A Tale of Two Surveillance States

In the latest episode of the podcast Crazy/Genius, we speak with residents of East New York—and hear some frightening parallels.

A propaganda banner and a security camera are placed on the walls of a mosque in the Old City in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on September 6, 2018
A propaganda banner and a security camera are placed on the walls of a mosque in the Old City in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, on September 6, 2018. (Thomas Peter / Reuters)

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Updated at 1:23 p.m. ET on May 30, 2019.

The Chinese government is brutalizing its Muslim Uyghur population in the western province of Xinjiang, in what Omer Kanat, the director of the Uyghur Human Rights Watch, calls a “genocide without the gas chambers.” Up to 2 million Uyghurs are reportedly being held in detention centers, where they have allegedly been separated from their families and in many cases tortured.

This horrifying situation is built on the scaffolding of mass surveillance. Cameras fill the marketplaces and intersections of the key city of Kashgar. Recording devices are placed in homes and even in bathrooms. Checkpoints that limit the movement of Muslims are often outfitted with facial-recognition devices to vacuum up the population’s biometric data. As China seeks to export its suite of surveillance tech around the world, Xinjiang is a kind of R&D incubator, with the local Muslim population serving as guinea pigs in a laboratory for the deprivation of human rights.

Nothing in the United States compares. But the use of novel surveillance tools to monitor, terrify, and even oppress minority citizens is not a foreign concept.

The latest episode of Crazy/Genius, produced by Jesse Brenneman and Patricia Yacob, tells the tale of two surveillance states. The first is Xinjiang, China. The second is Brooklyn, New York. (Subscribe here.)

This spring, I spoke with residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers, a rent-stabilized apartment complex in East Brooklyn. They have dealt with the omnipresence of security cameras in and around their home. “Once I walk out of my house, on the elevator, in the lobby, in between the buildings, in the supermarket, in the parking lot. I can go nowhere and not be watched,” said Tranae Moran, a young mother. “It’s almost like a panopticon complex, where they have every nook and cranny covered,” said Fabian Rogers, a 23-year-old resident.

Last fall the landlord, Nelson Management, mailed residents a letter announcing plans to install a facial-recognition-technology system at the entrance of the buildings. The letter asked tenants for their permission, but that request seemed less than genuine, for several reasons. Many tenants never received the letter—one of the mailrooms was under reconstruction, disrupting delivery services. Worse, after some residents met in the lobby to discuss the landlord’s plan, they received a threatening letter from management warning them not to gather in public spaces again. (A lawyer told me the landlord’s request violated the law.) Attached to the letter was a photo taken from a corner camera in the lobby. In black-pen ink, each resident in the photograph had been identified by his or her apartment number. Residents said the message was clear: Get with the program, or get out.

Most of the residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers are black. The tenants I met said the threat of installing facial-recognition technology felt designed to scare them away to clear out space for richer, white tenants. “I think [management] wants a new look for the building, and that look does not look brown or any color like us,” Moran said. “In China, they have facial-recognition technology that they’re using to target communities of Muslim people. Sounds very similar to Brooklyn and gentrification.”

“You wouldn’t do this to anyone in SoHo, in the Upper East Side, or in other gentrified communities,” Rogers said. “So why do this to me? I’m not on parole. I’m not on house arrest. I don’t have a collar on my neck or my ankles. Don’t treat me like I’m an inmate.”

Nelson Management did not respond to requests for comment before publication. In an email on Thursday, a spokesperson for the landlord sent a statement. “Nelson Management Group prioritizes identifying and implementing cutting edge technology at all properties to create a safer environment for tenants and to provide the highest-quality housing in the rent-stabilized market,” the statement said. “Since Nelson Management Group acquired Atlantic Plaza Towers in 2007, the resident turnover rate has been trending down to an average of 2.56% per annum.” Nelson Management denied “claims that management are pursuing these safety upgrades at buildings for data harvesting.”

According to Mona Patel of Brooklyn Legal Services, the landlord may have another motive that’s just as sinister as displacement: data harvesting. “The tenants in these two buildings are being exploited for their data,” said Patel. “This is a new technology that hasn’t been, as far as we know, tested in a residential complex. We haven’t seen any validation studies proving it will accurately work for people of color. It almost feels like the tenants are the study.”

Nelson Management is not the Chinese Communist Party. And Atlantic Towers is not Xinjiang. But in both places, minorities are being surveilled with nascent technology and subjected to an organized effort to control their behavior.

Citizens should have the right to make informed choices about participating in a brave new world of biometric data. It’s comforting to pretend that the gravest threats from these technologies are only as close as a newspaper headline describing a distant world. But the project of protecting people from our own inventions is a project that begins at home.