You got a lot of societies and governments
Trying to be God, wishing that they were God
They want to create satellites and cameras everywhere
And make you think they got the All-Seeing Eye
– Mos Def, “Fear Not of Man“
On a Monday this year I drove home for less than 24 hours to be with my family on my birthday. I was met with a small box, inside of which was a smaller box, inside of which was a smooth flat black rectangle.
“Now throw away your old phone.” My mother demanded.
After years of toting unreliable standard cellphone, I had been gifted a smartphone. Initially I kept it at a three-foot distance, suspicious as it buzzed a notification for every spam email I received. Months later, it is the first and last thing I look at every day and it sleeps with me in my bed. For a two-week period I had self-induced a painful repetitive stress injury in both wrists from too much scrolling. I carry it as my watch, my Quran, my notebook, my calendar, my radio, my GPS, my flashlight and occasionally a phone.
The device was a small leap to integrating how I already lived, since my peers and I have a parallel component of our lives which exists online. I’ve carried on friendship-ending arguments over email, shared old family photos by virtual albums, and circumvented thousands of miles of physical distance by having long conversations screen to screen. These interactions have been no less real to me, and no less important for having happened on a digital interface.
Last month I received a phone call from family friends, an elderly couple, who called to say they had returned safely from Umrah, a non-obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. I began to compose a group text to my family to relay the good news, but I hesitated. I wondered who else I would be informing. I did not wish to add to the pool of data on this couple, surely already being tracked because of their recent travel. Nor did I wish to be monitored, or chance having any of my family members involved. I deleted the message draft and decided to wait until I saw my family in person.
This summer the whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former intelligence contractor, revealed the extent of access the National Security Agency has to every form of communication of each person worldwide. This includes the ability to eavesdrop on phonecalls, read emails, look at photos, scan text messages, track location, cache online activity, and remotely turn on the recorders on our phones. The revelations are ongoing, so the list of NSA capabilities continues.
For many Americans, the surrender of all personal communiqué, even without their consent, is acceptable if the aggregation of their most intimate secrets contributes to needs of Security. But an agency unaccountable for its actions yet responsible for the nebulous idea of “Security” has become patently illogical to me, and many others who object to being spied upon.
In a recent revelation by the Associated Press, it was found that every Muslim house of worship in New York had been secretly classified as a Terrorist organizations so that the NYPD could spy on all activities and attendees without first getting a court warrant. The Fourth Amendment protection seemingly did not apply here because tracking 800,000 Muslim New Yorkers was not seen as an unreasonable search and seizure.
This was not an entirely surprising story, given existing national law enforcement practices like FBI-planted spies who pose as new Muslim converts in mosques across the country. These covert faux-Muslims have attempted to collect incriminating statements from the communities they monitor, only to be repeatedly turned over by Muslims to the FBI for their suspicious behavior. Despite being treated as a collective threat, American Muslims remain a primary force for preventing terrorism.
The knowledge of transgressions by prying public institutions into personal life has affected the collective American Muslim psyche. It has affected mine. Where I once joked among friends that there were CIA agents in our mosque, I now earnestly warn younger friends to be wary to whom they speak. I have, on multiple occasions, cooly received new Muslim converts, or Muslims who have struck me as odd. Encountering Muslim strangers, I still exchange a greeting of Salaam, peace, but I no longer take the risk of being kind.
An impossible standard set for Security not only crushes liberty, it threatens human connection. Endless personnel “analyzing” “data” ignores the nature of communication. In all words there is nuance, context, flexibility and gaps. Ignore these elements, and all but the most unambiguous statements can be contorted into something ugly. It is this potential I fear when I purse my lips and stop myself from an action as small as cracking a sarcastic joke, or as large as my right to voice a political opinion.
Activists as prominent in our history as Martin Luther King Jr. had earned their place on FBI watchlists as a result of agitating and organizing for justice;I need no such grand agenda. Me and millions like me are profiled solely for our religious identity, and it’s all possible through our phones. I am watched as a threat and then am told it is for the good of my country. But where is my protection from Security?