By Imara Jones
Given the massive investment in national security after 9-11, recent news that the federal government is spying on hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the world may not have come as a surprise. Polls suggest that a majority of Americans are shrugging their shoulders at the revelations of a government espionage effort against them. But an uncomfortable reality of the once secret scheme is the degree to which people of color are disproportionately caught up in the government’s dragnet. That’s because the routine, legal activities of blacks, Latinos and immigrants—96 percent of whom are people of color—make them targets for monitoring in a way not true for whites.
For the over 40 million foreign born immigrants living in America—more than at any point in U.S. history—the basic act of keeping in contact with friends and family abroad is all that’s required to be sucked into the Obama administration’s electronic dragnet. Disturbingly, the fact that much of this historically broad snooping program is conducted by private companies with dubious oversight makes it that much harder for communities of color to figure out exactly what’s going on and how to curb any potential abuses.
Let’s review the key details of what’s known about these clandestine projects.
America’s intelligence services—particularly the National Security Agency, or NSA—are collecting an almost unfathomable amount of information on the phone calls, spending habits, and Internet activities of countless people in the U.S. and around the world. William Binney, a former NSA employee, estimates that the agency has collected over 20 trillion individual pieces of information on millions of people, American citizens and foreigners alike.
The sheer scale of these activities was revealed by 29 year-old Edward Snowden, another former NSA employee himself, in documents released to London’s The Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post. Snowden said that he was doing so in order to uncover an “architecture of oppression” at the heart of the U.S. government.
The efforts that Snowden exposed include the scooping up of records on the more than 3 billion daily phone calls made through carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Bell South. The Wall Street Journal reported that major credit card companies, such as Visa and Mastercard, are also turning over huge swaths of information on the purchases that individuals make.