Drones can be fun. So can ChatGPT. Facial recognition technology makes boarding a plane faster and biometrics improve preventive medicine. Big data has brought big gains in risk identification and operations in complex networks.
But each packs a certain punch of peril too.
As British historian Peter Frankopan wrote:
…while being able to pay for a Chicken Zinger burger in Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in China using facial technology is exciting, the fact that the same tools can be used by state security agencies for surveillance and security is undoubtedly more significant.
Along with all the advances in digital technologies in recent years have come warnings about state surveillance and the use of technology to scrutinize the lives of everyday individuals.
Beyond vague threats of Orwellian dystopias, religious communities have been both targets, as well as utilizers, of monitoring technologies and surveillance over the years.
In this Source Guide, we provide resources, relevant stories and sources for reporting on the increasing intersections between religion and surveillance.
Background and tips
Before Irvine, Calif. had its own mosque, Muslims would gather at Ali Malik’s home for nightly prayers during Ramadan. But after an FBI informant pretended to be a convert and spied on Malik’s lay congregation—and more than half a dozen Southern California mosques, as well, in the mid-2000s—trust within the community eroded. Malik’s family pulled back. The communal prayers came to an end. “We became closed off and afraid of reaching out,” he says. Shocked by the experience, Malik and two other plaintiffs sued the FBI, accusing the agency of religious discrimination and unlawful government surveillance.
The case began in February 2011, after the public learned that the FBI was surveilling mosques during 2006 and 2007. After making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, justices effectively ruled in the FBI’s favor in March 2022, sending the case back to the Ninth Circuit for it to answer whether the state secrets privilege required that the case be ultimately dismissed. Over a decade since the suit was first brought, judges are still “wrestling with whether government secrecy trumps […] claims of religious discrimination in domestic national security cases.”
The final decision will set a precedent for the lawfulness and limits of government surveillance on religious communities for years to come.
While FBI v. Fazaga is a particularly telling contemporary case, government surveillance of religious communities in the U.S. is nothing new.
Historian Kathryn Montalbano wrote that “surveillance of religious communities predates contemporary concerns regarding life in a surveillance society.” Indeed, before FBI agents were being trained how to infiltrate Muslim communities and surveil them as part of the agency’s counterterrorism program or the New York Police Department was singling out Muslims in the wake of 9/11, authorities were pursuing cases surrounding polygamy and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, investigating Quakers in the American Friends Service Committee, looking into the Presbyterian Church in the 1980s and tracking the Branch Davidians in the ’90s.
Famously, in the mid-20th century, the FBI “marked Muslim groups for surveillance campaigns, rounding up and arresting large numbers” of members of the Nation of Islam for what they saw illegal acts of sedition and miscegenation. The leader of the movement, Elijah Muhammad, and his family were under constant surveillance and the FBI opened a file on Malcolm X in 1953, continuing to surveil him until his assassination in 1965.
Such surveillance is far from limited to the U.S., however. From Niger to Nicaragua, Iran to Ireland, the stories below reveal the global scope of surveillance and how governments use it to both monitor and protect religious communities.
In China, the authorities have installed surveillance cameras both outside and inside houses of worship to monitor and identify attendees; deployed facial recognition systems that are purportedly able to distinguish Uyghurs and Tibetans from other ethnic groups; and collected biometric information — including blood samples, voice recordings and fingerprints — from religious and faith communities, often without their consent.
At the same time, some religious communities have asked for increased surveillance by governments for security purposes, including synagogues in the wake of increasing antisemitic attacks. The more the government is watching, the thinking goes, the more they might be protected from the threat of antisemitic, Islamophobic or other forms of violence.
Journalists must also be aware of how they themselves might be watched — by governments near and far. Across the globe, “digital surveillance of journalists is on the rise” — from the use of spyware to social media intimidation, particularly against women — which can lead to censure, arrest and violence against the Fourth Estate. Reporters should remain diligently attuned to the intricacies of government security measures, extremist groups and the danger both may pose to their beats.
The angles are numerous when it comes to religion, security and surveillance. As technologies continue to advance, and the reach of those using them to spy, surveil and incite expands, religion reporters should be on the lookout for stories that address:
- How have religious communities been targets, as well as users, of surveillance technologies?
- How do governments wrestle with the balance between human rights and freedom of religion, expression and privacy with politics, national security and cultural pressure?
- What about how a community’s beliefs in divine surveillance may impact their responses to being targets of it by governments?
