Punitive surveillance technologies are widening their net every minute. They are key components of what I refer to as “e-carceration”: the use of technology to deprive people of their liberty. For the authorities, e-carceration offers a means to assure the public that purportedly threatening populations—those regarded as criminals, such as Black Lives Matter activists on pretrial release, newly arrived migrant workers, individuals with mental health or substance use issues—are under control. Yet, these technologies are about more than control. They serve as a reminder that we need to fear certain sectors of the population.
This process is most obvious in the case of migrants arriving at the southern border of the United States. By the time they enter the US, they have likely been already captured—that is, captured digitally, by ICE and local authorities in Mexico or other countries of origin, such as Haiti, Honduras, or Colombia. This digital capture may include photographs from CCTV cameras, as well as surveillance via border drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, tethered aerostat radar systems (TARS), balloons, and livestreaming websites. This border represents the most sophisticated amalgamation of these invasive technologies in the US.
However, while migrants may be the target of the cutting edge of oppression via e-carceration, the criminal legal system has its own paradigm of digital punishment, disproportionately visited upon Black and brown communities. Take, for instance, the case of Jeremey “Mohawk” Johnson. Charged for acts stemming from a 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstration in Chicago, Johnson posted a $20,000 cash bond in November of that year.1 While awaiting his day in court, authorities forced Johnson to wear a pretrial electronic ankle monitor. This device, though less invasive than the collection of technologies marshalled against migrants, still managed to deprive Johnson of his liberty—confining him to his house and recording his every move.
The point is that, whether tracking a migrant traveling thousands of miles through several countries or keeping an eye on Johnson as he moves from living room to kitchen, these watchful digital eyes are reaching into all spheres of life to grab and process data.
The ankle shackle placed on Johnson primarily aims to control his physical movement by converting his house into a digital prison. However, the methods the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) use to monitor migrants have an additional key objective: to optimize the profit-making opportunities presented by an immigrant labor force, by establishing a system of both physical and fiscal control.
Such DHS systems assess a “travelers’ worthiness” by seeking the answer to key questions about the migrant individual: Could they contribute to the economy? More importantly, will they or their families/loved ones/networks become a “drain” on the state budgets by accessing public benefits like healthcare, education, or public housing?2 Surveillance is integral to this cost-benefit calculation. The verdict in this process of risk adjudication can lead to deportation (guilty), a temporary permit (judgement still pending), or permanent residence (innocent). Such electronic incarceration has become a screening mechanism that captures some individuals, exonerates others.
Understanding the complexities of these systems of e-carceration—and successfully challenging them—requires both the stories of individuals like Jeremey Johnson and the research of scholars like Camilla Fojas, author of Border Optics: Surveillance Cultures on the US-Mexico Frontier (2021).
As of March 2022, Johnson had remained on 24/7 house arrest for 19 months, typically only able to leave home for court appearances and medical appointments. Though he followed his restrictive court orders to the letter, he received a regular barrage of phone calls from the Cook County Sheriff’s Office alleging he had left his home without permission. Frustrated by these false accusations, Johnson eventually began to use a video camera to record these calls. He then posted the recordings to his Twitter account, practicing what Simone Browne has labeled “sousveillance”: tactics used by those under surveillance to gather information on those who are surveilling them.3 Johnson was monitoring the monitor.
Johnson’s recordings showed him where he was supposed to be: in bed at 4 a.m., watching television in the evening, standing in the middle of his kitchen; ordinary moments interrupted by the sheriff’s office’s calls accusing him of having left his house. This is the disruption that e-carceration unleashes in a person’s life. And it was only captured thanks to Johnson’s sousveillance, which also demonstrated the incredible inaccuracy of these surveillance devices. Not only was this disruptive, it also had potentially serious ramifications; any violation of Johnson’s restrictions could have landed him back in the Cook County Jail, which, at the time, was described as the “hottest spot in the nation” for COVID-19.4
This stint on the monitor had a traumatic impact on Johnson. “I feel,” he reflected on Twitter, “like there’s a fucking part of my body that doesn’t belong to me.” On top of this alienation, the errant calls he received landed up on his court record. When he went before the judge to plead his case or to ask for more freedom of movement, the false accusations appeared in his record, creating a profile of defiance and irresponsibility rather than compliance. Such a profile could ultimately have a serious impact on the final judgement and sentencing.
