The Dangers of 'See Something, Say Something'

This desire by the government to cast a wider net to identify and respond to "suspicious behavior" has only heightened the risk of unfair and unjust targeting of marginalized individuals.
01/25/2016 04:06 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017
A Muslim girl waits on a subway platform for her train to arrive, Oct. 8, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo
A Muslim girl waits on a subway platform for her train to arrive, Oct. 8, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Slate's Alvaro Bedoya published an article chronicling how the civil rights leader had been systematically surveilled, harassed and threatened by the United States government:

Even though [King's] an American citizen, he's placed on a watchlist to be summarily detained in the event of a national emergency. Of all similar suspects, the head of FBI domestic intelligence thinks he's "the most dangerous," at least "from the standpoint of ... national security."

Bedoya goes on to list the other leaders of color in the United States who have been subject to surveillance and suspicion at the hands of U.S. government agencies over the last 60 years, including American Muslims, especially since September 11. Bedoya reaches a disturbing, if not surprising, conclusion about the state of this country's surveillance program:

If you name a prominent civil rights leader of the 20th or 21st centuries, chances are strong that he or she was surveilled in the name of national security... Across our history and to this day, people of color have been the disproportionate victims of unjust surveillance.

Unfortunately, the federal government has doubled down on broad surveillance (and harassment) of marginalized communities in the wake of 9/11. Most notably, the government has deputized untrained civilians to further their surveillance reach through the now ubiquitous "See Something, Say Something" ad campaign. This desire by the government to cast a wider net to identify and respond to "suspicious behavior" has only heightened the risk of unfair and unjust targeting of marginalized individuals.

Started in 2003, as a campaign by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority costing around $2-3 million per year (mostly paid for through federal government grants), the patented slogan "See Something, Say Something" has now been used by more than 50 agencies in the United States, and is even in use in Canada and Australia.

Apparently the task of identifying national security threats now falls on all of our shoulders. Unfortunately, we don't seem to be very good at it. Experience has shown that this crowd-sourcing of surveillance ensures that it is not behavior or activity that is identified as suspicious, but rather skin color, religious markers, language, and other signs of difference. Individuals and families are coded as suspicious regardless of their activity. It's stereotypes passing as national security policy.

In the same vein, Think Progress' Jack Jenkins examines how "anti-Muslim profiling at airports goes beyond TSA." Jenkins provides some recent examples of air travelers acting as extensions of the government's surveillance programs by alerting authorities to individuals who made them "uneasy" or were "acting suspicious."

But the truth is, not all "suspicious" activity is created equal. And in the calculus of protecting national security, the costs of following up on these alleged threats must be included as a part of the overall equation. Unfortunately, that cost is rarely, if ever, factored into the decision-making, as Jenkins points out, "many airline protocols appear oriented toward responding to passengers who complain -- not those affected by the complaints."

This is a country that struggles with its racist history and the continued impact of racism on policies and culture today. The very idea of asking people explicitly and implicitly impacted by those racist and bigoted norms to be the country's first defense system is alarming. "Suspicious activity" becomes a code word for anything outside the accepted norm, and by participating in this charade of "addressing security threats," the U.S. government further perpetrates the cycle of oppression of those outside the dominant [read: white] culture.

As Bedoya notes, "the color of surveillance" cannot be ignored.