For Muslims in this post-9/11 world, your digital identity matters more than you do

For Muslims in this post-9/11 world, your digital identity matters more than you do
Comment: The tech advances of our age are helping the US government carry out its authoritarian, discriminatory agenda, writes Wilson Dizard.
7 min read
10 Sep, 2019
Homeland Security plans to collect social media usernames from immigration and visa applicants [Getty]
Human beings made about 4.37 billion trips by airplane in 2018, and could make 4.5 billion in 2019. Each time, they will fly in skies far different from those the four doomed commercial flights took off into the morning of Tuesday 11 September, 2001.

The heartless attacks in New York and Washington transformed the way people all over the world take airplanes, in ways that were somehow both hard to notice - stealthy airport surveillance cameras - but also impossible to ignore, like more sophisticated body scanning machines.

Almost immediately, reports emerged of discrimination against Muslims and Arabs on airplanes and going through security lines. The legal consequences of that act of mass murder reverberate still today, like background radiation from the birth of a new universe composed of paranoia and, of course, the terror Al-Qaeda's mass murder intended to breed.

A crucial building block of that universe born after 9/11 was the "terror watchlist," two words that found each other like hydrogen and helium in the weeks after September 11th. News reports spoke of the "watchlist," but few were ever able to clearly articulate to the public how or why someone was on it, or what that even meant.

The opacity of the process was a kind of analogue forerunner to everyday life online in 2019, where our reputation on social media and our creditworthiness as consumers is mediated by a calculations far removed from our comprehension.

Through three US presidencies, counterterrorism policy as applied across the world remains a "black box" of bureaucratic espionage, a justice machine that issues riddles rather than verdicts.

When we take to the air in 2019, we bring our digital identities with us

The official term for the US watchlist is the "Terrorist Screening Database", and it reportedly includes 1.2 million people. Most are not American citizens, except for 4,600 who are. Being on the TSDB does not mean you won't be allowed to fly, but you will face more intense security screening at airports, and be denied employment in government.

Figuring out why you are on the list is difficult, as that information is often classified. Figuring out how to get off it is even harder. It is a one way ticket to a post-9/11 kind of second-class citizenship. 

But a recent ruling by a federal judge has upset the legacy of the watchlist. On 4 September, Judge Anthony J. Trenga of the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in favour of a group of 23 American citizens on the TSDB who sued the federal government over their inclusion.

Trenga found that the government's process for determining who should be on the list violated protections guaranteed by the Constitution. 

"The court concludes that the risk of erroneous deprivation of plaintiffs' travel-related and reputational liberty interests is high, and the currently existing procedural safeguards are not sufficient to address that risk," Judge Trenga's 32-page decision read.

The decision to put someone on the TSDB is made by the Terrorist Screening Center, an arm of the Department of Justice. Judge Trenga described the complex criteria that go into that determination. Crucially, anything an American has said, done, bought, or studied is fair game for TSC in deciding whether to put them on the watchlist.

Much like a marketing algorithm studies your browsing habits and consumer purchases to tailor ads, the TSC looks at the course of your entire life and decides if you should be on the TSDB, as Trenga explained.

"In determining whether to accept, reject, or modify a nomination, the TSC may consider, but may not solely base its decision on, an individual's race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or beliefs and activities protected by the First Amendment, such as freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly, and the freedom to petition the government for redress of stress of grievances," Judge Trenga wrote.

"The TSC may also consider an individual's travel history, associates, business associations, international associations, financial transactions, and study of Arabic as information supporting a nomination to the TSDB," he continued. 

"An individual's placement into the TSDB does not require any evidence that the person engaged in criminal activity, committed a crime, or will commit a crime in the future; and individuals who have been acquitted of a terrorism-related crime may still be listed in the TSDB."

This decision, while offering hope to people unjustly burdened by the watchlist, does not solve a far greater problem of border agents in the US and around the world, using social media as a way to tell whether a person poses a threat to anyone.

Read more: Flying while brown: Racial profiling and the US constitution

Just last month, a 17-year-old Palestinian headed for university in the US had his student visa denied by a Customs and Border Protection officers at Boston Logan International Airport. As per a new US customs policy proposal, from 2020, travellers would be obligated to turn over their social media handles and electronics for inspection.

Ismail B. Ajjawi, who is from Tyre in Lebanon, said the officers were outraged that his Facebook friends were posting views that "oppose the US," the Harvard Crimson reported. After widespread outcry, he was able to enter the country to start his studies.

It is easy to see how the CBP officers' paranoid and cruel decision was the failure of Facebook's software to integrate with the human "wetware" using it to see if a Palestinian teenager posed a threat. Ajjawi was unable to appeal the decision or even understand the reasons for it, or what "oppose the US" even means.

When we take to the air in 2019, we bring our digital identities with us. That wasn't the case in 2001, at least not to the same degree.

The average low-cost jet today contains vast troves of data, on laptops, tablets and smartphones. Just a single laptop could easily hold the entire contents of every digital or cellular device on the planes destroyed on 9/11.

It lets border guards turn on their authoritarian autopilot to do the hard thinking for them

Hunting through the contents of our silicon souls is not the same thing as conducting a thorough investigation into whether someone has committed a crime or intends to commit a crime.

However, like the watchlist, the side-effect of its opacity and lack of self-awareness is a feeling that it cannot be wrong; guilty until proven innocent. It lets border guards turn on their authoritarian autopilot to do the hard thinking for them.

The increasing automation of law enforcement is meant to increase efficiency and is branded as more fair than potentially biased humans. But nothing, neither machine nor human, can ever predict the future.

Governments all over the world might like to think they can, and even long standing systems of representative government have scooped up "open source" information that the public produces ceaselessly.

The US advertising its most authoritarian impulses gives other countries a model to follow. American tech firms, like Palantir will profit from government contracts to sort migrants in the US federal concentration camp system, putting authoritarianism on autopilot. 

The global business community will copy these "digital solutions" and "innovations" to sort human beings like products on a factory line, throwing out those their client deems defective. 

We can take a moment today to mourn those killed in the attacks, but we should also mourn the memory of a world we lost that day.

There was no indication at daybreak on 11 September 2001 that by 2019 the US would be putting children in concentration camps or failing to end an 18-year long war. By sunset, that scenario sounded much more likely.

That world was far from perfect, but few could argue it was more dangerous than today. And while it might be hard to remember what it looked like, it is something we should never forget.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture.

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.