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What are you hiding? The surveillance state knows

September 10, 2021, 3:09 PM UTC

Fortune identifies upcoming leaders shaping the world, we take a good long look at what memorials really mean, and my colleague Jonathan Vanian tackles the lasting perils of the post-9/11 surveillance state.

But first, here’s your September 11 memorial week-in-review in Haiku.

Look up! At the clear
blue sky, forever marked
as the bluest sky

the city’s ever 
known. It is 8:45
One last and perfect

moment before it
all falls down into twisted
steel and forever

war that no one will
win. Look up! It’s not too late
to lose yourself in

the clearest blue sky
and the things we remember
before it falls down

On the eve of a painful anniversary, we wish you peace and good memories..

Ellen McGirt

In brief

It’s time to revisit a common argument used to minimize people’s concerns over the erosion of personal privacy over the past two decades.

The argument centers around the phrase “I have nothing to hide.” The phrase’s premise is that people should be OK with government surveillance because if they did nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about. The government and law enforcement are justified snooping into people’s phone calls and Internet use for the greater good of securing the nation. Only those who committed crimes should feel paranoid that their every action is being monitored.

But as Cindy Cohn, executive director of digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) explains, this phrase has generally been used by people with privilege, who are typically not people of color. Speaking as part of a piece on how digital surveillance has bloomed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cohn made the point that “one false” association gleaned from surveillance operations could impact people from marginalized communities much more than people from more privileged backgrounds.

And if you believe that law enforcement unfairly over police people of color, there’s a higher chance that the activities of innocent people will be unfairly scrutinized, leading to needless investigations and terrifying intrusions.

Consider the recent wrongful arrest of Farmington Hills, Mich. resident Robert Williams by Detroit police after facial recognition software misidentified him for a shoplifting crime he did not commit. Facial recognition software bundled into cameras spread throughout cities is a nightmare for privacy advocates, and Williams’s case is a prime example of what can go wrong with surveillance technology.

But Williams didn’t commit any crimes, so he should have had nothing to worry about, right? He presumably had “nothing to hide.” Tell that to the facial recognition software that deduced he was involved in a crime he had nothing to do with.

This software—often trained on online photos of people’s faces that have been aggregated into massive datasets—doesn’t work as well on women and people of color than their white counterparts. Williams didn’t do anything wrong, but the software assumed he did because it made an incorrect correlation.

And the wrongful arrest wasn’t just a minor annoyance for Williams. He was arrested at the driveway of his home merely by acknowledging his name when asked, spent 30 hours in a detention center, and his five-year-old daughter was deeply traumatized and believed her father was going to prison.

This is one of the consequences that can occur when we collectively lose our privacy. Facial recognition software and surveillance cameras can monitor our every step and make errors, and innocent people of color can get singled out because their activities happened to be swept up into massive databases.

Additionally, the Brennan Center for Justice revealed this week that the Los Angeles Police Department has been collecting the social media data of people who have been merely stopped or talked to by law enforcement. Think of all that data, and all the wrong ways people or A.I. can analyze those social media posts—independent of context—and all the problems that can go wrong when ill-informed criminal justice decisions are made. Saying “I have nothing to hide” assumes that law enforcement will use this technology and data in a perfect and just way; tell that to people of color like Williams.

“Privacy is a human right, it's a value, it shouldn't be something that you have to have advanced degree in order to get for yourself,” Cohn said. “It's something that we should all have.”

For more, check out my recent feature, How digital surveillance thrived in the 20 years since 9/11.


Jonathan Vanian 

On point

Fortune’s 40 Under 40 List is here and it’s a thing of beauty Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Michael Phelps made the cut for their remarkable contributions to a global conversation on mental health. Wisconsin Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, a rising political star, is prepared to be a game-changing figure in a very swingy state. Jeremy Joyce will make you happy to be hungry. And Lina Khan, the London-born daughter of Pakistani parents, is the youngest ever head of the Federal Trade Commission — and she's on a mission to keep the corporate world on point. Fortune’s annual 40 Under 40 list is always an inspiring read, this year it’s a signpost of changes to come. And clarity: Atlantic journalist Ed Yong makes the cut for his indispensable and Pulitzer-prize winning reporting on the pandemic. 

