Staying a step ahead of Korematsu

Or, In Which Auntie Weasels Channels Her Inner FEMA Camp Conspiracist

The ongoing centrist wrangling over whether or not we need to worry about the Muslim registry and a slippery slope to Japanese Internment Redux strikes me as painfully naïve.  The idea is thoroughly implanted in the national discourse now: it is unwise to dismiss it out of hand on the grounds of norms or institutions or whatever the latest it-can’t-happen-here talking point is.  It has happened here, and it may happen again.  If we continue to remain head-in-sand about this, we’ll be ill-prepared should another major Islamist terror attack provide the bastards an opportunity.

This is particularly irritating because the question of Muslims being required to register with the government is the wrong question.  With the rise of big data, that cat is out of the bag.  America’s Muslims are registered with Facebook, Google, and other mass aggregators of data.  Thanks to poor security hygiene, much of that information is publicly discoverable.  Furthermore, most data companies have already participated in dubiously-legal electronic mass surveillance programs in the past and may participate again in the future.  Likely the NSA and the rest of our SIGINT apparatus still has access to most of that data, and with that access it would be trivial to assemble a comprehensive list of Muslims in the US.  Such a list may already exist.  Some might slip through the cracks, but not enough.

With personal data more accessible than ever before and with Muslims already receiving disproportionate attention from law enforcement, the important question then is not “Will there be a registry?”: it is “What would such a registry be for?”  A registry is never an end in itself: a neutral example is the census, which exists for the purpose of congressional districting and demographic research.  Since Muslims are singled out with distressing efficiency for surveillance both electronic and physical, it must be for something beyond that.  But what?  This is why Muslims and civil liberties advocates are talking about Korematsu v. United States, and why the Beltway buzz is full of dark rumors about a purge of Muslims from the civil service.

If this should end somewhere as dark as an attempt at internment, it will be important to understand the bureaucratic measures and infrastructure needed for mass internment in the US, so as to frustrate them more efficiently.  The National Archives has a database of primary-source documents related to Japanese internment (to which they insist on giving the rather Orwellian label “relocation”).  The testimony in Korematsu v. United States itself will also offer some research hooks.  We can also imagine that pre-existing infrastructure related to immigration enforcement might be repurposed, and that census data may be abused.  Meanwhile, if this looks like it’s going to go all unconstitutional, tech companies should deep-six all personally-identifiable data before it can be used for evil, however contrary to the business model it might be.


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