Posted by Guest on July 20, 2018 in Blog

By Allison Ulven

AAI’s Maya Berry spoke at Georgetown Law School’s Center on Privacy and Technology event, the Color of Surveillance on July 19. The conference discussed America’s history of surveilling U.S. religious minorities, the impact it’s had on civil rights, as well as modern methods of surveillance.

Berry spoke alongside Michelle Miller, co-founder of Coworker.org, on organizing in Silicon Valley. Miller’s work at Coworker.org focuses on driving the growth of independent employee networks. Over the years, Coworker.org has assisted in advancing paid parental leave benefits at Netflix, scheduling reform at Starbucks, and changing Google’s Code of Conduct.

Miller began by discussing the history of tech workers organizing within their companies. It started before the inauguration of President Trump, when a series of tech CEOs were summoned to the White House. In reaction to this summit, a group of workers created an online pledge called “Never Again,” choosing to stand in solidarity with American Muslims, immigrants, and those whose lives are threatened by the administration’s data collection policy. They refused to build a database based on a constitutionally-protected right to religious beliefs and refused to facilitate mass deportation of people who the government saw as “undesirable.”

Following this, campaigns were formed by IBM employees who were concerned that the CEO had encouraged the Trump administration to use their technology. Oracle employees signed petitions to get the company to sign on to the amicus brief about the Muslim Ban, while Comcast and Google workers staged walkouts.

Miller also talked about two very important movements that happened simultaneously within Google. The company had a contract with the Department of Defense called Project Maven to build artificial intelligence to help drones better identify targets. The employees were outraged, so they organized, ran internal campaigns, and within a few months, Google agreed not to renew the contract. What many didn’t realize was that during this time, however, there was another effort within the company to counter the anti-intelligence campaign.

Google staff members were being targeted by alt-right sympathetic coworkers who were harassing and targeting them on internal messaging forms because of their race, sexual orientation or religious identity. By asking provoking questions and then documenting their negative responses, they would report these workers to HR as well as send the conversations to Breitbart, an alt-right outlet, to expose and dox their targets. The attacked Google staffers, however, were undeterred. What began as two employees increased to 2,000. The movement showed up to shareholder meetings and influenced Google to release a new code of conduct.

Berry spoke next about the problems of Facebook and social media and how it connects to government surveillance. She explained that, regrettably, because of the work AAI does and how popular Facebook is as a news source among adults, the organization has to engage in the social media process and doesn’t have the privilege of participating in the “Delete Facebook” movement. Berry said that Facebook is operating in a way that allows hate groups, particularly those against people of color, to flourish while the government uses social media surveillance to chill the use of social media sites and free speech among Arab American communities. Berry asserted that being a part of a group that has been targeted for free speech issues, she is an avid supporter of the First Amendment. The problem occurs when the standard is not applied fairly, and in the case of Facebook, done “unfairly, haphazardly, and in a biased fashion.”

Hate groups use Facebook as an outlet to share propaganda that promotes their bigoted agendas, and calls for others to get involved. While Berry does not advocate for these pages to be taken down, it is important to note the way in which they use the social media sites to harass others and to organize demonstrations using intimidation tactics. At the same time, these companies are participating in harmful Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programming, which “relies on a flawed framework of ‘radicalization’ to justify disproportionate targeting of certain communities at the expense of constitutional rights.”

Berry said that government officials will continue to argue that CVE programming is not focused on the American Muslim community, and that it touches upon and includes a focus on white supremacy as well. The problem with that is the way officials have presented the content and how they testified to congressional oversight committees, Berry said. They focus entirely on the work of ISIS and Al-Qaeda and conflate their efforts with the indefinite global war on terror. These for-profit social media companies are now engaged in programming through partnerships and financial sponsorship that are directly aligned with a deeply disturbing and problematic government approach. This approach classifies an entire community as a security threat while profiting off the viral nature of inflammatory and hateful content directed at that same community.  

Moderator Jameson Spivak, a summer fellow with the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, then asked both speakers whether they thought there was any social media outlet that is doing an adequate job at combating violent extremism on both sides. They each said no.

Miller pointed out that corporate economics make it difficult to do the right thing by targeting bad actors. She believes that there are employees who want to do the right thing and want to fix the problem, but the business interests of a company will always take precedent especially when the expense associated with appropriately taking on a problem is more than they want to incur.


Allison Ulven is a 2018 summer intern at the Arab American Institute.