Protesters across the globe are resisting stay-at-home orders to gather in the streets. Wearing masks and gloves, and defying city government curfews, they risk their health to demand protection for the basic humanity of Black people all over the world. Across American cities, these images of civil disobedience once again heighten the visibility of our country’s formative racialized fissure.
A closer look behind the militarized police force, and these images reveal another and related menace: one that is more difficult to see, but also threatening to our nation’s promise. That threat is the spider’s web of surveillant control of our digital and physical public spaces.
As a society, we have been slow to understand how our communications on digital platforms are controlled, monitored, and extracted for profit. For almost three decades, scholars and activists have debated the proper rules for online speech even as we too have voluntarily expanded our dependence on the companies and infrastructure at the source of controversy. Even in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, we still believe in these digital platforms’ promises to document our humanity and empower social activism.
Indeed, today’s uprising was inspired by a video in which 17-year-old Darnella Frazier documented the last nine minutes of George Lloyd’s life. This video was uploaded to the same digital platforms that do so much harm to our democracy and yet, in this moment, are amplifying a global call to end systemic racism and police brutality, to divest in militarized police forces, and to reinvest in social programs.
As we come to grips with our power to mobilize over digital systems, however, we must also realize we are repeating this Faustian bargain in our physical spaces. Digital systems now control everything from our energy grid to transportation systems, educational venues to hospitals, manufacturing practices to elections. They govern the places we have for gathering, learning, bonding, buying and selling goods, and for protest.
Privatized digital control over our public spaces: this is what we are building with facial recognition technology, beacon-based advertising, geofencing, Stingray phone trackers, drones, and closed-circuit cameras. This type of corrosive surveillance is all too familiar to Black and other marginalized communities. It destroys lives and shreds the social contract without which democracies will not stand. If we allow the “Facebook-ization” of our physical, public spaces to continue, we will have no democratically-ruled spaces left in which to speak, gather, mourn, or govern ourselves.
In the strangest of ironies, however, the confluence of the pandemic and protests provides an opportunity to bring together the very expertise we need to keep digital systems in check. Overpoliced Black communities have been forced to develop tools for resisting surveillance and methods for powerfully articulating its harmful impact. Meanwhile, scholars, technologists, and activists understand the regulations needed to grant people control over their data, prevent the repurposing of personal information, and mandate the destruction of medical surveillance systems when the viral threat passes.
We must bring this varied expertise together so that communities who have historically been targeted by digital systems do not have further need to fear for their lives when contact tracing technology is developed and deployed to combat the spread of COVID-19. This tragic moment in our history compels us to protect our public spaces from all forms of violence: the viral threat, police brutality, and the digital privatization of our public spaces.
Lucy Bernholz and Toussaint Nothias are directors at the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University where Mutale Nkonde, founder of AI for the People, and Tawana Petty, director of the Data Justice Program at Detroit Community Technology Project, are fellows.
In the summer of 2020, the Digital Civil Society Lab launched the Digital Assembly Research Network (DARN), a global community of research and practice dedicated to addressing the ways digital systems influence our ability and right to assemble. Find out more and join the conversation here.