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Surveillance States Are Flexing Their Muscle

Trump's planned expansion of his travel ban is part of a broader authoritarian Big Data grab.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Three weeks in, 2020 is already a banner year for authoritarian government surveillance. Last weekend, The New York Times’ Kashmir Hill reported that Clearview, an AI startup with connections to Rudy Giuliani and backing from Peter Thiel, had crossed a virtual Rubicon by making the internet searchable by face—and by giving facial-recognition database access to “hundreds of law enforcement agencies, ranging from local cops in Florida to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security.” On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that five months before the Saudi murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Post owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had his phone hacked directly by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, through a malicious file the prince sent Bezos in a video clip during a “friendly” text conversation.

Now reports suggest that President Trump will announce an expansion of his notorious fearmongering “travel ban” next Mondaythe third anniversary of its initial ill-conceived, short-lived incarnationsignaling the ban’s potential evolution from a pointless Islamophobic P.R. exercise to a beachhead for the growing American ethnic-surveillance state.

Tooling around the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday, Trump confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that he was planning to expand the travel ban, not long before he told the paper that 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg was “very angry” and Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was “a wack job.” Trump wouldn’t confirm which countries might next be subject to a ban from the United States, but unnamed “senior officials” gave reporters a list of seven probable targets: Belarus, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania.

“We have to be safe. Our country has to be safe,” Trump told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday morning, in a characteristically low-syllable riff. “You see what’s going on in the world. Our country has to be safe.”

Safe from what, exactly? The first two incarnations of the travel ban targeted people from Muslim-majority countries and were struck down by federal courts on that basis. The third included North Koreans and government officials from Venezuela, a fig leaf of “neutrality” that the conservative-led Supreme Court accepted as nondiscriminatory. Since then, of course, Americans have been subjected to plenty of mass shootings and acts of terror, primarily by U.S-born white men, as well as one by an unvetted Saudi military pilot whom the Trump administration permitted to train on a Florida base, where he murdered three American sailors with a locally bought Glock handgun.

If you take the administration at face value, the soon-to-be-banned countries are being targeted over their poor surveillance record. “[I]f a country wants to fully participate in U.S. immigration programs, they should also comply with all security and counterterrorism measures,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said two weeks ago, when the expansion was first rumored. At that time, the Associated Press reported that nations would be targeted for failing “to share sufficient information with the U.S. or [to take] necessary security precautions, such as issuing electronic passports with biometric information.” (This level of U.S. demand for surveillance data all sounded a lot snappier in 2003, when it was called “Total Information Awareness.”)

The best case, in other words, that the U.S. can give for barring Belarusians and Eritreans from entering the country is that their governments aren’t delivering on biometric security promises—though, if these promises are quantified by U.S. authorities somewhere, the standards certainly aren’t transparent to U.S. citizens. As The Diplomat’s Katie Putz points out, you could make a case that Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Myanmar have promised to create biometric passports for their citizens but haven’t yet rolled them out. But that seems like an awfully thin reason to close off U.S. borders to all their citizens, and anyway, Putz adds, “this is all just guesswork. The reality is that for any given country, the administration can identify a ‘reason’ to restrict entry.”

In the absence of clear rationales, you could argue that denying Belarus officials visas to the U.S. is carrying water for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s currently strong-arming the Minsk government over vital oil imports. Or you could note that the planned list of countries extends Trump’s pattern of banning migrants from nations that don’t house Trump Organization properties. Or you could focus on Nigeria’s inclusion in the new list and recall the Times’ report from late 2017 that Trump had complained behind closed doors about Nigerian immigrants, saying—according to two officials present—that after they had seen the U.S., “they would never ‘go back to their huts’ in Africa.” You could suggest, as the AP has, that Trump just wants to get back to his xenophobic, hucksterist roots “as he ramps up his reelection campaign and works to energize his base with his signature issue.”

All of those explanations for the travel ban’s expansion have a basis in fact, and in the absence of a credible government, they’re tempting to run with. But for once, it’s worth taking the Trump administration at its word: This is fundamentally about collection and analysis of data on immigrants to the U.S. In this respect, it’s of a piece with the Clearview and Bezos news, as well as the announcement by the U.S., earlier this month, of plans to dramatically expand its collection of DNA from three-quarters of a million immigrants per year, for use in an FBI genetic database. As The Appeal points out, that “escalation in DNA collection” also builds on years of bipartisan agreement in Washington, even before 9/11, that government surveillance is a public good: “[T]he infrastructure needed for such a sweeping change to happen has been built up since the Clinton era.”

Trump may be a simpleminded, racist hotelier, but he’s building an authoritarian ethnostate with biometric surveillance tools that were developed by his predecessors. Now, with a new travel-ban expansion, and with assists from potentates in Riyadh and venture capitalists in Sunnyvale, he’s ready to export that Big Brother vibe abroad.