We Already Have a Muslim Registry. It’s Called Facebook

The Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington.

The Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington. Susan Walsh/AP

The U.S. government will never need to ask anyone to build Muslim registries because tech companies have already built them.

On several occasions during his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump alluded to the idea of building a database of Muslims in the U.S. His position has veered between tracking refugees (nearly half of those admitted to the U.S. this year are Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center) to considering proposals to register America’s own Muslim citizens. He has always been cryptic about the details. But on Dec. 21, Trump reaffirmed his intention to do something when asked, after terrorist attacks in Germany and Turkey, if he planned to create a registry.

“You’ve known my plans all along,” he told reporters.

Meanwhile, Trump’s calls for “deportation force” have on their own sparked fears of persecution of America’s religious and racial minorities, if not outright fascism—a fear stoked by a member of Trump’s own camp who compared the registry (favorably) with the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans.

When considering who could quickly and effectively assemble such a list, the attention turns to those with the most data about our personal lives—the tech giants of Silicon Valley. Companies from Google and Twitter to Microsoft and Facebook, prodded by the Intercept, have issued statements opposing the creation of a Muslim registry.

But focusing on who might or might not build a list of minorities is dangerously misleading. It applies a 20th-century logic to a 21st-century reality. If such targeting were to reemerge in the U.S., it is unlikely to march up in a WWII uniform to declare itself.

The U.S. government will never need to ask anyone to build Muslim registries because tech companies have already built them. Dozens of times, as it turns out. And there is little to keep them out of the hands of the government, although some plans are taking shape as companies confront this threat.

Every major U.S. technology company that tracks customers’ behavior (and that is most of them) is already a registry, and not just for Muslims. Data warehoused by Google, Twitter, Facebook, Verizon, AT&T, Visa, ad networks and others are capable of pinpointing minorities, as well as those with dissident views, says the advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“It’s absolutely the case the the data can be used in ways that identify and target minorities,” says Cindy Cohn, executive director of EFF. “It won’t be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be perfect to be problematic. The human rights costs are huge whether it’s perfect or not.”

It’s remarkably easy to conduct such targeting today as an advertiser. An experienced marketer wishing to identify Muslims could assemble millions of likely customers in a day.

“I think they could have an audience of several million U.S. citizens with a high propensity for the Islamic faith, as well as those who read Arabic, in 24 hours,” says Rob Shavell, the co-founder of the online privacy company Abine. Connecting those profiles with phone numbers, addresses, as well as more precise biographical data would be a relatively straightforward process.

These commercial databases are even likely to outperform domestic spying operations of the National Security Agency. Searches, emails, messages, transactions, browsing history and millions of other data points the tech giants store can pinpoint millions of American’s identities with unrivaled precision.

The U.S., along with any sufficiently-connected country, is now only a few court directives, or a state-sponsored hack, away from an active surveillance state (check out China to see one in action). The deportation force envisioned by Trump, targeted with court-released Facebook data, is a legal possibility

“We’ve built the mechanism to enable a police state,” says Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert from Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “We live in an era of surveillance capitalism. … The notion that the government doesn’t have this data is a complete fantasy. All they have to get is a court order for Google to turn over a list of every Muslim, and who they are talking to.”

For many security professionals, that makes the U.S. government a central adversary when they assess potential risks. Technologists are already devising defenses specifically designed to counter the U.S. government’s attempts to compromise their systems, legally or illegally.

“There is a nonpartisan desire among pretty much everyone in technology not to have the government reaching into the databases of Google, Facebook, and companies like that,” says Thomas Ptacek, a cybersecurity expert and co-founder of security firm Latacora. “The need to treat government as enemies or attackers to be defended against has been pretty pervasive for a while now.”

As companies are unlikely to resist a lawful court order to disclose data, security experts are exploring a second option to restrict outside access to data. Technology researchers have begun work on redesigning databases to make identifiable non-business related queries difficult, even for governments. 

“The idea is you want to build systems that are good at answering business questions and bad at answering every other question,” said Ptacek, who added such databases are technically possible, but have not been a priority for the industry.

Changing how decisions to hand over data are made is another avenue. Companies’ security teams are “increasing the surface area” of critical security decision making. Yahoo’s decision last year, under the direction of CEO Marissa Mayer and Yahoo lawyers, to bypass the company’s security team and give the federal government custom software to covertly search all customers’ incoming emails was a wakeup call. Senior executives, including Yahoo’s chief information security officer, left as a result. 

“There is at least one large tech company that is reorganizing its process to maximize the number of people who would have to know about [government] requests just to satisfy it,” Ptacek says.

Finally, there is the idea, unlikely to appeal to Silicon Valley, of blowing up the internet’s advertising business model altogether. The most extreme version is deleting the data itself: Imagine if Uber, Google and Facebook agreed to wipe their databases every 10 minutes. 

“We should disarm companies and destroy those databases,” Harvard’s Schneier says. “We need something better than surveillance as a business model.”

For now, beyond public outcry and protests, the only action seems to be a last-ditch effort by the Obama administration to remove administrative tools by which the Trump administration itself could conceivably resurrect a Muslim database in the U.S. The now-defunct National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, used by the George W. Bush administration in 2002 and 2003, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to track male foreigners over 16 from Muslim-majority countries and North Korea, was scheduled for formal removal on Dec. 23 by the Homeland Security Department, which itself calls the rules “obsolete” and “inefficient.”

That, of course, will not change the U.S. government’s authority to delve into public, and private, records for its purposes—some of which are outside judicial reviews such as orders in National Security Letters. Google reports the U.S. government requested data on about 60,000 user accounts last year, with Facebook reporting a similar number.

Ultimately, says Maciej Ceglowski, an organizer of a pledge among Silicon Valley tech workers to not cooperate with the U.S. government on “mass deportations,” the only real change may come from those who have the most leverage over these companies: the employees. 

“A lot of people feel they have a moral responsibility because they built all the surveillance tools, it’s up to us to make it safe for people,” Ceglowski says. “It’s a horribly dangerous situation. The best point of pressure right now is employees’ collective action.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.