By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project
A conversation like this may well take place not far in the future:
Insurance rep: How may I help you?
Man: Yes, hello, I recently received a notice that my insurance has been cancelled, and I wanted to find out why. The letter I got was really vague about it.
The rep verifies his account and identity
Insurance rep: Unfortunately, our Actuarial Benefit Liability Assessment team has terminated your account because of unacceptable risk. They regularly review the risk profile of our customers, and on very rare occasions decide to terminate certain contracts.
Man: Terminate contracts? What information has this decision been based on?
Insurance rep: Those determinations are based on the full range of information about your life and activities that is available to us.
Man: But what was it about my life that you decided made me an “unacceptable risk”?
Insurance rep: I’m afraid I cannot tell you that.
Man: Cannot tell me! I should think I have a right to know that—what if your information is false?
Insurance rep: I’m very sorry, we just can’t tell you that information.
Man: Why on earth NOT! I demand to speak with a manager!
Insurance rep: I mean, we literally cannot tell you what information this decision was based on, because we do not know ourselves.
Think this is far-fetched? The Register ran a piece last year with the somewhat overdramatic title, “Google’s computers OUTWIT their humans.” As the reporter writes, “Google no longer understands how its ‘deep learning’ decision-making computer systems have made themselves so good at recognizing things in photos.” The piece relays a talk by a Google software engineer describing how the company’s software trained to identify certain objects became more effective at doing so than humans looking at pictures. Even the engineer himself could not “explain exactly how the system has learned to spot certain objects,” and had no idea how to give a computer instructions on how to do so.
The opaque characteristic of advanced algorithms is not news to those who have followed how modern nonlinear machine learning systems work, but I find it one of the most fascinating developments in technology: the gradual escape of computers from the confines of clear and understandable logic as they get progressively more complicated. We’re headed toward a world run by more and more computer systems that are increasingly distant from human comprehension.
Supporters of automated law enforcement in various contexts often cite the “objectivity” of algorithms as one of the benefits of this approach. While we quirky and biased humans might be unable to escape having our decisions be shaped by irrational criteria such as race, ethnicity, and gender, a “neutral” algorithm will look at “just the facts.” You bought a one-way ticket, at the last minute, using cash, and are traveling alone? Boom! Extra screening for you. And yay, we can assure you your ethnicity had no role in the decision.
While this benefit of computerized enforcement can be real in some circumstances, there are a number of problems with this view (which we might call "algorithmic positivism"). The blind, discretionless application of simple rules to the infinite variety of circumstances in human life can bring about its own injustices. And no algorithm is neutral and value-free; the variables that a computer is directed to process and how it is directed to weigh them inevitably incorporate all kinds of value judgments.
But as computers continue to move from applying simple, transparent, and logical algorithms toward increasingly complicated, murky, and self-programmed behavior—as they become more intelligent and “human-like”—the full quirkiness and bias of human brains may begin to reassert themselves, in ways that are even less predictable than with humans. (And potentially with less accountability, an angle I wrote about here).
Machine learning will increasingly be applied to the oceans of personal data being collected about us, and in ways that are more opaque and insulated from analysis, challenge, and review. The privacy implications are significant.
As long as the collection of personal data is not limited by privacy reforms, it is all too easy to imagine an insurance company sucking in vast volumes of personal information about individuals’ purchases, communications, movements, health care, and finances—and throwing it into a block box algorithm where results come spitting out according to a logic that is inscrutable to humans. Perhaps the computer detects that soccer-playing 38-year-olds who also love science fiction and French cooking and match 114 other variables happen to be really bad insurance risks.
And to be clear, that computer algorithm may well be correct in the correlations that it finds. Even if those correlations are not fair.
And so we’re going to increasingly have to decide whether we want to surrender some of our control over our own lives (which is the essence of being a citizen of a democracy) to opaque computer algorithms in exchange for the efficiencies that they bring to large institutions, or whether we want to insist that the logic of decisions that affect our lives remain transparent.
