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The Color of Surveillance: Georgetown Law Conference to Explore Racial Bias of Government Monitoring

February 18, 2016 —

As Congress prepares to consider renewal of a powerful NSA surveillance authority next year and explores reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system, a Georgetown Law conference will examine the long-standing disproportionate impact that government surveillance has had on the black community. Registration for the conference opens today here.

“The Color of Surveillance: Government Monitoring of the African American Community,” organized by Georgetown Law and the law school’s Center on Privacy & Technology, will take place April 8. The day-long conference will feature Pulitzer Prize-winning historians, scholars, activists and members of the criminal justice, law enforcement and national security communities.  

“We are very pleased to host this important event, which will examine the underexplored racial dimension of government surveillance and its implications for criminal justice, civil rights and public policy,” said Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor. “We are having a national conversation about surveillance and policing. As we do that, we have to bear in mind history’s lessons for how those practices have affected some far more than others.”

Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, said: “Concerns about national security have long been used by the government to justify wiretapping and other surveillance targeting members of the black community. If you name a black civil rights leader of the 20th century — from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Fannie Lou Hamer to W.E.B. DuBois to Marcus Garvey — chances are strong that he or she was tracked in the name of national security. As we learn about Department of Homeland Security monitoring of Black Lives Matter activists, it seems that history may be repeating itself.” Bedoya recently penned an essay in Slate exploring this subject.   

Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler, a former prosecutor and expert in criminal law, added: “This vital conference could not be more timely, as the struggle for civil rights and civil liberties confronts the post-Obama era. We will reckon with the history of U.S. government suppression of African American political activism, reflect on the current movement for racial justice, and address the high-tech future, which will provide powerful new tools to both the state and activists.”

Conference speakers include David J. Garrow and David Levering Lewis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers of Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois, respectively, the authors of a civil rights scorecard for police body-worn cameras, and advocates from ColorofChange.org who are working to release Department of Homeland Security records on that agency’s monitoring of Black Lives Matter activists.  The conference will also feature preliminary results from the Center on Privacy & Technology’s new research into the increasingly pervasive use of facial recognition technology by state and local police departments. 

For a current list of confirmed speakers or to register for the event, click here. Additional speakers will be announced in the coming weeks.  

The Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law is a think tank focused on privacy and surveillance law and policy. The Center studies the impact of government surveillance and commercial data practices on historically vulnerable communities and seeks to provide the intellectual and legal foundations for reforms to our nation’s consumer privacy laws. The Center also offers technology-intensive courses that prepare Georgetown Law students to be leaders in privacy practice, policymaking and advocacy. For invitations to events and updates about its work, the Center invites you to follow it on Twitter (@GeorgetownCPT) and subscribe to its mailing list.

For press inquiries or journalists who wish to attend the conference, please contact mediarelations@law.georgetown.edu. For other inquiries, please contact Katie Evans katie.evans@law.georgetown.edu. 

A webcast will be available here.

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