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Government Says: iSpy on American Muslims and Arabs

posted on: Mar 2, 2016

BY: Nisreen Eadeh/Staff Writer

The War on Terror implemented by President George W. Bush in 2001 has often been defined as an international military front against terrorist organizations from al-Qaeda to ISIL. However, the seedy underbelly of the War on Terror includes the domestic surveillance programs (i.e. spying on Americans through their phones, social media presence, and public behavior) that came packaged with anti-terrorism initiatives, beginning with the Patriot Act of 2001.

In the wake of 9/11, Americans have been slowly, and often unknowingly, relinquishing privacy freedoms for the sake of the war through surveillance programs conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, local police departments, and more.

Last week, a federal court ordered the company Apple to unlock an iPhone owned by one of the terrorists in the San Bernadino attack last November, causing Apple and other major tech giants to define the extent of their relationships with the federal government. The court order came after the FBI was unable to access the encrypted iPhone to determine the attackers’ connection with ISIL or other possible terrorists in the United States. The Justice Department is arguing that American technology companies are needed for the fight against terrorism and is asking Apple to build software that would enable the FBI to break into locked iPhones. Apple is refusing to comply with the request, saying “we believe that is a very dangerous operating system” and such software would “trample” civil liberties.

By Monday, more than twenty-five major technology firms, media, and civil rights groups have thrown their support behind Apple, including Microsoft, Verizon, Facebook, Google, and Amazon. These firms are concerned about the precedent that could be set by allowing the federal government to mandate the creation of malicious code or software that has the potential to be shared with other governments, too. While a corporation like Apple has the freedom to resist an FBI request, American citizens, particularly Arabs and Muslims, are not as fortunate.

Because the Department of Justice has adopted a preventative approach to combating terrorism, as opposed to prosecuting terrorists after a crime is committed, many communities have become targets for spying, enhanced law enforcement practices, and weakened civil liberties. Conducting surveillance in search of terrorists has established an ideal or type of person that law enforcement looks for that are of concern to Arab and Muslim American communities.

In order to define who could be a possible terrorist, the FBI works with local law enforcement to put informants in mosques, student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, and cafes with high levels of Arab and Muslim customers.

The FBI informant program, consisting of 15-16,000 informants, also pervades entire communities. An informant planted into a city like Dearborn in Michigan, which has a significant Arab American population, is used to initiate a pre-emptive prosecution by convincing residents that he is part of a terrorist network and asks the resident to join him. Informants will offer money and use inciting language as a way of rallying residents to join him. Arab and Muslim Americans are also recruited to be informants by the FBI and spy on their neighbors.

This program has proven ineffective as a counterterrorism strategy because all it found was a minuscule number of people who were willing to commit acts of terror after being enticed by FBI informants. The fact that the federal government uses tax payer dollars to try to convert Arabs and Muslims into terrorists is not only unethical, but counterintuitive for maintaining national security. Arab and Muslim Americans are part of the nation that the FBI is trying to protect, so to distort resources to profile and target one group of Americans stripping them of their safety and comfort afforded by the Constitution.

Another ineffective FBI strategy to combating terrorism is based off the New York Police Department’s model for detecting “radicalization.” Although the NYPD disabled its mosque surveillance and radicalization detection programs last year, the FBI still uses this useless strategy of finding a radicalized person. There are four phases to radicalization that determine whether or not a person could be a terrorist: pre-radicalization; self identification (growing a beard, wearing traditional Islamic clothing); indoctrination (self-alienation from family and former life); and jihadization (becoming an active terrorist). By using jihadization as the last step to radicalization, the federal government is defining all terrorists as Muslims and ignoring a history of non-Muslim terrorists, be it Latinos group such as the National Front for the Liberation of Cuba, Jewish extremist groups like the Jewish Defense League, or white supremacist groups like the Aryan Nation. Those who participated in the terrorist acts of these non-Muslim groups must have gone through a process to decide to commit violent acts, as well.

If proponents of the War on Terror are truly forming a global front against terrorism, their reach should go beyond the Middle East. Creating these specific markers that determine who can be a terrorist is discriminatory and allows federal law enforcement to bring charges to someone who hasn’t actually committed a crime. Further enhancing this level of power through encryption-breaking software would only make the government a larger threat to the lives of millions of Arabs and Muslims living in the United States.

Apple’s resistance to the FBI’s court order is shedding light on the unlawful domestic surveillance programs that are negatively affecting American lives. Even if the program would be used to crack the personal information of convicted criminals, asking any person or company to violate American values of liberty and privacy to assist the government should not be accepted in society.

The government is already going too far to counter terrorism by violating the rights of Americans and permeating fear of prosecution or being falsely labeled as a terrorist. To let the government go any further into domestic surveillance would be irresponsible and make it that much easier for law enforcement and citizens to discriminate against Arab and Muslim Americans.