Decisions about whether to cede control to computers are a central theme of science fiction (think War Games and Terminator II). But this is one of the first real areas where we will be faced with this question in a big way.
By Kade Crockford, Director, ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project
In February 2014, the attorney general for the state of Utah did something remarkable, something that law enforcement officials hardly ever do: He willingly gave away some of his power. The power was too great, he said, and the potential for abuse too serious. Furthermore, the AG argued, the broad, unaccountable power was not needed to protect the public.
The Salt Lake Tribune reports:
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has discontinued his office’s use of administrative subpoenas, a controversial law-enforcement tool that lets investigators gather certain Internet or cellphone records without getting a warrant, raising serious privacy concerns.
Instead, investigators in the attorney general’s office are now required to go to a judge and get an order allowing them to obtain the information they are seeking.
"I have halted all use of administrative subpoenas," Reyes said in an interview Friday. "No one can execute one without my permission, and I don’t anticipate using them unless there was an emergency situation, like an Amber Alert with a predator whose information we absolutely had to access."
Reyes, who was sworn in as attorney general in December, said giving up the tool might make the job of his investigators a little harder, but he has been assured that "it won’t in any way curtail or hinder our ability to prosecute the bad guys.”
The attorney general announced that his office would stop using administrative subpoenas (except in true emergencies) after a Utah state legislator filed a bill that would require prosecutors to obtain judicial approval before subpoenaing records from phone companies, banks, internet service providers, or other third-party data holders.
The administrative subpoena standard grants state and local prosecutors access to any and all metadata about anyone, without any judicial approval or external oversight. A bill filed in Massachusetts would repeal our state’s administrative subpoena statute altogether, and require judicial oversight for all metadata access.
Massachusetts’ high court ruled in February that investigators must get a warrant before obtaining cell site location information from telecommunications companies, carving out a location tracking sized hole in the notorious third-party doctrine. Established in two (old) Supreme Court cases—one pertaining to phone records, and the other to banking records—the third-party doctrine says that individuals have no privacy right to defend information from government seizure if it is held by a third-party. The NSA and FBI use this outdated legal precedent as the basis for their dragnet phone surveillance program.
But while the federal government seems stuck in the big hair era when it comes to privacy law, states are moving in the right direction.
Kudos to the Utah state attorney general. Let’s hope other states take note, and act accordingly. If cops and prosecutors want to invade our privacy, they should be required to get a warrant.
Crossposted from the ACLU of Massachusetts's Privacy SOS blog.
By Noa Yachot, Communications Strategist, ACLU
In his first conversation in front of an audience since his disclosures began making global headlines last year, Edward Snowden will appear via live video next Monday at SXSW Interactive, the festival that brings together tens of thousands of technology professionals and enthusiasts every year in Austin. He'll be talking to the ACLU's Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian.
The panel will take place on March 10 at 11 a.m. Central Time. A live stream will be available on The Texas Tribune's website, and the video will be available here afterwards. Here's the full description from SXSW:
Our communications are not secure. Our telephone calls, emails, texts, and web browsing activity are largely transmitted without any encryption, making it easy for governments to intercept them, in bulk. Likewise, the mobile devices, apps, and web browsers that we use do not protect our data. In many cases, they intentionally give it to third party companies as part of the sprawling online advertising ecosystem. This only makes the NSA's task easier.
Join us for a conversation between Edward Snowden and Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties Union's principal technologist, focused on the impact of the NSA's spying efforts on the technology community, and the ways in which technology can help to protect us from mass surveillance. The conversation will be moderated by Ben Wizner, who is director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project and Edward Snowden's legal advisor. Audience members will have the opportunity to ask questions.
Just as technology has enabled our modern surveillance state, so too can technology protect us. But regular users cannot make privacy-preserving tools themselves. The technology industry and the tech community can and must do more to secure the private data of the billions of people who rely on the tools and services that we build.
