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Black Lives Matter Activists Cite Civil Liberties Risks in Apple-FBI Case

Advocates point to past surveillance abuses.

Angelo Merendino / Getty Images

Activists supporting the Black Lives Matter movement are urging a federal court to consider the free speech and civil liberties implications of the government’s efforts to force Apple to help the FBI hack into a phone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers.

“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,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi and five others wrote in a letter to the court last week.

The group noted that one need look no further than COINTELPRO, the FBI’s onetime Counterintelligence Program, to find examples of the misuse of domestic surveillance. From 1956 through 1971, agents spied on, infiltrated and disrupted the activities of groups within the U.S. that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover deemed to be “subversive,” including anti-Vietnam War organizers, Martin Luther King Jr. and organizations like the Black Panther Party.

“Still fresh in many people’s minds is the illegal surveillance and collection of private information about American citizens, provided by major tech and telecom companies to the National Security Agency,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in a statement last week. “And I recall the FBI wiretapping of Dr. King and the civil rights and black movements and organizations; and recently the surveillance of the activity of Rainbow PUSH Coalition and Black Lives Matter.”

The group of advocates who signed the letter — including Beats, Rhymes & Relief, the Center for Media Justice, the Gathering for Justice, Justice League NYC and Shaun King, senior justice writer for the New York Daily News — urged the court to carefully consider the government’s request to force private companies to weaken the security of their devices.

“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,” they wrote.

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