The 9/11 memorial is an ongoing problem… The memorial is situated at New York’s ground zero, and was roundly criticized when it opened in 2014. Now, argues this piece from HuffPo, the twentieth anniversary of the attacks makes its deficits even more plain. “[R]eporters, critics and early visitors similarly pointed to a bevy of problems: the commercialism of the museum, the Islamophobic rhetoric in the museum’s discussions of terrorism and its few attempts to provide context to the events of 9/11,” writes Marina Fang. The result is one big gift shop filled with media-style spectacle and no serious opportunity to reflect, understand, or remember. But the debate about it — and how to fix it — is a useful exercise in intent, communication, purpose and experience. “This really intense focus on the minutes and the hours of 9/11 ends up kind of giving no bigger context, and so, avoids all of the difficult questions and problems and issues that 9/11 has raised,” says sociology professor Amy Sodaro.
Huffington Post

…and so is Robert E. Lee This week, the imposing bronze statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from its pedestal in Richmond, Virginia, in front of the long ago capital of the Confederacy. One big takeaway from the ongoing conversation about Confederate monuments is that the U.S. has rarely had a unified vision of what needs to be remembered and why. As a result, these monuments became the long game of dedicated propagandists: The majority of Confederate monuments were erected as Jim Crow took root, in an attempt to derail the progress of African Americans, not heal the country or honor the lost. This is the problem we now face, says Eugene Washington. We must rid ourselves of the Robert E. Lee myth. “They painted Lee as an honorable man, personally opposed to slavery, who reluctantly chose loyalty to his state of Virginia over allegiance to the Union — and who, albeit in a losing cause, was the most brilliant general in U.S. history,” he writes. “Lie after lie after lie.”
Washington Post

Michael K. Williams: Who will we lose next? As the tributes to actor Michael K. Williams poured in, it was easy to see the pattern. Black men die too young. But when they’re famous and beloved, the message hits doubly hard. “This year alone we’ve lost rappers Biz MarkieDMXShock G, and Black Rob; authors Lawrence Otis Graham and Eric Jerome DickeyChucky Thompson, who produced classics for Mary J. Blige and Notorious B.I.G.; and famed hip-hop photographer Chi Modu, to name a few,” writes Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham. “Their causes of death included cancer, heart attack, accidental overdose, and COVID-19. Yet they shared this dire truth — none of them had reached the age of 60.” It makes plain the fragility of Black men’s lives, she says, ticking through a list that will break your heart.
Boston Globe



This edition of raceAhead is edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On background

The Underground Railroad had a stop in the Bahamas and your faithful correspondent is embarrassed to report that she did not know this. Did you? There is, evidently, a small memorial to this connection in Key Biscayne, Florida the spot where many desperate people sailed to freedom to a remote part of the Bahamas called Andros Island. People fleeing forced labor would make their way from as far as Alabama and the Carolinas, through Florida to Key Biscayne, then barter with Bahamian captains to take them the rest of the way. Ignore the retrograde language in this piece from 2005, the story is worth it.
Chicago Tribune

Arizona’s Confederate monuments are actually pretty new There were some eight Confederate monuments spread around Arizona, and recent calls to have them removed — some have been, courtesy of the United Daughters of the Confederacy — have revealed an unusual history and a nasty divide. While Arizona was not an official Confederate State, one territory in Arizona was briefly pro-Confederate during the Civil War. It’s an interesting bit of history, yes. But these monuments to the Confederacy popped up in the many years after the end of the war, one as recently as 2010. They were erected by Confederacy-loving Southerners, who relocated in droves to Arizona after WWII, and who brought a nostalgia for the old plantations with them. “It wasn't until the mid-1950s that Confederate heritage groups became a significant presence in Arizona,” explains this piece in the Phoenix New Times. “It was hardly a fringe movement: When the Civil War centennial rolled around in 1961, Arizona recognized the anniversary by flying the Confederate flag over the State Capitol.” And they’re not kidding around. A small skirmish known as The Battle of Picacho Pass had more monuments and markers to it than the number troops killed in the fight.
Phoenix New Times 

Today's mood board

In memoriam...that skyline will never be the same.
Philippe Pache—Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

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