Edward Snowden's revelations have launched a historic debate about surveillance practices and democratic controls, in which all three branches of government are actively and publicly engaging. But the technology community has too often been left out of the debate. It's time to fix that.
And that's not all for our SXSW presence! The ACLU will be represented on three other panels focusing on NSA surveillance, what you can do to protect yourself, and the spy movies that are no longer the stuff of fantasy.
If you happen to be at SXSW, visit us at our booth at the trade show March 9-12 to talk to our experts, learn more about our work on digital privacy and other civil liberties issues, get some of our useful resources and fabulous swag, and become an ACLU member.
You can find more details about the ACLU at SXSW here. Our other panels are:
- Telling the NSA to [Back] Off
- Surveillance on the Silver Screen
- Spies on All Sides: We Can't Opt Out
Blog of Rights: Official Blog of the American Civil Liberties Union
Check back on the morning of March 10, as we live blog Edward Snowden's first appearance in front of a live audience since his disclosures blew the lid off of the NSA's surveillance programs. He'll be speaking at SXSW Interactive, and joined by the ACLU's Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian. Click here for more details.
Time for the Feds to Step In: Illegal and Abusive Debt Collection Threatens to Exacerbate Racial Inequality
By Nusrat Choudhury, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program
In 2012, a pregnant woman in Colorado was arrested and jailed after being pulled over for a traffic violation. The reason? A debt collector went to court for a warrant for her arrest—not because she committed any crime, but because she apparently had not answered written questions in a proceeding to collect unpaid credit card debt. Her bond was set at $5,806—an exorbitant sum that just so happened to be the full amount of the debt she owed plus interest. Unable to pay, the woman spent a night in jail in yet another modern twist on the banned practice of debtors' prisons.
This story is part of a deeply troubling trend: private companies involved in debt collection are enlisting the power and prestige of courts and prosecutors to coerce people into making civil debt payments that they cannot afford or are not obligated to make. Last week, the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law sent a letter requesting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to investigate and root out these abusive practices under its authority to enforce the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and other consumer financial protection laws. Our letter expresses concern about companies' improper efforts to secure debtors' arrest and jailing to coerce consumer debt payments, as well as other harmful practices. The Bureau should make clear that the misuse of judicial power and prosecutorial authority for private gain is precisely the type of deception and abuse that Congress sought to ban in passing the FDCPA.
The practices we identify are not only illegal, they also likely exacerbate what is, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, the largest racial wealth gap experienced in our country in the past century. That study found that the median wealth of white households has expanded to 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. The last decade's racial discrimination in subprime lending—discrimination that the ACLU is challenging in Adkins v. Morgan Stanley—only worsened the problem by deliberately targeting minorities for loans that exposed them to higher rates of foreclosure and accompanying loss in wealth.
It is no surprise, then, that preliminary data suggests that communities of color may be more vulnerable than others to aggressive and abusive debt collection practices. A 2010 report found stark racial disparities after analyzing 2008 caller data from a legal hotline for people sued by a creditor or debt buyer. The study found that 69% of people sued by debt buyers were black or Latino, and that 66% of meritless cases were brought against black or Latino clients. A 2013 report found that the top six New York zip codes with the highest concentrations of default judgments against alleged debtors in 2011 lawsuits have populations that are over 90% non-white. (And on a micro-level, it is worth noting that the pregnant woman arrested and jailed in Colorado is Latina.) These figures support our concern that racial and ethnic minorities are disparately impacted by abusive and illegal debt collection practices, and that these practices threaten to worsen our country's already shameful racial wealth gap.
For these reasons, we call on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to be a leader in identifying race disparities resulting from abusive debt collection and to use its enforcement powers under federal laws to challenge practices that intentionally discriminate or result in that effect. After all, these practices should be abhorrent to the federal agency tasked with the mission to ensure that consumers are protected from not only deceptive, unfair, and abusive practices, but ones that discriminate as well.
