“Muslim registries”, Big Data and Human Rights

By Tanya O’Carroll (@tanyaocarroll) and Joshua Franco (@joshyrama)

Both as a candidate and now as President, Donald Trump has made clear his intent to pursue aggressive policies targeting Muslims, refugees and immigrants under the banner of national security. In his first week in office Trump enacted the patently unlawful travel ban seeking to bar all refugees, and individuals from 7 Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. A second executive order the same week, as well as later accompanying policy memoranda, extended powers to law enforcement and immigration agencies to increase detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

We do not know what the future holds, but the President’s statements certainly give cause for serious concern. Trump has notoriously refused to rule out the possibility of a “Muslim registry”, and has stated his intention to quickly deport between 2 and 3 million undocumented immigrants.

Those who’ve mounted opposition to Trump’s plans have largely taken for granted that any large-scale data collection effort would involve exactly that: a large-scale data collection effort. Hundreds on Twitter pledged to #RegisterasMuslim should the US government mandate such a policy, among them former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

But solidarity registration could be futile given that a so-called “Muslim register” would much more likely resemble the discriminatory National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program, which saw men from 24 Muslim-majority countries and North Korea summoned for “Special Registration” under former President Bush.

But perhaps a “Muslim registry” — or list of deportation targets, for that matter — would not necessarily have to involve registration at all.

The past 10 years have witnessed a boom in big data. The sheer scale of data about people, combined with advances in data mining techniques, mean that hundreds of US companies now possess “super databases” of hundreds of millions of individually-identifiable consumers.

And we’re not talking only about the Googles and Facebooks of the world. These are companies you probably haven’t heard of — although it’s their business to know you. Every time you use your credit or debit card, enable wifi on your mobile, read the news online, tick a Terms and Conditions box, authorize an app to access your social media accounts, contribute to a survey, or make a purchase, the chances are there is a company out there — or several — vying for your data.

If the US President did indeed want to build a register of every Muslim living in the United States — or let’s say he wanted to know which households to target as part of an aggressive new immigration policy focused on deportation of undocumented migrants — just how easy would it be for him to gather that kind of data in 2017, without having to formally register a single person?

Read more about how a registry could be created

Read Amnesty’s joint statement to US data brokers about human rights