Privacy advocates in the technology space have a new ally in Arab American groups to help with their fight to keep U.S. surveillance at bay. They are spurred on by anti-Muslim rhetoric from Republicans.
In December, Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of U.S. borders to Muslim immigrants. In March, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the country needed to “empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
Earlier this month, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich backed the idea of testing “every person from here who is of a Muslim background” and deporting them if they believe in Sharia law.
It’s no surprise that privacy and civil rights groups shudder at such statements. Now they are joined by Arab American advocacy groups that view those remarks as a call to be more publicly opposed to government surveillance.
In June, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee signed on to two letters to members of Congress, urging lawmakers to fight government surveillance. The letter was co-signed by some of the most notable tech and privacy groups.
The first letter, dated June 6, urged members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject an amendment that would allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation to obtain personal information — an individual’s name, postal address, email address, phone number, device serial number, login history and length of service with a provider — through a subpoena instead of a warrant. The supporters of that bill eventually pulled the measure from consideration because of a disagreement over the amendment.
The ADC signed on to another letter the following week, pressing House leadership to adopt an amendment to a defense spending bill that would prohibit intelligence officials from conducting warrantless searches of data gathered through Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act. House lawmakers rejected the amendment.
The Arab American Institute signed on to the second letter, and the ADC and AAI were the only two signatories representing a specific cultural group.
ADC has partnered with civil liberty and tech advocates to fight government surveillance for more than a decade, but the divisive language surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign has increased concerns surrounding the issue.
“There is an urgency due to the political rhetoric and hate climate,” Yolanda Rondon, staff attorney for the ADC, wrote in an email to Morning Consult. “The calls for registry and immigration bans, patrolling neighbors are troubling and alarming, where fear mongering is being used to allow the abrogation of civil rights.”
Some of the comments featured from White House candidates were later walked back. Cruz told CNN that his statement on patrolling Muslim neighborhoods “does not mean targeting Muslims, it means targeting radical Islamic terrorists.”
Still, the issue for Arab-American groups is historically based. The Arab American Institute said at the time that Cruz’s suggestion “stands starkly against all that our Constitution embodies and is a rabbit hole we cannot go down.”
“When we begin to chip at constitutional rights, and all for a false sense of security because nothing is 100 percent or guaranteed, we go back to a time of the ‘Red Scare’ and McCarthy era, and the unconstitutional internment of Japanese Americans,” Rondon said.
The ADC has pushed back against surveillance since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the group started to get calls “related to persons believing cars were following them, random unnamed officials were infiltrating mosques and cultural centers, or tapping their phones, watching their communications,” Rondon said.
In 2013, the group focused on “substantive reform” to the Patriot Act to ensure the privacy of Arab Americans from the U.S. government.
Surveillance remains one of the ADC’s top priorities, particularly in relation to “arbitrary and discriminatory placement on watch lists,” as well as programs designed to counter violent extremism that Rondon says has “disproportionately targeted” the Arab American community.
The U.S. government has launched a large online counter extremism initiative through a variety of agencies and community grants. The administration says its focus is on drowning out posts on social media that present violence with positive messages.
Earlier this month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson unveiled a $10 million grant program that will give local communities the resources to counter the influences that could incite certain individuals —i.e., lone wolves — to plan a terrorist attack.
“Building bridges to local communities is as important as any of our other homeland security missions,” Johnson said at the time.
But the ADC doesn’t view the counter extremism push the same way. These programs “made us suspect classes [of people] for criminal behavior or terrorism, and that our population must be controlled and watched,” Rondon said. “Our community is targeted and looked at with suspicion and placed on No Fly Lists, Selectee Lists and watch lists because of our country of birth, our Arabic name, wearing cultural garb or article of faith.”
This plays into their fight against surveillance. Privacy advocates have pushed back on the government’s ability to search the database of information picked up through Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act. The sweep scoops up intelligence on U.S. residents even though it’s supposed to be limited to foreigners.
The ADC’s fear of being targeted by the government makes the group even more skeptical about the FISA program. “Arab American citizens, while 702 is suppose to focus on non-U.S. persons, are disproportionately targeted based on their country of birth/national origin/family ancestry and are wrapped up in ‘incidental data collection’ because of their communications with families and friends overseas,” Rondon wrote.
Privacy advocates have fought Section 702’s renewal because, they argue, it collects data of U.S. people who have communicated with someone overseas. They also say there is little oversight into how intelligence agencies can search the database.