20 Years After 9/11, Surveillance Has Become a Way of Life

Twenty-two years after the attacks, many seemingly simple acts have become unimaginable. They include walking with loved ones to their plane, wandering through corporate plazas, and using streets close to government buildings. The commons of our metropolises are now encircled with steel and surveillance. Cities have been walled off in the midst of the ongoing pandemic over the past year. Each new barrier adds to the city's unique feature: freedom to move, wander and, as Walter Benjamin put it, even to lose one's way in a forest.
With constant tracking, it is harder to lose yourself. When the public spaces between work and home are removed, it is also more difficult to gather information freely. They are also known as third places. They are the glue that binds together modern communities. The public park where teenagers can skateboard alongside their grandparents playing chess or the library where they can learn to read, and the digital lifeline where unhoused people can get a digital connection. Communities can crumble when third places disappear, as they did after the attacks.

ABOUT Albert Fox Cahn (@FoxCahn), the founder and executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group. He is also a visiting fellow at Yale Law Schools Information Society Project.

Citizens will live in a series of separate societies, with fewer spaces to hold them together. As social-media echo rooms have weakened our ability to communicate online, so can the loss of third places.

America has not been particularly good at protecting third places. Enslaved or indigenous people could face death by simply entering the town square. Jim Crow's racial terror in the South led to the denial of Black Americans not just suffrage but also access the water cooler, lunch counters and public transit. Black Americans were still subject to violence and arrest in northern cities, such as New York, for violating the rigid but unrevealed segregation codes.

New York created an exclusionary infrastructure throughout the 20th century to prevent our unhoused neighbours from sharing the city's institutions that they are entitled to occupy. Rudy Giuliani, the then mayor of New York, warned the residents that the streets were not there in civilized societies. This led to thousands of NYPD officers systematically targeting and pushing the unhoused from sight, semi-privatizing the most important public space.

These limitations aside, millions of New Yorkers were able to walk through vast networks of public parks, private plazas and paths. They also had the opportunity to meet people they didn't know. These accidental encounters are what electrify our city. They give us a common sense of self. This shared space started to disappear 20 years ago and, if we don't take care, it will be gone forever.

After the attacks, patriotic platitudes were uttered by those promising to defend democracy. However, in the years that followed, democracy's greatest threat was its defense, which meant that they had to rebuild cities as security areas. It is unclear whether we will be able reverse the trend, given how much billions were spent to defend our way to life.

Photo ID is now a requirement in a country where papers, please used to be synonymous with foreign authoritarianism. A New Yorker could walk the streets of New York for hours without requiring ID before 9/11. It is now required to enter almost any large building or institution.

The ID check is a well-known habit for many New Yorkers. However, it can be a source for fear and uncertainty for others. Millions of Americans don't have a photo ID. For millions more, ID is a risk and a source for data for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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Mizue Aizeki is the interim executive director of New York-based Immigrant Defence Project. He stated that ID systems have become vulnerable to being used as tools of surveillance. Aizeki also noted that the Department of Homeland Security has dramatically increased its support of surveillance systems since its founding after 9/11.

ICE has spent millions partnering companies like Palantir, a controversial data aggregator that sells information to governments both at home and abroad. Vendors have the ability to collect digital sign-ins from buildings where we present our IDs. They can also use facial recognition in plazas and many other surveillance tools to track the area around offices buildings. Aizeki says that as immigration enforcement has increased, advocates have faced a rapidly expanding surveillance state.