The Muslim Pro and Muslim Mingle data harvesting revelations are consistent with the realities of American Muslim surveillance since 9/11.

The ostensible aim of state surveillance is to collect data — ”intelligence gathering” in the parlance of national security — but this objective is complemented by two additional and seemingly contradictory goals. 

For the architects of surveillance, those who are its targets must understand they are being watched, in order for the desired self-censorship and behaviour modification to take root. Only those who appreciate the possibility of being monitored would, after all, have any reason to avoid voicing dissenting opinions and engaging in political activism, wary of its consequences. 

On the other hand, they must also not know they are being watched, lest that begins to interfere with the very process of intelligence gathering. 

American Muslims have long been subject to surveillance and as a result, have become accustomed to these contradictory effects. Jokes abound in casual conversations about one’s personal FBI agent, tapped phones, and who may be a government informant, indicating an understanding that the community is constantly under watch. 

Yet, when these facts are disclosed, shock is often the first response. “It was a terrifying feeling,” one student told the ACLU after discovering that a charitable religious group he founded had been infiltrated. “I couldn't believe that an NYPD informant had been in my home.”

This shock was on full display as a report from Vice revealed that the US military, through third-party intermediaries, had access to location data for millions of Muslims who used apps such as Muslim Pro and Muslim Mingle. Even as there was an understanding that American Muslim communities were under constant surveillance, the knowledge of it proved to be unsettling. 

The shock was further compounded by the popularity of one of the apps. Muslim Pro, with a self-reported total of 98 million downloads across all platforms, was a ubiquitous presence among American Muslim communities. That it was presumably a Muslim-owned and developed app (though this has now become an open question) exacerbated matters even more. 

Smartphone apps, a new frontline Muslims

The recent revelation, however, is consistent with the realities of American Muslim surveillance since 9/11.

It has long been recognised that HUMINT — intelligence that is gathered through personal contact — drains resources and manpower. It may at times be necessary — under the guise of “community outreach” or through the use of FBI informants — but it is not always preferable.

Instead, surveillance of American Muslims has proceeded through three distinct means: an increasing deputisation of community members as “the eyes and ears” of the state through which surveillance can be outsourced to the community itself; the use of sophisticated software to data-mine and geo-map Muslim communities; and targeted social media surveillance usually carried out by third-party contractors. 

The deputisation of community members has been an integral component of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs launched under the Obama administration and rebranded as Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) under the Trump administration. 

Based on the erroneous assumption that there are risk factors associated with who becomes a terrorist, the program, in its various local iterations, relies on school teachers, social workers, religious leaders, and family and community members to be watchful for vague and discredited risk factors of radicalisation. 

In Maryland’s Montgomery County, for example, more than 25 people were identified as “may be at risk of violent extremism” by community members, nonprofits, police officers, and public agencies between September 2013 and June 2014. The reasons noted for their referrals were homesickness, suffering from “acculturation related stress, feelings of alienation,” and having “economic stressors in their family.” 

This community surveillance is facilitated by state-led data mining operations which allow government agencies to identify the location of ethnic and religious minorities and pinpoint “where people live, work, pray, eat and shop.” 

This geo-mapping is not done based on any evidence or suspicion of possible crimes but, as the ACLU stated in 2011, is based entirely on “associating criminal behaviours with certain racial and ethnic groups and then using U.S. census data and other demographic information to map where those communities are located to investigate them.”

More recently, with the advance in smart technology, it has become possible for local government agencies to invest in surveillance of their own localities. 

Last year, San Diego’s city council voted to install more than 14,000 smart streetlights in the city. Equipped with microphones, cameras, and sensors and intended to collect data, the streetlights were suspiciously found to be installed in the city’s many ethnic enclaves and around mosques. 

Not surprisingly, this was a cause for concern to the executive director of the local Council on American Islamic Relations chapter, Dustin Craun. “With the metadata that these lights track, they can look at everyone that enters … and leaves those mosques,” said Craun. “They can create data profiles about our populations, about who’s at the mosque most frequently.”

While these measures aim to surveil the physical location of Muslims, their social media presence has also not been neglected. 

The most prominent example is that of the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) Regional Information Center and its use of Geofeedia, a social media surveillance system, to “conduct online surveillance in 2014, 2015, and 2016.” The BPD, according to documents released by the ACLU, “used Geofeedia to monitor the use of various basic Arabic words used in everyday conversations and the hashtag ‘#muslimlivesmatter,’ suggesting that BPD considered Muslims as a group to be legitimate targets of surveillance.”

As the above examples highlight, the feature of American Muslims surveillance is the establishment of ever-expanding sites of surveillance, both physical and digital, and the subsequent shrinking of privacy. 

Indeed, at times, this is explicitly acknowledged to be the goal. 

According to a 2012 report sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and focused on Somali youth in Minneapolis, “youth’s unaccountable times and unobserved spaces” — in other words, privacy — was recognised as a “risk factor” for “violent extremism.” This claim was repeated in a 2019 draft application seeking federal funding for Boston’s CVE program. 

While the Vice report provides a useful reminder regarding the realities of surveillance, it should be seen within the broader context of a growing surveillance apparatus directed at American Muslims which seeks to bring every facet of life under its purview. 

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