By Hina Shamsi, Director, ACLU National Security Project
This post was originally published by The Philadelphia Inquirer. On Wednesday, Hina Shamsi will take part in an Intelligence Squared debate on the question "Does the president have constitutional authority under the due process clause to kill U.S. citizens abroad, or is it a violation of this clause to unilaterally decide to target and kill Americans?"
The White House is once again weighing whether to kill an American citizen overseas as part of its "targeted killing" program.
This extrajudicial killing program should make every American queasy. Based on largely secret legal standards and entirely secret evidence, our government has killed thousands of people. At least several hundred were killed far from any battlefield. Four of the dead are Americans. Astonishingly, President Obama's Justice Department has said the courts have no role in deciding whether the killing of U.S. citizens far from any battlefield is lawful.
The president, it seems, can be judge, jury, and executioner.
This is not the law. Our Constitution and international law strictly limit extrajudicial killing, for good reason. In areas of actual armed conflict, killing can be lawful because of battlefield requirements. Outside that context, an extrajudicial killing is legal only as a last resort, and only in response to a truly imminent threat. This makes sense: If a threat is imminent, there is no time for judicial review. In every other context, the Constitution requires the government to prove its case to a court before it kills. After all, allegations aren't evidence - the difference between the two is due process.
The program's defenders, however, argue that the president must be able to take lethal action against targets "who pose a continuing and imminent threat" and who are too risky to capture, as the president explained last May. But if, as reported, the Justice Department has the time to build a case against a suspected terrorist for months, then the threat he presents is not imminent. And if the threat is not imminent, then the administration's arguments for killing, and against external judicial review, fall away.
The Obama administration has apparently "solved" this logical inconsistency by redefining imminence to mean its opposite. Under the concept of "continuing imminence," the White House says it can order the killing of an American it suspects may someday strike - even without evidence of an actual plot.
The killing program isn't only unlawful, it's unwise.
When Americans hear of a drone strike, many think of a terrorist threat neutralized. But human-rights investigators and reporters have documented numerous horrific casualties of people killed due to mistaken identity or being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Deaths like these have made the killing program toxic throughout most of the world and have turned potential allies into enemies. The blowback is so severe that retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, has repeatedly called for restraint. "[T]here is a perception of helpless people in an area being shot at like thunderbolts from the sky by an entity that is acting as though they have omniscience and omnipotence," McChrystal said recently.
Perception isn't the only problem. We would do well to remember the 67-year-old grandmother killed by a drone while picking vegetables in her garden in Pakistan. Or the 16-year-old American boy blown up while eating dinner outdoors in Yemen. Or the 10-year-old Yemeni child who died in a CIA strike - only a few weeks after the president announced that drone missiles would not be fired unless there was a "near certainty" that no civilians would be killed.
There are some powers people should never concede to their government. That's why the Founders included due process in our Bill of Rights. Extraordinary powers consolidated in one office inevitably will be abused. That's true no matter who's behind the desk.
By asserting the right to kill based on his authority alone, President Obama violates the constitutional principles he swore to uphold and undermines the security we all seek. He also paves the way for a President Christie, Clinton, or Cruz to decide who lives and who dies.
By Meghan Groob, Media Relations Associate, ACLU
So have you finished House of Cards yet? If you're like most of us here in the Washington Legislative Office, you probably binge watched the whole season in one weekend. But we understand that some of you may have lives and may have needed a couple weeks to get through all 13 episodes.
Now that it's safe to assume that everyone who will watch the show already has, we want to clear the air on something: all lobbyists are not like Remy Danton. Everyone on our team just wants to make our country a better place for all of us, and we certainly don't engage in any of the—ahem—shady methods Mr. Danton uses to get his way.
