Putting Surveillance On ICE

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By Chris Jasinski

By now, many of us have read the gut-wrenching reports of ICE agents separating immigrant families at the border, including children from their mothers. While this story won’t be my focus, it provides us with yet more confirmation of ICE’s state-sponsored terrorist tactics.

So it might surprise you that we still get these sorts of questions:

“Why are you all so focused on ICE? What do they have to do with my privacy rights?”

We get them a lot, in fact, because where there’s a fight to be had against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in the Bay Area, you’ll probably see Oakland Privacy organizing and advocating, alongside a coalition of groups and outraged citizens, for the most vulnerable people in our communities.

That said, the connection between ICE and defending the privacy isn’t always obvious. What follows here will not be an exhaustive list but should serve as a primer to folks who are just waking up to horrors produced by this rogue organization.

It’s helpful to know that ICE was established in the wake of 9/11, as a critical node of the Bush Administration’s newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. Ever since then, ICE has run roughshod over human rights, mostly in the name of securing our borders from “terrorism.”

And that’s an important point to remember: although much of the public now associates ICE exclusively with the topic of immigration, it wasn’t necessarily sold to us that way in 2002. One might recall the countless political hacks spewing imaginary stories of Al-Qaeda et al. crossing the Mexican border, hatching terrorist plots against innocent Americans. At the time it convinced a lot of people, and now, sixteen years later, we must soberly assess our government’s manipulative opportunism as one of the worst turning points in the nation’s long history of excessive law enforcement. Those agencies who were supposedly charged to protect us from terror came to quickly embody the terror. And with it came a deliberate assault on the civil liberties meant to protect everyone in this country.

So, “Why are you all so focused on ICE?” and “What do they have to do with my privacy rights?”. When we begin to look at their track record, a number of reasons emerge, both pragmatic and philosophical.

Materially, ICE is one of the worst abusers of invasive surveillance technology in the U.S. In May of 2017, it was discovered that ICE was using Stingray devices as deportation efforts ramped up under the Trump Administration. Even when being used to pursue a legal warrant, Stingray devices are incredibly problematic, as they intercept cell communications from anyone in a given targeted vicinity, regardless of criminality. The list goes on. In March 2017, The Intercept revealed that ICE themselves had awarded Peter Thiel’s secretive data mining company Palantir Technologies with a contract for $20 billion to build and maintain their core intelligence system, allowing ICE nearly unrestricted access to troves of citizens’ personal information.

These gripes aren’t just on the national stage, however. Whether it’s trying to comb through license-plate-reader data though its partnership with NCRIC (Northern California Regional Intelligence Center), or terrorizing, detaining, and deporting our innocent neighbors in West Oakland, ICE’s work in the Bay Area could be the poster child of what happens when you give law enforcement the green light to act with impunity. And Oakland is a sanctuary city, mind you. The thought of what they might be getting away with elsewhere in this country is chilling, and I fear that the reports we’re hearing now of children being torn from their parents is only scratching the surface of a systematic apparatus of abuse.

These real-world abuses are a big part of our beef with ICE, and while they might seem like isolated political battles to a newcomer, they’re rooted in a deep set of beliefs that inform our mission and strategy.

While ICE is particularly egregious, we believe that law enforcement in general (local police, the FBI, etc.) are the primary antagonists in the privacy debate. Whether it’s authorities attempting to turn Oakland into a surveillance dystopia, cops flying spy planes tens of thousands of feet above Baltimore to control political action, or using emerging facial recognition technology to effectively place innocent citizens into a perpetual lineup, police have demonstrated time and again their cynical near-sightedness and utter disregard for any of the freedoms they claim to defend. That’s why our fight isn’t just with ICE, it’s with any arm of the state that seeks to detain us in the invisible cage of surveillance.

Though, because they target immigrant communities, ICE is often at the twisted vanguard of surveillance abuse. Among the most vulnerable in our country, the undocumented are often viewed as subhuman and criminal by the right, or are completely invisible to those on the so-called left (the horrific Obama years were an embarrassing testament to liberal deafness on the issue). Over time, this divide has created political blind spots which provide just enough cover for agencies like ICE, who are fully aware of the dynamic, to abuse their power in ways which the public might very well ignore.

When any one of their tactics is exposed, it can generate a brief but potent moment of outrage. If that outrage is not translated into direct political action, then it will flicker out, and the process of normalization will set in, only to be seized upon by another law enforcement agency and further normalized.

Oakland Privacy’s mission is not to target one coercive law enforcement agency over another, but to undercut the cycle that produces such coercive capabilities for any law enforcement. We achieved a major victory to this end as Oakland finally passed “The New Gold Standard in Community Control of Police Surveillance” in May 2018, the culmination of years of hard-fought advocacy and political will. We also helped make Oakland a true sanctuary city, passing a resolution that explicitly prohibited Oakland PD from providing any material support to ICE agents conducting raids, etc. The more we divide them and expose their terror-inducing behavior, the safer our communities will be.

There is so much work to be done, and while the fight may often begin with ICE, it doesn’t stop there.

Our vision is to build a community that is free from the chains of coercion and paranoia. That begins by dismantling the machinery which produces them.

More often than not, that machinery wears a badge.


Chris Jasinski is an active member of Oakland Privacy

 

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