The color of surveillance

Alvaro Bedoya writes: Every day, we hear about the power and promise of pervasive surveillance. We are losing sight of its victims. Instead, an NSA debate that could have surfaced a long line of black, Latino, Asian, and Muslim victims of surveillance was cast as an argument between the U.S. military and Snowden — national security versus the hackers.

This narrow focus may have blinded Congress to a little known but especially troubling aspect of the NSA scandal. In June 2013, the headlines were that the NSA was logging everyone’s phone calls. We now know that the NSA’s call records program — the single largest domestic spying program in our nation’s history — was effectively beta-tested for almost a decade on American immigrants.

In 1992, the Drug Enforcement Administration began a call records program that’s considered the blueprint for the NSA’s program, which began after Sept. 11 and received court approval in 2006. The DEA program logged virtually all calls made from the United States to a list of countries, regardless of who made them or why. Over time, 116 countries were added to that list — including Mexico and most of Central and South America. This means that for almost a decade before the NSA call records program, countless immigrants’ calls were tracked by the DEA when they called home. This is particularly true for Hispanic immigrants, who make up a large part of what is now the largest minority group in the country. We do not know what transpired in Congress’ closed-door discussions about the NSA or DEA call records programs, but public debates largely ignored these facts.

The next NSA debate will peak at the end of 2017. That’s the expiration date of another surveillance law that allows the government to read — without a warrant — certain messages stored on companies’ U.S. servers where at least one party to the communication was a foreigner living abroad. Will Congress probe the likely disparate impact of this law? If not, when will Congress reckon with the color of surveillance? [Continue reading…]

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