The FBI vs. Apple Debate Just Got Less White

Racial justice activists, including Black Lives Matter, are warning of potential civil rights abuses should the FBI be able to force Apple to undermine its own security.

Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

The court fight between Apple and the FBI prompted a slew of letters and legal briefs last week from outside parties, including many tech companies and privacy groups. But a particularly powerful letter came from a collection of racial justice activists, including Black Lives Matter.

The letter focused on potential civil rights abuses, should the FBI gain the power to conscript a technology company into undermining its own users’ security.

“One need only look to the days of J. Edgar Hoover and wiretapping of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to recognize the FBI has not always respected the right to privacy for groups it did not agree with,” wrote the signatories, including arts and music nonprofit Beats, Rhymes & Relief, the Center for Media Justice, the Gathering for Justice, Justice League NYC, activist and writer Shaun King, and Black Lives Matter co-founder and Black Alliance for Just Immigration executive director Opal Tometi.

Those tactics haven’t ended, they argue. “Many of us, as civil rights advocates, have become targets of government surveillance for no reason beyond our advocacy or provision of social services for the underrepresented.”

In Washington and Silicon Valley, the debate over unbreakable encryption has an aura of elite, educated, mostly male whiteness — from the government representatives who condemn it to the experts who explain why it’s necessary.

But the main targets of law enforcement surveillance have historically been African-American and Muslim communities.

Malkia Cyril, co-founder of the Center for Media Justice, one of the letter’s signatories, gave a speech at one of several nationwide protests outside Apple stores two weeks ago, supporting the tech giant and pointing out the FBI’s history of surveilling black activists. “In the context of white supremacy and police violence, Black people need encryption,” she wrote in a tweet.

Others representing Black Lives Matter attended protests across the country, including in front of the FBI headquarters itself — the J. Edgar Hoover building — in downtown Washington, D.C.

“I’ve been reviewing the Apple vs. FBI lawsuit and now realize how important it is that that Apple wins the lawsuit. #DontHackApple,” DeRay Mckesson, Baltimore mayoral candidate and prominent Black Lives Matter organizer, tweeted on February 22. “When I was arrested in protest, my iPhones were in police custody. They were secure. The police couldn’t access my info,” he added. “If Apple has to create an insecure iPhone iOS app, all of the private data that we store on our phones is at risk.”

The letter to California federal Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym, who will hear arguments March 22 on the case, is the start of more to come.

“I think racial justice organizations have a clear stake in the fight for encryption,” the Center for Media Justice’s Cyril said. “It was really important to me that our voices were raised here … because they wouldn’t be [represented] by others.”

Cyril, a poet and grassroots organizer born to an editor of the Black Panther newspaper, wants the average person to understand how surveillance impacts low-income communities of color — where she argues that government spying was born.

“The mundane surveillance of people of color is what gives rise to bulk surveillance at a federal level … not the other way around,” she said. “Whatever has been considered normal at a local level” — including systems of suspicious activity reports, predictive policing, and other tactics — “has now been considered normal at the federal level.”

Tometi, another signatory, wrote in an email to The Intercept that “one of the most alarming parts of that history has been the ways that surveillance has been misused against Black people who have been advocating for their justice. It’s been used to discredit, abuse, and incarcerate them. It’s important we speak out now before it’s too late.”

King said the Apple fight, and the phone security at risk if Apple loses, is “out of sight, out of mind for a lot of people.” But it ties into a greater problem, he said: the continuous monitoring that racial justice activists experience.

He said he is “concerned about how the government may abuse its opportunity to call us threats when we’re not,” and then use that assumption as justification for hacking into their cellphones or using other invasive spying techniques.

Over the summer, a cybersecurity firm, described Black Lives Matter organizers Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie as “threat actors” who needed “continuous monitoring” to maintain public safety. The company, ZeroFox, briefed members of an FBI intelligence partnership program in Maryland on its analysis of the Freddie Gray protests — which it later delivered to Baltimore City officials.

“It’s only a matter of time until someone says, ‘We really need to access Shaun’s King’s cell phone,’” King said. “We’re not that many steps away from that.”

“I have deep concerns about how various methods of surveillance are already being used against social justice and human rights defenders in the Black Lives Matter movement,” Tometi wrote.

“Basically, what people need to understand is that to protect your First and Fourth Amendment rights in the digital age, we need to update the law to the digital age,” Cyril said. “Everything we do is online … encryption is necessary for a democracy.”

Cyril calls for a public debate, so that people can understand the real stakes. “Let’s be clear. Everybody has everything to hide. I want to hide my banking info from thieves — everything that is mine. I think the public needs to understand that.”

Top photo: Activists in Los Angeles protest the decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner.

Join The Conversation