The importance of Johnson’s story is not simply that authorities subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment. Rather, Johnson’s experience rests inside a more crucial context: the efforts by the abolitionist Chicago Community Bond Fund, along with allies like the Coalition to End Money Bond, to halt pretrial detention across the state of Illinois.5
Johnson’s case, along with those of Bond Fund members Lavette Mayes and Timothy Williams, provided the data of lived experience that helped activists to convince legislators to pass the first state law in the US to ban cash bail and place serious restrictions on pretrial electronic monitors. The stories were the raw information that enabled the Bond Fund and their allies to reframe this form of e-carceration as not an alternative to jail but a dangerous new form of incarceration. In a jurisdiction that routinely placed people on pretrial monitors under 24-hour house arrest, the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act of 2021 required a full court hearing to place someone on a monitor and a similar hearing to extend the use of the monitor beyond 60 days.6
The combination of serious abolitionist and radical reform organizations and the skillful deployment of stories of impacted individuals created a political force that enabled significant change—what some abolitionists might label a “nonreformist reform.” While the stories of individuals like Johnson are powerful, stories alone do not precipitate change. Ultimately, like research, they need to be strategically embedded in a well-structured plan of action to impact the dominant narrative and contribute to lasting change. This is part of the reality of these early days in developing an abolitionist framework to challenge e-carceration.
Borders and Surveillance
A broader analysis through which to understand Johnson’s predicament can be accessed in Camilla Fojas’s Border Optics, which chronicles the evolution of surveillance along the US border.7 The electronic monitors of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office aim to control a specific, small sector of the population. But the surveillance tools described in Border Optics go well beyond this framework. They combine a wide variety of technologies to control movement, regulate the flow of labor, reduce state expenditure, and buttress law enforcement. In so doing, such technologies—related in function, if not in form, to the electronic ankle monitor—ultimately help solidify the dynamics of global neoliberalism.
Fojas’s work depicts partnerships between state authorities, such as the Department of Homeland Security and Mexican law enforcement, and profiteering Big Tech surveillance firms, such as Palantir, Thomson Reuters, and LexisNexis. Border Optics unveils e-carceration in all its public-private complexities, showing how technologies intersect and combine to produce a wider, more tightly woven net of carceral control than what Johnson experienced in Cook County.
Currently, the majority of migrants entering the United States at the southern border and placed under the control of ICE are surveilled using SmartLINK, an app that is added to their cellphone. SmartLINK does not involve an ankle shackle. Like an ankle monitor, though, SmartLINK tracks location. It also incorporates facial and voice recognition capacities. As of early 2022, over 158,000 individuals under the aegis of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were subjected to SmartLINK, with another 26,000 on traditional GPS ankle monitors.8
The data generated by all ICE monitors ultimately lands in a much more integrated and intensely surveilled system of collection and punishment than that into which Johnson’s tracking data was fed. According to researcher Puck Lo, the Department of Homeland Security uses over 900 databases to track immigrants.9 For Fojas, this represents a contemporary version of a deeply historical visual regime and infrastructure built on decades of manual and analog surveillance systems applied to immigrants.10
Beyond Digital Capture
The mechanics of digital capture represent one dimension of border optics. The other dimension comes from what the population is directed to see when they encounter the physical presence of the border: the walls, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) vehicles and airplanes, aerial surveillance towers, and electrified fences. The actual border is therefore a physical presence coupled with a sense of presence, creating a spectacle in which fear dominates. This fear is engendered not only by walls and SmartLINKs but by CBP vehicles travelling through communities; raids by ICE agents on houses; court rooms; the growth of immigration jails where mothers and children are separated from each other with no concrete promise of where or when they will be reunited.
As Fojas notes, the barrage of media products portraying confrontations at the border also intensify this presence, delivering a set of characters: the narcoterrorists, the human traffickers, the “bad immigrants” who undermine the myth of the US as a nation of immigrants.11
The world of border optics remains the cutting edge, but the monitoring world of the criminal legal system is catching up. No database will remain an island.
While Fojas focuses on the border as a site of surveillance, we need to connect the technologies she meticulously describes with the seemingly less complicated and less punitive devices and apps that focus on the individual. These immigration systems involve the most advanced technologies of punishment and control; yet their complexity is rapidly filtering down to more localized implementations.
