Human Rights Advocates Call for More Federal Tech Oversight

At the end of January, Congress received an expansive set of tech-related oversight recommendations aimed at protecting the civil and human rights of American citizens and immigrants.

a digital rendering of a surveillance camera targeting a person in a crowd
Shutterstock/Wit Olszewski
Congress needs to keep a much closer eye on technology in order to uphold the rights of all individuals, according to a document that outlines numerous oversight recommendations for the federal Legislature. 

The list of recommendations was put together by several advocacy groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. 

“Technology has created tremendous opportunities,” the document said, “and at its best can support a stronger, more-inclusive economy, society and public sphere. But these outcomes do not occur by chance. Policymakers must work to ensure that technology is designed and used in ways that respect civil rights, preserve privacy, ensure transparency and hold both nation-states and companies accountable for harm.”

Within the document, one of the major areas of concern is a growing trend of immigration surveillance, which includes the use of facial recognition, automated decision-making tools and social media monitoring. 

“Generally speaking, there’s a lot of issues with technology and privacy at the border and ports of entry,” said Iman Boukadoum, senior manager with The Leadership Conference.

Border agents will sometimes confiscate the property of someone who is legally entering the country in order to scour the person’s social media for incriminating evidence. In one high-profile case, Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian student on his way to Harvard, was deported after an officer took away his computer and phone and searched Ajjawi’s social media accounts. 

“When I asked every time to have my phone back so I could tell them about the situation, the officer refused and told me to sit back in [my] position and not move at all,” Ajjawi said in a written statement, according to the Harvard Crimson. “After the 5 hours ended, she called me into a room, and she started screaming at me. She said that she found people posting political points of view that oppose the U.S. on my friend[s] list.”

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been engaging in social media surveillance for several years. Boukadoum, a human rights lawyer, said it’s hard to know exactly how long this type of surveillance has occurred given the secrecy around international affairs, but she has heard anecdotal evidence that social media monitoring happened “much more often under the Trump administration.” In 2019, DHS started collecting social media usernames via forms in accordance with a 2017 executive order that called for “enhanced vetting” of immigrants.

“That’s extremely invasive,” Boukadoum said in regard to the username vetting. “Again, it’s not clear to us what protections are in place to make sure the State Department doesn’t use that information in an illegitimate way. It’s quite frightening, honestly.”

Boukadoum added that the border is the “Wild West in terms of protections” for people’s rights. New biometric technologies that might be considered too invasive for use within the U.S. can be tested out on the border. 

Broadband access is another topic addressed by the set of recommendations to Congress. Cheryl Leanza, attorney for Best Best & Krieger, said the pandemic has shined a bigger spotlight on the fact that certain neighborhoods are served better than others by Internet service providers. This unequal approach to deployment is called digital redlining, which can be based on income or other factors. The recommendations document advises Congress to investigate how some companies roll out “older broadband technologies and slower speeds in low-income areas and communities of color while upgrading technologies elsewhere.”

Leanza added that there have been different efforts to take power away from local areas in relation to broadband-related negotiations with companies. In regard to this point, she made reference to both redlining and the 5G tower controversy

Lisa Barrett, policy director for LDF, said the oversight recommendations to Congress should be just the beginning of efforts to reel in the “largely unchecked” technology industry. New regulations and policies will hopefully follow. 

Barrett added that recent events from last year, such as the surveillance of protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s death, underscores how “marginalized communities are the first to raise a flag on issues that threaten democracy.” People who don’t think they’re not as impacted by such issues are fooling themselves, she argues. 

“These issues impact everyone, these issues will come to bear for everyone, and we’ve seen that time and time again,” Barrett said. 

In addition to federal oversight, local areas must play their own part when it comes to ensuring that people are on a level playing field. Leanza suggested that localities of all types should take a close look at the products they purchase to make sure that tech doesn’t have an unfair impact. 

“Just because it’s a high-tech use doesn’t mean it’s a better use,” Leanza said. “It could be an equally problematic use.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.