By Irasema Garza, J.D., Policy Advisor, NCLR Policy Analysis Center
The old adage that nothing is certain in life except for death and taxes is no longer entirely correct. With the advent of new and emerging technologies, we can add government surveillance to the list. Our daily activities are routinely tracked and our private information collected, sold, and shared without our knowledge or consent. It has also become common for federal and state governments to track our daily activities through the Internet, our cell phones, GPS devices, license plate scanners, and stingray technology.
Many Americans find government surveillance unacceptable and a clear violation of constitutional rights. A survey by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research found that a vast majority of participants, including Latinos, strongly agreed with the proposition: “I have nothing to hide, so government surveillance does not concern me.” The survey respondents also reasoned that, unlike private companies who track Internet users for profit, the government’s motivation is to protect the country from terrorists and criminals.
Assuming that crime prevention is justification for government surveillance, I wonder how many people in the “ I have nothing to hide” category would feel differently if instead of unwarranted Internet or phone surveillance, police officers routinely looked into people’s homes through unobstructed windows and opened doors as a way of monitoring criminal activity? What if police routinely entered homes to make sure no criminal activity was taking place? What if this practice was more common in Latino and Black neighborhoods? Most of us would find this type of unwarranted government behavior unacceptable, unconstitutional, and un-American. Yet, electronic government surveillance is as intrusive, and the criterion used to justify it just as broad. Electronic spying is simply a far more efficient way for our government to keep tabs on millions of people. But, unlike the hypothetical above where Fourth Amendment protections apply, the laws protecting Americans from electronic government spying have not kept up with the pace of technology and are weak at best.
Weak regulatory oversight coupled with technology that facilitates the secret collection of detailed information about a person or group should concern all Americans, but particularly Latinos, Blacks, and other vulnerable populations. Racial profiling remains a persistent challenge in minority communities, and high-tech surveillance heightens the risk of law enforcement discriminatory practices.
Most of us don’t have anything to hide from the government, but we should all be concerned about the potential harm of a government monitoring us for slip-ups, or for who we associate with. To be clear, law enforcement should be able to use technology that can help prevent terrorism and other crimes, but legal and regulatory safeguards are needed to protect against constitutional violations. Unregulated mass government surveillance of Americans runs counter to the values of a democracy and a country founded on the principles of liberty and freedom from government tyranny.