Black Lives Matter activists are siding with Apple in the company's legal showdown with the FBI over a phone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters.
"We urge you to consider the dire implications for free speech and civil liberties if the FBI is permitted to force Apple to create technology to serve its investigatory purposes," a coalition of activists and civil rights organizations wrote in letter to a California court Thursday supporting the tech company. "The FBI’s historically questionable surveillance procedures do not bode well for setting a precedent that allows the agency universal access to private smartphone data."
Privacy — especially from the spying eyes of the government — is personal for the civil rights community at least in part because of the movement's history with the FBI.
In the 1950s, the bureau ran an initiative called COINTELPRO. At first, it was aimed at disrupting communist activities, but the program was later expanded to target other domestic groups including the Black Panther Party, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The FBI started spying directly on the civil rights leader in 1963, not long after the March on Washington, according to historian Beverly Gage: It placed wiretaps on the phones in his home and offices, as well as bugging devices in his hotel rooms. That surveillance uncovered evidence of King's extramarital affairs, which the bureau (unsuccessfully) pitched to the news media.
Perhaps frustrated by the lack of interest in the press, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in November 1964 publicly denounced the civil rights leader as "the most notorious liar in the country" during a news conference. A few days later, one of Hoover's subordinates sent King a disturbing letter: It was designed to look like it was from a disenchanted supporter, but referenced audio recordings as evidence of King's infidelity and urged the civil rights leader to kill himself.
The FBI itself now acknowledges the violations of COINTELPRO, noting on its website that the program was "later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons."
Current FBI Director James B. Comey even keeps a copy of the letter approving the King wiretap on his desk — and requires all new agents and analysts to study how the FBI treated the civil rights leader. "The reason I do those things is to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them," he said in a speech at Georgetown University last year.
But the communities targeted by COINTELPRO remember the FBI's mistakes, too.
That's why the Black Lives Matter activists cited that shameful part of the bureau's history in their letter supporting Apple's challenge of the court order in the San Bernardino case:
[O]ne need only look to the days of J. Edgar Hoover and wiretapping of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to recognize the FBI has not always respected the right to privacy for groups it did not agree with [...] And many of us, as civil rights advocates, have become targets of government surveillance for no reason beyond our advocacy or provision of social services for the underrepresented.
It would seem that it's hard to forget just how invasive government surveillance can be after your movement lives through it.