Don't believe us? Check out all of the good we're working on this week:
Monday, March 3rd
The United States Sentencing Commission will have a meeting with advocacy organizations to answer questions about its proposed amendment to lower, by two levels, the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table of the Sentencing Guidelines. The ACLU will be submitting comments on the proposed amendment to the Commission on March 18th.
Tuesday, March 4th
Legislative Counsel/Policy Advisor Gabe Rottman will be speaking on a panel at the Cato Institute on the recent IRS regulations that threaten non-profit free speech.
The President's Budget for Fiscal Year 2015 is expected to be released.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee will hold a hearing titled "Raising the Bar: The Role of Charter Schools in K-12 Education."
Wednesday, March 5th
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) are expected to introduce the Fair Employment Protection Act, a legislative fix to the Vance Supreme Court decision.
Thursday, March 6th
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a mark-up of the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2014, co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whithouse (D-RI.).
By Nathan Freed Wessler, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project
It appears that at least one police department in Florida has failed to tell judges about its use of a cell phone tracking device because the department got the device on loan and promised the manufacturer to keep it all under wraps. But when police use invasive surveillance equipment to surreptitiously sweep up information about the locations and communications of large numbers of people, court oversight and public debate are essential. The devices, likely made by the Florida-based Harris Corporation, are called “stingrays,” and unfortunately this is not the first time the government has tried to hide their use.
So the ACLU and ACLU of Florida have teamed up to break through the veil of secrecy surrounding stingray use by law enforcement in the Sunshine State, last week filing a motion for public access to sealed records in state court, and submitting public records requests to nearly 30 police and sheriffs’ departments across Florida seeking information about their acquisition and use of stingrays (examples here and here).
Also known as “cell site simulators,” stingrays impersonate cell phone towers, prompting phones within range to reveal their precise locations and information about all of the calls and text messages they send and receive. When in use, stingrays sweep up information about innocent people and criminal suspects alike.
The power of stingrays, and the lengths to which police will go to conceal their use, are demonstrated by an ongoing case in Florida, State v. Thomas. As revealed in a recent opinion of a Florida appeals court, Tallahassee police used an unnamed device — almost certainly a stingray — to track a stolen cell phone to a suspect’s apartment. (The case’s association with stingrays was first pointed out by CNET’s Declan McCullagh in January). They then knocked on the door, asked permission to enter and, when the suspect’s girlfriend refused, forced their way inside, conducted a search, and arrested the suspect in his home. Police opted not to get warrants authorizing either their use of the stingray or the apartment search. Incredibly, this was apparently because they had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the company that gave them the device. The police seem to have interpreted the agreement to bar them even from revealing their use of stingrays to judges, who we usually rely on to provide oversight of police investigations.
When the suspect’s lawyer tried to ask police how they tracked the phone to his client’s house, the government refused to answer. A judge eventually forced the government to explain its conduct to the lawyer, but only after closing the courtroom to the public and sealing the transcript of the proceedings so the public and the press could never read it. Only later, when the case was heard on appeal, did the most jaw-dropping fact leak out. As two judges noted during the oral argument, as of 2010 the Tallahassee Police Department had used stingrays a staggering 200 times without ever disclosing their use to a judge to get a warrant.
Potentially unconstitutional government surveillance on this scale should not remain hidden from the public just because a private corporation desires secrecy. And it certainly should not be concealed from judges. That’s why we have asked the Florida court that originally sealed the transcript to now make it available to the public. And that’s also why we have asked police departments throughout Florida to tell us whether they use stingrays, what rules they have in place to protect innocent third parties from unjustified invasions of privacy, and whether they obtain warrants from judges before deploying the devices.
Although secret stingray use has increasingly been exposed by the press (and by the ACLU), public details are still scant. Our new work in Florida is part of national efforts to understand how law enforcement is using these devices, and whether reforms are needed to protect our privacy from law enforcement overreach.
The police department of what U.S. city created a list "400 most dangerous people," not based on crimes they had committed, but on historic crime information, disturbance calls, suspicions reports, and social network analysis?
