dandia’s case, the NYPD used an informant and other techniques to track him and his friends’ nonprofit, which donated food to the hungry through their local mosque in Brooklyn. Even with the settlement and changes, distrust grew in the community and it became more difficult to raise money at the mosque, he said.
“A lot of people cut off communication with one another,” Dandia said. “We reached a settlement in the lawsuit and we were pleased with the support of the local community. It’s just one step closer to a broader process of seeking justice.”
Other government programs have been launched that led to divisions within communities, according to a panel moderated by Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law. The discussion became heated at times, with some people criticizing the programs as divisive and discriminatory.
Ayaan Dahir with the Young Muslim Collective spoke out about a Countering Violent Extremism program launched in Minneapolis, one of several around the country that mark Muslim people in the community and track them in schools and their communities.
“You see a community, a population of people who are already very vulnerable, the impact that this type of monitoring would have on places that should be safe,” Dahir said. “In this program, the constant equivocation of Muslims as terrorists, or inherently and uniquely susceptible to radicalization, has really put a target on our backs from the larger community.”
Supporters argue the programs can serve to create better communication between government and communities.
William Braniff with the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, speaking in favor of the programs, said these efforts, which are also in cities including Boston and Los Angeles, have room to improve and do not necessarily only use surveillance, but collect data to prevent terrorism.
“The reason I’m a staunch supporter is because I believe is it the ability to minimize polarization if done correctly,” Braniff said.