Militarism, Mass Surveillance and Mass Incarceration


On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, activist-scholar Michelle Alexander counseled all of us to “connect the dots,” and speak out about militarism, mass surveillance and mass incarceration. To her list, the Freedom and Unfreedom in the Digital Age conference adds “Big Data,”1 as it brings together grassroots activists, trade unionists, techies, and hackers. Knowing the connections is necessary to make sense of such seemingly disparate facts as rates of imprisonment, deportations, the many international wars, workplace transformations, and the spying on all of us.

Notwithstanding real progress won by the Civil Rights movement, today more African American lives are in the penal system than were in bondage at the height of slavery. This helps explain why the US incarceration rates surpass Russia, China and indeed most everyone else. We usually attribute this to the drug wars but, as scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has shown, the upsurge in imprisonment rates predates the drug wars. In fact, these began to skyrocket when crime rates were at historic lows. Baruch College’s Johanna Fernandez traces mass incarceration’s origins to the criminalizing of African American dissent.2

From our vantage point, quite apart from its human toll, mass incarceration has pioneered a formidable information processing and administrative machinery to “manage” (read punish and track) literally millions of “offenders,” who, along with their families and associates (typical fields in criminal and gang databases), have radically increased the data-processing needs of policing bodies.

These needs have grown exponentially with the War on Terrorism and the integration of databases for the “processing” of people for immigration enforcement. The latter is a well-greased machine monitoring, tracking, warehousing, and deporting people in the hundreds of thousands – producing what activist Pablo Alvarado has called a “human rights crisis.”  By 2014, the Obama administration will have deported a record-shattering 2 million people. Couple this with the proposed ramping up of border “security” replete with drone patrols, see-in-the-dark hardware and electronically augmented barriers, and we have not a dystopian future but an all-too real present.

If anyone thought this public-private machinery would remain focused on the black and brown communities most impacted by deportations and incarceration, they have not been paying attention. Government and Big Business bulked up on mass incarceration, mass deportations, and the drug wars. Now they’ve turned their attention to everyone. Edward Snowden’s revelations confirm what we’ve always suspected – only worse.

If Chelsea Manning’s and WikiLeaks’ disclosures helped trigger an Arab Spring, Snowden’s are much more complex. We now know that the NSA and other US government agencies  work together with foreign governments, behemoth tech companies from AT&T to Google and Microsoft, and a raft of mostly unheard of multi-billion dollar contractors, to constantly monitor and record ALL our communications.

Lawsuits in Boston have revealed that data are shared across local, state and federal levels to monitor peace and social justice organizations. Further, the nationwide crackdown on the Occupy movement also indicates that this surveillance and repressive machinery is organized to suppress dissent more than it is to stamp out terrorism. There is no more poignant illustration of this than the FBI’s decision to ignore the future Boston marathon-bombing suspect brought to their attention by the Russian government even as federal and local authorities colluded to spy on Boston’s peace movement.

Rather than opening up to the public in light of such spectacular and ironic failures, the administration has clamped down. The Committee to Protect Journalists, whose reports we often rely on to understand abuses in narco-states and dictatorships, summarizes the Obama White House’s relationship with the media as, "the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press." The Washington Post’s national security reporter notes: “the chilling effect created across government on matters that are less sensitive but certainly in the public interest as a check on government and elected officials. It serves to shield and obscure the business of government from necessary accountability.”

But the state continues its jihad to see everything. Under the guise of stamping out terrorists, pornographers, and drug dealers, a far wider net is cast to include everyone. In September 2013, with US help, the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) smashed an alleged online purveyor of drugs,, shutting down its website, arresting its operators, and going after its customers.  While the impact on drug abuse will be negligible, a wider message was sent. In case you missed it, the NCA chief spelled it out: “the hidden internet isn't hidden and your anonymous activity isn't anonymous. We know where you are, what you are doing and we will catch you.” Ominously, the Silk Road action—publicly acceptable given its target—is framed as “only the start of a wider campaign.”

