MDF Op-Ed in Chronicle of Philanthropy

A Digital Human Rights Threat Demands More Attention From Foundations

By amalia deloney
Director of programs, Media Democracy Fund

Published in Chronicle of Philanthropy, July 25, 2019


Imagine that the past five years of your social-media activity suddenly became available to government officials. They could find your every errant thought posted on Twitter, every update on how your child is doing in school, every friend or follower on your Facebook page, every politically charged post, every photo of you and your loved ones on vacation.

Now imagine that a government assessment of your social-media presence determines whether you can enter a country.

For an estimated 710,000 people now applying for visas to move to the United States, this invasive nightmare has become a reality: The State Department recently announced that it now requires nearly all visa applicants to submit their social-media user names, phone numbers, and email addresses from the past five years on their visa applications.

For immigrants, this is only the latest egregious violation of their rights and privacy. Since the 2000s, the United States has increasingly used technology to conduct surveillance of immigrants. This comes as white-nationalist rhetoric now has intensified, and the Trump administration has sought to increase the number of immigrants detained or deported.

Grant makers and nonprofits must work together alongside advocates and activists to stop these violations and defend the rights of immigrants.

At the Media Democracy Fund, where I work, we support the organizations, advocates, and activists working to combat methods of surveillance that threaten human rights in the digital age.

While these affronts to human dignity and safety get far less attention than the border camps and other issues that have captured scrutiny from lawmakers, grant makers, nonprofits, the news media, and everyday citizens, it is no less urgent. Stepped-up surveillance is a problem not just for immigrants but also for people who work at nonprofits to protect those seeking asylum, refuge, and a better life in the United States.

History of Disgrace

Immigrant surveillance has a long and disgraceful history in the United States.

During World War I, although the methods were low-tech, the government exploited nativist fears to spur surveillance that led to the internment of 2,300 immigrants and the arrests of many more.

The Immigration Act of 1918 ordered the deportation of immigrants with anarchist beliefs. World War II brought the unconscionable internment of Japanese-Americans — whether immigrants or citizens — as part of a broad surveillance campaign against "enemy aliens."

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act, which expanded the reach of government surveillance by allowing law-enforcement agencies to share intercepted telephone and email communications without a court order — a clear violation of essential rights. At the same time, hundreds of foreign-born people were detained without due process — another rights violation — and soon the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency was formed.

Bipartisan Policy

Immigrant surveillance is a bipartisan effort. Under President Obama, ICE began using biometrics, which are digitized measurements of immigrants’ bodies. Obama also bolstered a Bush-era program called Secure Communities, which sent fingerprints taken in local jails to the Department of Homeland Security and resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of both undocumented and documented immigrants. Although Obama subsequently halted the Secure Communities program, ICE and the Customs and Border Protection agency have continued to use mobile biometrics.

Immigrant surveillance has continued to evolve, becoming more sophisticated and more dangerous. Its use continues to spread, reaching from federal agencies all the way to the local police.

As of January 2019, biometric facial-recognition technology is being used at U.S. borders. ICE is using an automated license-plate-reader database as a tool for mass surveillance of immigrants. More than 80 local law-enforcement agencies from more than a dozen states have agreed to share their residents’ license-plate information with ICE, even when it violates local privacy laws or sanctuary policies. What’s more, the U.S. government has created a secret database of activists, journalists, and social-media influencers connected to migrant caravans and, in some cases, placed alerts on their passports.

Most alarming, governments are shrouding in secrecy the ways in which they’re using these tools. There is no transparency — which is why privacy advocates and activists are fighting to bring attention to the issue and to stop immigrant surveillance at the national level.

When the U.S. government announced in 2017 that it would begin collecting, storing, and monitoring immigrants’ social-media accounts, raising both free-speech and privacy concerns, privacy advocates — and Media Democracy Fund grantees — such as Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology and the Brennan Center for Justice urged the Department of Homeland Security to drop the effort, which it did. The Department of Health and Human Services, too, tracked personal data from the households of would-be sponsors of children seeking asylum, to aid immigration verification and deport the children’s relatives. The Media Mobilizing Project joined other grantees in pushing back against this human-rights intrusion.

Consequences of Trump Policy

As President Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric grows in intensity, those fighting against immigrant surveillance know that the problems we face have serious consequences.

Grant makers can start bolstering the work of those combating these privacy violations.

A first step is to learn the dimensions of the challenges ahead and what efforts are most in need of support. Attending leading-edge conferences and gatherings, like the Georgetown center’s the Color of Surveillance, is an effective way for grant makers to consult with experts, listen to those most affected, and connect with the groups going head-to-head with our nation’s government.

But the work cannot stop there. We must then use this knowledge to direct our resources to help fuel a growing movement.

Today and every day, nonprofits and foundations must stand up and protect the rights of those relentlessly attacked by the federal government. It is the job of grant makers to provide the resources to fight back, and to fund organizations on the front lines of a crisis that threatens the rights and privacy of us all.

amalia deloney is director of programs at the Media Democracy Fund.