This op-ed originally appeared in the International Policy Digest.
In the Internet age, the distribution of state power has drastic implications for Americans’ civil and privacy rights. Across the globe, counterterrorism is weaponized as a pretext for civil rights abuses. To preserve freedom, Americans must reignite their passion for defending privacy and civil rights.
Recent revelations from China illustrate the digital dangers associated with a system of consolidated state power that rejects civil liberties.
A recent cache of data, obtained by the BBC, shows how China’s government has weaponized technology against dissidents.
Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the state has unleashed unprecedented human rights abuses targeting Uyghur Muslims. These abuses include forcibly detaining people on pretexts as outlandish as studying scripture or listening to “illegal lectures.” Individuals detained are sent to re-education camps termed “vocational schools” — they’re actually prisons.
Chinese police use a variety of tactics to identify suspects for internment. Stripped of privacy rights, digital crimes served as the entryway for some victims. Near-total digital surveillance means even the most innocuous online habits, such as downloading encrypted apps, can draw suspicion.
Even passive behaviors are monitored and controlled. For instance, failure to use a smartphone enough can lead to a loss of monetary credit, which is seen as evading surveillance. This “crime” is punishable with up to a decade in prison.
These prison camps are the sites of numerous, state-sanctioned atrocities. Last fall, a former Chinese detective reported how he saw inmates routinely beaten, and sexually assaulted. Abuse tactics were used to elicit confessions of involvement in terrorism. This included genital electrocution and gang rape.
Abduweli Ayup, a former camp inmate, was arrested in 2013. Ayup was brutally gang-raped during his first night in detention. He was not released from police custody until he confessed to the charge of “illegal fundraising.”
China’s system of absolute control consolidated in a powerful federal government should make proponents of a free society shudder. It’s precisely these types of abuses the Constitution is designed to prevent.
Unfortunately, recent history shows the United States continues to move on a path that undermines the Constitutional norms and principles that create the necessary conditions for freedom to flourish. The governmental response to the pandemic pulled the mask off the government’s facade of acting in the public’s best interest.
Following 9/11, the United States empowered the federal government with broad authority to combat terrorism and the executive branch wasted no time in building a surveillance infrastructure that can easily be weaponized by the powerful against the powerless.
Reports of abuses against prisoners at the infamous Guantanamo Bay are now widely available. A report from Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative Team shows inmates were subject to physical and psychological torture.
The enormous power vested in the federal government to counter terrorism has gone unchecked for decades and, with time, the definition of counter-terrorism has expanded, currently threatening to turn inward, targeting American citizens accused of “domestic terrorism.”
President Biden has signaled his belief that domestic terrorism is among the most pressing threats to the United States. Federal law defines domestic terrorism as any act that violates criminal laws, and actions that “appear to be intended” to “influence the policy of a government.”
This vague, overly broad definition will create more domestic problems than it solves. Current attempts to curb “domestic terrorism” are overly broad and easily politicized. This not only undermines the public’s trust in government but also contradicts the principles on which the Constitution itself is predicated.
The recent kerfuffle over tense and emotionally charged school board meetings across the nation illustrates this point.
In September 2021, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) requested Biden’s Justice Department review “threats against public school officials” for possible violations of counterterrorism laws, including the PATRIOT Act.
The extent to which Biden’s Justice Department was willing to comply with NSBA’s request remains unknown. Despite Attorney General Merrick Garland’s testimony that, under no circumstances, would the PATRIOT Act apply to parents voicing concerns at school board meetings, it has now been revealed that the FBI’s Counterterrorism and Criminal Divisions unit created a threat tag to track reported threats.
Concerns regarding politically motivated prosecution are not limited to right-wing causes.
Protests ignited by the leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs abortion ruling show how easy it would be for a right-wing leader to weaponize the same laws in the opposite direction. Clearly, those who protested outside of Justices’ homes intended to influence the policy of the Court.
Are these protestors guilty of violating the law? The fact that the answer to this question could be subject to the political affiliation of the president speaks volumes to our fraying system of civil rights.
Make no mistake, Americans do not currently live under the totalitarian conditions of China, but we would be wise to heed the warning signs of the danger brewing in our own backyard.
It is no secret that the federal government has spied on American citizens for years under the guise of preventing terrorism. How much of privacy is the public willing to forfeit in exchange for the illusion of security?
To lose privacy is to lose freedom. Defenders of civil liberties, particularly those concerned with individual privacy rights, must ride the tempestuous sea of liberty by holding firm to the principles of the Constitution, even when the political tides turn against justice.