- How do different religious communities draw on their traditions to navigate the ethical challenges of using and participating in surveillance?
- How do religious groups use closed-circuit TV at, and in, places of worship? What impact is it having on their membership and their standing in the wider community?
- In the drive for more data, are religious groups using “data management” services to scrape information on their congregants and members? What about their “competitors” in the religious marketplace?
The related stories and sources below provide a helpful starting point to dig deeper.
Relevant stories and reports from around the world
- Read “Sam Altman Is the Oppenheimer of Our Age,” from New York Magazine on Sept. 25, 2023.
- Read “The Man Who Trapped Us in Databases,” from The New York Times on Sept. 22, 2023.
- Read “The Life of Malcolm X: ‘You Had Better Make Some Noise,’” from The Collector on Sept. 21, 2023.
- Read “In new Bob Jones University podcast, former students and faculty blast ‘insular’ culture,” from Religion News Service on Sept. 12, 2023.
- Read “Ahead of High Holidays, US Jewish leaders stress need for security vigilance as antisemitism surges,” from The Associated Press on Sept. 12, 2023.
- Read “NJ town accused of discriminating against Orthodox Jews will pay $575K settlement,” from Religion News Service on Aug. 29, 2023.
- Read “Insight: Catholic clergy report surveillance, beatings amid Nicaragua’s crackdown,” from Reuters on July 7, 2023.
- Read “FBI Claims Secret Evidence Trumps Religious Discrimination Charges in Domestic Spying Case,” from Time on June 8, 2023.
- Read “U.S. Supreme Court rules for FBI in Muslim surveillance dispute,” from Reuters on March 4, 2022.
- Read “Buddhism as a National-Security Threat,” from The Wall Street Journal on March 14, 2019.
- Read “He live-streamed his attacks on Indian Muslims. YouTube gave him an award,” from The Washington Post on Sept. 26, 2023.
- Read “India-Canada tensions shine light on complexities of Sikh activism in the diaspora,” from The Associated Press on Sept. 23, 2023.
- Read “‘If We Raise Our Voice They Arrest Us’: Sri Lanka’s Proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” from Human Rights Watch on Sept. 18, 2023 (Analysis).
- Read “Every Step, Every Swipe: Inside China’s System Of Total Surveillance Of Uyghurs,” from Worldcrunch on Sept. 14, 2023.
- Read “India Hindus begin pilgrimage in Kashmir amid heavy security,” from The Associated Press on June 20, 2023.
- Read “CCTV: Why do so many Indians love surveillance?” from the BBC on March 30, 2023.
- Read “Vietnamese Activists Say Hanoi Adopting China’s Model on Religious Policy,” from VOA News on March 21, 2023.
- Read “Chinese surveillance unit operating inside Tibetan Buddhist monastery,” from Radio Free Asia on Feb. 16, 2022.
- Read “Under fire from Hindu nationalist groups, U.S.-based scholars of South Asia worry about academic freedom,” from The Washington Post on Oct. 3, 2021.
- Read “Are India’s laws on surveillance a threat to privacy?” from The Hindu on Dec. 28, 2018.
- Read “US military resumes drone flights and manned counterterrorism missions out of Niger bases,” from The Associated Press on Sept. 14, 2023.
- Read “African governments are restricting religious freedom for security reasons more than anywhere else,” from Quartz on April 21, 2017 (Commentary).
- Read “Putin’s Useful Priests: The Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin’s Hidden Influence Campaign in the West,” from Foreign Affairs on Sept. 14, 2023.
- Read “Russian main freedom of religion monitoring group to be disbanded,” from Evangelical Focus on Aug. 28, 2023.
- Read “Belarusian Evangelicals Fear Growing Isolation,” from Christianity Today on June 12, 2023.
- Read “Welfare surveillance system violates human rights, Dutch court rules,” from The Guardian on Feb. 5, 2020.
- Read “Saudi Reforms Soften Islam’s Role, But Hard Line Against Dissent Persists,” from Religion Unplugged on Sept. 13, 2023.
- Read “Israel escalates surveillance of Palestinians with facial recognition program in West Bank,” from Nov. 8, 2021.
- Read “Iran installs cameras in public places to identify, penalise unveiled women,” from Reuters on April 11, 2023.
- Listen, “No Safe Place for Your Face?” from Human Rights Watch (Commentary) on Oct. 3, 2023.
Experts and sources
Fahd Ahmed is executive director of DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) in New York City. Coming from Pakistan as an undocumented immigrant in 1991, he has been a grassroots organizer on the issues of racial profiling, immigrant justice, police accountability and national security for over a decade.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee works to stop discrimination against Muslims.