Do they have the potential for an even broader campaign than the Snowden revelations suggest? Consider the Obama administration’s response to a question about what Snowden revealed. According to CCN, the officials claim that Snowden failed to access the NSA’s “Crown Jewels.”  Given everything revealed, one can only imagine what those must be. Subsequently, we have learnt that everyone’s email address books and “buddy” lists are being collected at a rate of 250 million/year (for reference, there are about 2.5 billion internet users)! We also know that all our social media are tracked by both private and publicly-funded (but secret) projects (the NSA’s PRISM is but one of them).

Not too long ago, civil libertarians comforted themselves with the notion that the NSA and big corporations could not possibly make use of so much information. But that was then! Today a new phrase has entered our vernacular: “Big Data.” It refers to the ability to process (and store) vast and hitherto unimaginable quantities of data and then render these data profitable by establishing correlations. Benign examples are the ways in which Amazon and Netflix can make startlingly useful predictions about what you may be interested in buying or watching based on “their” data about your browsing, purchasing and viewing history. Now, the NSA and its thousands of outside contractors have access to all the data that Amazon, Netflix and the rest have, plus your health records, your school records, etc.3

Suddenly the picture has changed from the days when the internet was a radical engine of democracy arming masses with the necessary processing power and data. Now we have insatiable, centralized data processing machines, corporations and bureaucracies each capable of processing information about ourselves and also with the capacity to shape the public agenda.

But this is not the whole story. Armed with the best social media apparatus, for example, the Obama administration tried to make the case for war against Syria. Much of the evidence adduced was of dubious provenance, YouTube in this case. But dissent on the left and right marshaled impressive counter efforts, conducting national teach-ins, webinars and online petitions. With fortuitous international circumstances, they were able to forestall the war drive.

So the rulers don’t always win!

Indeed, the same technologies that empower the state and corporations also provide the potential for liberating activity. Not only are peace and justice movements making increasingly sophisticated use of social media, but other communications breakthroughs have us playing a leap-frog game with spooks.

Just as democracy requires secret ballots, so liberty, in the digital age, requires unbreakable encryption.

Cryptographers have built on the insight that it takes far more processing power to break encryption than it takes to encrypt. If this develops further and becomes more democratized via free and open source technologies, it is likely that we can again enjoy relatively private communications with one another.

Why do we need this privacy if we’re doing nothing wrong? We need it so that we can experiment with ideas in private in order to formulate our (future) public positions – without being held accountable for innocent speculation and half-formed ideas. Just as importantly, with reliable encryption, the chances that we can share things (selfies included) with only the intended parties increases. In sharing, knowledge gains value.

Aside from encryption technology, the rise of 3D printing, maker spaces, Massive Open Online Courseware, and the like all have as many positive possibilities for our freedom as they do negative tendencies. In all these domains—mass incarceration, mass deportations, mass surveillance—the critical variables that determine our freedom and unfreedom seem to lie in the relationship between, on the one hand, regular working folks and their allies in technology and social movements and, on the other, corporations and the state.


1. This essay is adapted from remarks originally prepared for the conference here mentioned, which was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts in September 2013. Of course, George Orwell famously warned us away from such big words as “democracy” and “freedom,” which have such diverse usages, emotional baggage, and propaganda value that nobody knows what they mean. But Orwell was writing in a world secure in its victory over fascism and at a time when electing new governments actually produced significant policy changes. Now that this is no longer the case, we get a sharper sense of what democracy and freedom really mean.

2. The uptick in incarceration followed the civil rights victories of the 1960s and the rise of the black liberation struggles. From a 2000s vantage point, other issues enter the fray including the pernicious effects of the privatization of justice; not only do we have private prisons, but we have several documented case of judges accepting bribes to feed the prison machine with “offenders,” effectively granting the private sector stewardship of young lives, their confidential information, their futures and completely denying the youth their freedom.

3. With the Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s App Store, and Google’s Play, not only do they know which books (or movies) you own or rented, which ones you’ve browsed, but unlike your librarian or teacher, they know exactly how much of each you’ve read (together with any marginal notes you’ve added)! Unlike your teacher, with access to your medical records, they also know that you have legitimate excuse for not finishing the Iliad.