THE BLOG

Big Brother's Always Been Watching Some of U.S.

11/18/2013 10:59 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

As revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden continue to mount, Americans have been shocked by the NSA's incredible invasions of privacy - some more so than others.

There has been a noticeable difference between the reactions of minority groups and that of white and privileged Americans. While both have been incredibly vocal--calling for an immediate restoration of our Fourth Amendment protections--minority groups have been far less stunned by our government's "new" invasions of privacy.

And this should come as no surprise.

The United States government has a long history of circumventing constitutional protections to spy on its citizens. And while whites and non-whites have all been victims of these practices, minority communities have always been harder hit. One of the most infamous covert, unconstitutional projects - FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO - was used to crack down on peaceful political dissent of all races nationwide. But Hoover was particularly obsessed with organizations he associated with the civil rights movement.

In the 1960s, the FBI targeted groups it labeled "Black Nationalists," including the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panthers. In the name of national security, the bureau planted illegal wiretaps, sabotaged communications in order to cause distrust among allies, conducted warrantless physical searches, and a variety of other dirty tricks. In addition to African American organizations, the FBI disproportionately targeted groups involved in the growing American Indian Movement as well as Arab-American populations.

While federal regulations have been put in place to guard against investigations based on race or ethnicity, the FBI has found its way around such protections. After the September 11th attacks, the FBI began "mapping" Muslim communities and spying on mosques based on unfounded and prejudiced concepts like "radicalization." And, in a disturbing relapse of the illegal investigations of the 60s, recent FBI training materials have warned against a "Black Separatist" threat.

At the local level, police tactics--such as the New York Police Department's "Stop and Frisk" policy and its own Muslim mapping program--that clearly target minorities are debated instead of immediately outlawed.

Furthering the insult, while all of these programs are defended by officials as protecting Americans' "security," none of them work to protect minority communities. While the Department of Homeland Security pours billions into dubious airport security, arbitrary border fences, and massive Internet spy programs, communities of color continue to be terrorized by local crimes which remain unsolved. Imagine if the billions in homeland security dollars were spent instead solving murders, rapes, and property crimes.

All Americans deserve the protection of the Bill of Rights. As the movement to hold the NSA accountable continues to grow, we must be particularly vigilant in protecting the rights of those who are historically the first to be targeted. No one deserves to be spied on unless there's a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Safeguarding our privacy rights for everyone makes our democracy stronger.

It shouldn't need to be said: Police practices that focus on criminal activity--not our race, religion, or protected political beliefs and associations--keep us all safer.

Laura W. Murphy is the Director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. Sandra Fulton is a Legislative Assistant at the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, working on First Amendment and privacy issues.

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