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FYI: Governments Spy On Citizens. A Lot.

You often hear that if you’ve nothing to hide then government surveillance isn’t really something you should fear. It’s only the bad people that are targeted! Well….sorta. It is the case that (sometimes) ‘bad people’ are targeted. It’s also (often) the case that the definition of ‘bad people’ extends to ‘individuals exercising basic rights and freedoms.’ This is the lesson that a woman in the US learned: the FBI had secretly generated a 436 page report about her on the grounds that she and friends were organizing a local protest.

What’s more significant is the rampant inaccuracies in the report. The woman herself notes that,

I am repeatedly identified as a member of a different, more mainstream liberal activist group which I was not only not a part of, but actually fought with on countless occasions. To somehow not know that I detested this group of people was a colossal failure of intelligence-gathering. Hopefully the FBI has not gotten any better at figuring out who is a part of what, and that this has worked to the detriment of their surveillance of other activists. I am also repeatedly identified as being a part of campaigns that I was never involved with, or didn’t even know about, including protests in other cities. Maybe the FBI assumes every protester-type attends all other activist meetings and protests, like we’re just one big faceless monolith. “Oh, hey, you’re into this topic? Well, then, you’re probably into this topic, right? You’re all pinkos to us.”

In taking a general survey of all area activists, the files keep trying to draw non-existant connections between the most mainstream groups/people and the most radical, as though one was a front for the other. There are a few flyers from local events that have nothing to do with our campaign, including one posted to advertise a lefty discussion group at the university library. The FBI mentions that activists may be planning “direct action” at their meetings, which the document’s author clarifies means “illegal acts.” “Direct action” was then, and I’d say now, a term used to talk about civil disobedience and intentional arrests. While such things are illegal actions, the tone and context in these FBI files makes it sound like protesters got together and planned how to fly airplanes into buildings or something.

You see, it isn’t just the government surveillance that is itself pernicious. It’s the inaccuracies, mistaken profilings, and generalized suspicion cast upon citizens that can cause significant harms. It is the potential for these profiles to be developed and then sit indefinitely in government databases, just waiting to be used against law abiding ‘good’ citizens, that should give all citizens pause before they grant authorities more expansive surveillance powers.