Ahilan Arulanantham is a professor at the UCLA School of Law and Co-Director of its Center for Immigration Law and Policy (CILP). He formerly directed immigrant rights and national security cases for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
The Anti-Defamation League tracks discrimination based on religion. ADL has 30 regional offices. Check with local ADL officials for a breakdown on the number and type of antisemitic incidents in your area and for leads on interfaith initiatives.
Alvaro Bedoya is a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. Bedoya was the founding director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University Law Center, where he was also a visiting professor of law. Contact through the FTC’s Office of Public Affairs.
Darren Byler is professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University. He is expert on the Uyghur Muslim community. His book, Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City (Duke University Press, 2021), examines emerging forms of media, infrastructure, economics and politics in the Uyghur homeland in Chinese Central Asia (Ch: Xinjiang).
Muzaffar Chishti is director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University’s School of Law. His work focuses on U.S. immigration policy, the intersection of labor and immigration law, civil liberties and immigrant integration. He has been critical of the New Sanctuary Movement for its failure to distinguish between civil and criminal immigration cases.
David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, is an expert on First Amendment and civil rights issues and co-author of Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations says it is the largest advocacy group for Muslims in the U.S. It advocates for Muslims on issues related to civil liberties and justice. Contact communications director Ibrahim Hooper in Washington, D.C.
Natasha Duarte is a project director at Upturn. Based in Washington, D.C., Upturn advances equity and justice in the design, governance and use of technology.
Anushka Jain is a lawyer and policy researcher interested in disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, facial recognition and machine learning. She is a research associate at the Digital Futures Lab, where her work focuses on the proliferation of surveillance technology and its human rights impacts.
Sylvester A. Johnson is founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities and a humanities scholar specializing in the study of technology, race, religion and national security.
Rachel Levinson-Waldman serves as managing director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, which seeks to advance effective national security policies that respect constitutional values and the rule of law.
Tom Lininger is a professor of law at the University of Oregon who has written on the surveillance and infiltration of religious groups in the U.S.
Sangeeta Mahapatra is a research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Leipzig, Germany. Her research looks into digital politics, digital authoritarianism, disinformation, online radicalization and internet governance.
Niha Masih is a reporter at The Washington Post’s Seoul hub. Previously, she was the Post’s India correspondent, where she covered the rise of majoritarian nationalism, conflict in Kashmir, the COVID-19 crisis and digital surveillance of citizens.
Kathryn Montalbano is a historian of communications at the University of Kentucky who specializes in media law, religion and media, and surveillance studies.
Laura Moy is director of Georgetown Law’s Communications & Technology Law Clinic, where she and a team of staff attorneys and law students represent nonprofit organizations in a range of technology policy matters before federal agencies.
The Office of International Religious Freedom promotes universal respect for freedom of religion or belief for all as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. It monitors religiously motivated abuses, harassment and discrimination worldwide, recommending, developing and implementing policies and programs to address these concerns. Contact Daniel Nadel, director and principal deputy to the IRF ambassador; or Mariah Mercer, deputy to the IRF ambassador.
Faiza Patel is senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program and an expert on government surveillance, especially its targeting of minority communities; domestic terrorism; and the impact of technology on civil rights and civil liberties.
James T. Richardson is Emeritus Foundation Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. He wrote the essay “Public Policy Toward Minority Religions in the United States: A Model for Europe?” for the book Religion and Public Policy.
Hina Shamsi is director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, which is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices comply with the Constitution, civil liberties and human rights.
Erin Singshinsuk serves as executive director of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. She is responsible for directing the day-to-day operations of the commission and managing its staff.
Eric Stoddart is professor of practical theology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. His research focuses on surveillance as a social (not mere technological) response to contemporary challenges across fields as diverse as counterterrorism and children’s welfare. He leads the Surveillance and Religion Network.
Tatiana Vagramenko is a social anthropologist who focuses on Christianity and the process of religious change among Indigenous people of the Russian Arctic. Vagramenko’s research interests include religion and resistance to power, religious fundamentalism and secularism, ethnic and religious minorities in Russia and Ukraine as well as state security and surveillance.
Xiangnong (George) Wang is a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, with a focus on privacy and security.
Michael Wishnie, a law professor at Yale Law School, has taught a class titled “Balancing Civil Liberties and National Security After Sept. 11.” His human rights law clinic has been honored by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.