From: The Honorable Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr.
URGE THE FCC TO PROTECT LOW-INCOME AND MINORITY COMMUNITIES FROM EXCESSIVE SURVEILLANCE BY LAW ENFORCEMENT
Deadline: Friday, December 2, 2016
I invite you to join us in sending a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging the agency to address the disproportionate use of surveillance technology against low-income and minority communities.
Recent reports have shown that police departments are reportedly using surveillance technology with greater frequency against people exercising their First Amendment rights, specifically people of color. Disturbingly, increased surveillance technology has
been reported at protests against police brutality and racial injustice. In addition, the FBI has disclosed before Congress that it flew surveillance aircraft over Ferguson and Baltimore during the protests following the police killings of Michael Brown and
Such targeted use is deeply troubling to all of those who value the principle that the law should be enforced fairly and indiscriminately. All Americans should be able to exercise their constitutional rights to assemble and to free speech. The color of one’s
skin should in no way determine the treatment one receives from law enforcement. It is up to Congress to ensure that every community is protected in an equitable fashion.
I invite you to join me in urging the FCC to take swift action to protect historically disadvantaged communities. If you have any questions or would like to sign-on, please contact Arya Hariharan at email@example.com or
Rep. Hank Johnson
December XX, 2016
The Honorable Tom Wheeler
Federal Communications FCC
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, D.C. 20554
Dear Chairman Wheeler:
Under your stewardship, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has actively advanced access to communications services in historically disadvantaged communities. This honors one of the FCC’s fundamental responsibilities: to make communications available
“without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex.” From efforts to modernize the Lifeline program to capping inter- and intra-state prison phone rates, the FCC has sought
to ensure these communities are not left behind as communications technology and networks grow.
Despite these efforts, however, there is still much work to be done. In particular, we urge the FCC to address communications-based surveillance technology that disproportionately harms low-income and minority communities.
We are especially troubled by law enforcement agencies’ use of cell-site simulators (“CS simulators”) – surveillance technology that operates over cellular networks that fall squarely within the FCC’s jurisdiction. A recent complaint filed
with the FCC regarding the Baltimore City Police Department illustrates the harmful effects CS simulators have on communities, specifically in low-income and minority neighborhoods. The complaint alleges that many police departments use CS simulators to transmit
over licensed spectrum without appropriate federal licenses. In addition, the complaint indicates that CS simulators likely disrupt nearby cell phones’ ability to make and receive calls, including emergency calls. Surveillance based on race is especially concerning
given that CS simulators are used in every day practice, and not just emergency, situations. For example, in Annapolis, Maryland, the police deployed a CS simulator to solve a pizza delivery robbery where the
robber stole 15 chicken wings and 3 subs. This is in stark contrast to assurances made by CS simulator manufacturers that their devices will only be used in emergency situations.
Alarmingly, these invasive devices are reportedly used with greater frequency against people exercising their First Amendment rights, specifically people of color. CS simulators have been reported at protests against police brutality & racial injustice and
have been used to block phone signals during these events. Such use allows law enforcement to gather intelligence and pursue specific people, such as known political organizers, based not on criminal activity,
but on their participation in activities protected by the Constitution.
The FBI has disclosed before Congress that it flew surveillance aircraft over Ferguson and Baltimore during the protests following the police killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. In April, Black Lives
Matter activist Elsa Waithe told The Intercept that she believes police surveillance in New York – where the NYPD was recently revealed to have used CS simulator more than 1000 times without a warrant – is designed to chill dissent and gather information in
order to better target organizers. Activist DeRay Mckesson, who recently ran for mayor in Baltimore, said, “Some of this surveillance is meant to scare us and potentially to figure out what people’s
next steps are.” In Los Angeles, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has described an “architecture of surveillance” which disproportionately targets people of color and includes, among other things, the use of CS
simulators, “predictive” policing, and a Suspicious Activity Reporting (“SAR”) program. In Lansing, Michigan, neighborhoods selected for video surveillance based on reported crime rates were found to have
approximately 15 percent more black residents than non- surveilled neighborhoods. In other cases, racial bias could be embedded in surveillance technology itself.
Given reports of systemic racial discrimination within law enforcement agencies, it is clear that there is a widespread problem of law enforcement behavior and decision-making is disproportionately harming communities of color. This is exacerbated by the
advancements in surveillance technology. A survey by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that at least sixty-six agencies in twenty-three states and the District of Columbia own CS simulators. A number
of these agencies, including the NYPD and LAPD, also have a similarly well-known history of racial discrimination. For example, in Tucson, Arizona, the police department deliberately prolonged traffic stops
in an effort to verify individuals’ immigration status, which is in direct conflict with the Tucson Police Department’s own policies. In Oakland, California, African-Americans make up 28 percent of the population,
but accounted for 57 percent of car stops and 69 percent of pedestrian stops between November 2015 and May 2016. In Boston, Massachusetts, a 2014 review commissioned by the Boston Police Department found
that despite African-Americans accounting for only 25 percent of the population, two-thirds of police stops involved black residents. These examples further demonstrate how the disproportionate police surveillance
of low-income and minority communities is widespread.
In the United States, race-based discrimination and control have frequently been at the center of surveillance: from slave pass laws; to 19th century Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation; to the 20th century where federal and local agencies targeted
political activists and civil rights leaders. As 45 civil rights and racial justice organizations explained in a letter earlier this year urging Chairman Wheeler to investigate and address the disproportionate impact of CS simulators on historically disadvantaged
communities: “New technological tools that amplify police power can amplify existing biases in policing. Lack of effective oversight and supervision . . . in the use of this technology may lead to even greater invasions of privacy and subversions of rights
in communities of color that are already the targets of biased policing.”
The FCC cannot fulfill Section 151’s mandate if it allows local law enforcement to continue to willfully interfere with communications networks through the operation of cell site simulators. We ask the FCC to take swift action to protect historically disadvantaged
communities from the harms caused by CS simulators.
We thank you for your consideration and look forward to your timely response.
Members of Congress
cc: The Honorable Mignon Clyburn, Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission
The Honorable Ajit Pai, Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission
The Honorable Michael O’Rielly, Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission
The Honorable Jessica Rosenworcel, Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission