Monday 15 January 2018

Let's talk about surveillance on Martin Luther King Day

Last November, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation released some previously classified files related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The contents of the files were largely unsurprising and already known. A 20-page document on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. included in the files painted a picture of the famed civil rights activist and Nobel Prize recipient as something straight out of a book on paranoia.

The FBI did its best to tag King as a communist, as it did to everyone who didn't toe the white, flag-waving, military industrialist line of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and ilk. It's no secret that the FBI under Hoover was obsessed with communism, nor is it a secret that Hoover loathed King and surveilled him extensively. It all began when the FBI was informed about Dr. King's connection to Stanley Levison, once a financier of the Communist Party USA. (Full background here.)

The most outlandish thing about the FBI's attempts to discredit King by labeling him a communist may be that they knew he was not a communist. They knew he wanted to distance himself from communism. They knew, because they had unwarranted wiretaps of him saying he wanted to distance himself from communism. They also knew Stanley Levison had severed ties with the Communist Party USA because they had tapped his phone, too. The FBI used wiretaps, bugs, and informants because the United States government was afraid of peaceful activism for civil liberties that would disrupt existing power structures.

Now, King was just one of many people the FBI wiretapped; it was common for people of color to be surveilled in America throughout its history. It is still common today, as we learned from Edward Snowden and continue to discover. The US Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring the civil rights activist group Black Lives Matter since the protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the police shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. (The DHS even monitored a walk to end breast cancer; it seems no cause is out of reach of the profane arms of government surveillance.) Unlike in King's time, US law enforcement can now legally wiretap without a court order under the expanded Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which is used to spy on American citizens.

Dr. King lived in pre-internet times, before cameras were on every corner and facial recognition software made it impossible to walk down a street unknown. Wiretaps and mini spy cameras that seem quaint in a day when we all carry a camera in our pockets were the available technology of his day. Imagine if he had lived in our time, when governments, corporations, and cybercriminals work hard to monitor our internet activity and steal our data. Imagine law enforcement trying to crack the encryption on his phone while he sat in a Birmingham jail. Imagine the government requests to Google and Facebook for access to his accounts. Imagine DHS using location and social media tracking to map the Selma march as they did for a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, DC. Imagine those things, as they would have happened to King were he active today, because they happen to others now.

The excuses vary from country to time period. National security is usually the reason given by the Americans, but some form of that excuse is used across the globe. In our current time and too often, governments use "terrorism" as the excuse to monitor their citizens, when in reality all they want is power and control. From Hoover to Trump to Sisi to African dictators to the mullahs of Iran, no country is immune to such fearmongering. Telecoms corporations are frequently all too complicit in this government surveillance as well. It's a match made in that hot place that preachers talk about. The word paranoia comes from the Greek παράνοια (paranoia), "madness", and that from παρά (para), "beside, by" and νόος (noos), "mind". Suffice it to say that is the true motivation for much if not most surveillance. Most people just want to live their private lives in peace.

We all have a dream to end the overzealous, Orwellian surveillance of the paranoid state. But like King's dream of a colorblind world, our dream, too, is far from reality. That's why we have created encryption tools to avoid surveillance. Privacy is a human right.

Protect yourself from the watchful eyes of Big Brother with our VPN, messenger, and file transfer app. Get them here:

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