COINTELPRO in a Digital World
In a move reminiscent of the FBI’s infiltration of political advocacy groups in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Maryland State Police engaged in covert surveillance of groups opposed to the Iraq war and capital punishment. According to a report recently released by former Maryland Attorney General Steven Sachs, Maryland troopers secretly attended meetings of anti-death penalty and anti-war activists in 2005 and 2006. At one meeting, a small group of activists met at a church to call a death-row inmate for whom they provided emotional support. This activity, and others like it, prompted the Maryland State Police to include group members in state and federal criminal intelligence databases. Unfortunately for the activists, the state database, known as Case Explorer, had a limited drop-down screen for entering names, all of which ensured that the users of the system would categorize individuals as terrorists.
News of the covert surveillance and the individuals’ inclusion in these databases as terrorists came to light this summer when the Maryland State Police responded to a public records request pursued by the ACLU. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley commissioned former AG Steven Sachs to investigate the matter. Sachs’s report explains that the Maryland State Police commanders never bothered to ask if the groups posed a reasonable threat to public safety before commencing covert surveillance of them. On the contrary, the groups were determined not to violate the law. According to the New York Times, Maryland State Police are now tracking down 53 “innocent individuals to let them know they were entered as suspected terrorists” in the state and federal databases for their involvement in peaceful protest. In legislative hearings in Annapolis, Maryland this week, former Maryland State Police superintendent insisted that the program was a legitimate surveillance of “fringe people” who wanted to “disrupt the government.”
To be sure, the surveillance itself raises serious concerns about chilling protected political expressive activity. But it also demonstrates the profound power of automated systems, whose design forces important decisions to be made about individuals. By requiring police to categorize individuals as some form of “terrorist,” the systems’ design effectuated an important decision about those individuals, one that could have serious impact on their reputation and lives if that information were released. The digitization of such designations has a lasting, generative power, far beyond the FBI files of the COINTELPRO era that could not be shared with the ease of today’s networked computer systems.