Hence, the ankle monitor—which for almost two decades was simply an analog device that informed authorities if the wearer was at home—has now grown into a sophisticated surveillance tool via the use of GPS capacity, biometric measurements, cameras, and audio recording. What this tool captures from the ankle lands in the cloud, in the digital neighborhoods created by Amazon Web Services or Microsoft’s Azure. The ankle monitor has connected to the surveillance state.
The world of border optics remains the cutting edge, but the monitoring world of the criminal legal system is catching up. No database will remain an island.
Research To Fuel Action
Fojas’s research offers a comprehensive critique, but it also inadvertently buttresses an important narrative about technology—that we cannot escape or even challenge its power. People express concerns about the surveillance capacities of Big Tech while, at the same time, continuing to expand their array of downloaded apps, strengthening their digital ties to a world controlled by the ilk of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. These companies have seemingly found the magic formula—deepening their dive into the personal data we generate while offering an ever-expanding variety of entertainment and information to divert consumers’ attention from the ways we are becoming bound to Big Tech. Fojas’s work, useful as it is, does not direct us to paths of resistance.
While offering a similarly radical critique of ICE and corporate power, the research work of grassroots organizations like Mijente, which Fojas mentions briefly, offers a paradigm that connects research and radical action—taking Fojas’s methodology one step further.
During a recent webinar, Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign organizer for Mijente, explained how the organization came to do research. “People in the community started to ask key questions: How did ICE know my address? How did they know he was my cousin? How did they know what car I was driving?”12 When Mijente didn’t have the answers to these questions, they investigated. Their investigations yielded three key results.
First, beginning in 2018, they produced a series of reports on the companies partnering with ICE to extract data from communities. Their initial publication, “Who’s Behind ICE?” outed companies like Palantir and Thomson Reuters as major players in tracking immigrants.
Second, Mijente discovered that activist and disenchanted tech workers were uniquely valuable allies for research and action. Mijente formed partnerships with the Tech Workers Coalition, a group of Silicon Valley employees who were willing to expose their employers’ unprincipled activities, regardless of personal consequences.
Lastly, their research work prepared them “for the next round of fighting” with the DHS, as Gonzalez puts it.13 Their publications were a catalyst to recruit student and activist groups across the country to oppose ICE. As Gonzalez emphasized, “[This is] not just about research … we have been organizing, building power” to help people organize on the ground to defend their loved ones and to “understand that technology is being used against them.”14 Their research ultimately prevented the sale of more than 170 million people’s data (drawn from utility bills) to tech giants like Thomson Reuters and Lexis Nexis, for use by ICE.15
Bringing Fojas’s work into conversation with that of Mijente could multiply the power of both critiques. As Gonzalez stressed, “This is an all-hands-on deck moment … where we take inspiration from old battles while striving to look forward into how the government is trying to control our community.” Bringing Fojas’s research closer to folks on the ground could provide fuel to the struggle to reduce the harm done by the companies she systematically dismantles in her writings—and it could sharpen our ability to consider prospects for their abolition in the future.
This article was commissioned by A. Naomi Paik.
- Anna Casey, “Chicago rapper, comedian shares his experience on electronic monitor,” 21st Show, Illinois Public Media, April 15, 2021. ↩
- Daniel Gonzalez, personal interview with the author, July 31, 2019. ↩
- Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015). ↩
- Timothy Williams and Danielle Ivory, “Chicago’s jail is top US hot spot as virus spreads behind bars,” New York Times, April 8, 2020. ↩
- See resources from the Chicago Community Bond Fund website, especially the “No More Shackles: Arguing Against Pretrial Electronic Monitoring” video. ↩
- Marcia M. Meis, “Illinois Courts Prepare for the Pretrial Fairness Act,” Illinois Courts Website, March 30, 2021. ↩
- Camilla Fojas, Border Optics: Surveillance cultures on the US-Mexico Frontier (New York University Press, 2021). ↩
- Department of Homeland Security, Detention Management website, “Detention statistics,” April 9, 2022. ↩
- “From Data Criminalization to Prison Abolition,” Haymarket Books webinar, March 1, 2022. ↩
- Fojas, Border Optics, p. 19. ↩
- As Fojas points out (Border Optics, p. 127), such dramas have become internationalized, with a New Zealand show called Border Patrol having gained such popularity in its country of origin that new versions were created for audiences in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. ↩
- Haymarket Books webinar. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Drew Harwell, “Utility giants agree to no longer allow sensitive records to be shared with ICE,” Washington Post, December 8, 2021. ↩