Back to News & Commentary

Who's Spying on You? Might Depend on Your Race.

Surveillance based on Americans' race and ethnicity is happening all over the country.
Robyn Greene,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Share This Page
August 25, 2011

Yesterday, two important news stories demonstrated how new unchecked surveillance programs we’ve highlighted in our Spyfiles campaign are violating the constitutional rights of innocent Americans.

The first, a New York Times article revealed that from March 2009 to March 2011, the FBI opened an eye-popping 82,325 investigations called “assessments,” which agents can open against individuals or groups without any evidence of wrongdoing. Not surprisingly, based on the low threshold for opening these inquiries, only 3,315 uncovered any facts to justify further investigation. No doubt far fewer actually resulted in criminal charges. But all of the information about the 79,000 innocent people investigated during this two-year period can be retained by the FBI forever, despite the fact no one engaged in wrongdoing of any kind.

The second article was an Associated Press report that revealed the New York Police Department (NYPD), with training and support provided by the CIA, secretly initiated a domestic intelligence program that used census information to locate and map ethnic neighborhoods so they could be targeted for intrusive surveillance operations by undercover officers and informants. According to the article, over the last decade, the NYPD, with the assistance of current and former CIA officials, created a “Demographic Unit” that uses census data to place undercover NYPD officers into specific ethnic communities. These officers were instructed to “hang out” in plain clothes, conduct surveillance at coffee shops and book stores, and infiltrate mosques to document and report what people say and read in order to identify potential informants and threats—all without any suspicion that any individual in the targeted community is engaged in wrongdoing.

The NYPD’s surveillance based on Americans’ race and ethnicity isn’t just happening in New York — NYPD officers operate in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and even in several foreign cities. As the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Christopher Dunn said in the AP story, “One of the hallmarks of the intelligence division over the last 10 years is that, not only has it gotten extremely aggressive and sophisticated, but it’s operating completely on its own. There are no checks. There is no oversight.”

But this isn’t the first time we’ve heard of law enforcement agencies using racial and ethnic demographic information to profile communities for investigation. A Los Angeles Police Department “Muslim mapping” program exposed in 2008 was shut down after a wave of public criticism, and we later found out the FBI has an even broader racial mapping program in every FBI field office.

In fact, yesterday’s NY Times article described 1,819 “assessments” the FBI conducted to identify potential threats in “geographic districts,” but what isn’t said is that the method the FBI uses to identify these potential threats includes racial and ethnic mapping based on stereotypes about which ethnic groups tend to commit the different crimes the FBI investigates. Racial mapping is simply racial profiling on steroids.

The AP article includes FBI denials that it engages in racial or religious profiling, but there is substantial evidence showing that the FBI infringes on First Amendment rights by infiltrating mosques to conduct surveillance on Muslims in the same manner as the NYPD/CIA operation. FBI informants that infiltrated mosques in New York, Ohio, and California, among other locations, have testified that they were sent into the mosques with broad orders to collect information about anyone they come across.

The ACLU’s Southern California affiliate is suing the FBI in a federal class action lawsuit challenging the FBI’s unconstitutional infiltration of mosques. And we have launched a nationwide effort under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information on the FBI racial mapping program and the ways in which it violates the civil rights and liberties of innocent Americans. The ACLU and our affiliates in Northern California, New Jersey, and Michigan are suing the FBI for withholding information about this program.

There’s more — and likely worse — to come from the FBI. Despite all the evidence of abuse of its existing authority, the FBI will soon be claiming even greater investigative powers. Join us in telling Attorney General Eric Holder he should rein in the FBI’s investigative authorities, instead of expanding them.

Learn more about surveillance: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page