Residents of what Ohio city may have to travel one-and-a-half hours by bus to an early voting site to cast their ballot if their county moves the site from its current site within five miles of 59 percent of residents to a site in the suburbs that are only convenient for 29 percent?
A federal judge in New Jersey dismissed a lawsuit brought by New Jersey Muslims who claim what agency surveilled them based on little more than their religion?
What action could President Obama take to end the humiliating, ineffective, and unlawful practice of racial profiling?
What controversial video did a federal appeals court order Google to remove from YouTube?
Chicago Police "Heat List" Renews Old Fears About Government Flagging and Tagging
The Verge had a story last week (expanding on an August report from The Chicago Tribune) that the Chicago police have created a list of the "400 most dangerous people in Chicago." The Trib reported on one fellow, who had no criminal arrests, expressing surprise over having received a visit from the police and being told he was on this list. A 17-year-old girl was also shocked when told she was on the list.
What's Wrong With this Picture?
How can people vote early if they can't get to their polling place? The answer is they can't.
But in Hamilton County, Ohio, following a vote to move the county's Board of Elections from its current location in densely-populated downtown Cincinnati, the county's only in-person early voting site may soon become inaccessible to thousands of Hamilton County residents. As the above map makes clear, for the members of the 40 to 55 percent of households in downtown Cincinnati who don't have access to a vehicle (many of whom are below the poverty line), moving the in-person early voting site to the remote suburb of Mount Airy could be tantamount to removing their access to the ballot.
Wrongly Legitimatizing NYPD Discrimination
A federal judge in New Jersey dismissed a lawsuit last week brought by New Jersey Muslims who claim that the NYPD investigated and surveilled them based on little more than their Muslim faith. The plaintiffs in Hassan v. City of New York have good reason to believe they were the targets of unconstitutional discrimination — for years, New York's Muslims have known that they were subject to heightened police scrutiny because of their religion.
An Open Letter to the President on Race
From stop-and-frisk in New York to Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona, you can't deny our country continues to struggle with this issue. And despite countless stories of innocent Americans accused of wrongdoing just because of the way they look, President Obama's administration has yet to revise the Justice Department guidance regarding the use of race in federal law enforcement issued by Attorney General John Ashcroft more than a decade ago.
Nothing to See Here! Censoring 'The Innocence of Muslims'
It's likely you haven't escaped the roiling controversy generated by the film The Innocence of Muslims. This "film" has alternately been described as: a deliberate provocation of Muslims, a launching point for a conversation about free speech, a trigger for the tragic attack on our Benghazi consulate, and a comically bad example of post-production dubbing. Whatever your own thoughts on the film, it's undeniable that The Innocence of Muslims has given rise to passionate and divergent opinions on censorship, religion, and politics. It's been downloaded and viewed countless times. It's been named and featured on countless blogs and newscasts about religious freedom, free speech, and Benghazi.
To censor this film now would be as tough and meaningless as getting a feral cat back into a bag. But that's precisely where the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court tried to stuff it last week – and we're just now finding out about it.
By Chase Strangio, Staff Attorney, ACLU & Keely Mullen
In a 2011 Marie Claire article, successful People.com editor Janet Mock, publicly told her story about growing up transgender. Though at the time she had only shared her transgender identity with a few people in New York, "stories about kids who have killed themselves because of the secrets they were forced to keep…shifted something in me," she said in the article.
Today, Janet is leader in the movements for trans justice and gender self-determination and this month, she released her first book, Redefining Realness. In the book, she writes, "I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act." This revolutionary act of storytelling has empowered so many trans people to voice their truths and we have seen a transformation in possibility for trans people.
"Redefining Realness was my opportunity to tell my story," Janet writes on her blog, "now I want to hear yours. I want to hear the 'untold thousands' out there. I want to provide another outlet in which we — together — can banish the overbearing silence that haunts many of us."
We were honored that Janet offered her insight to the ACLU on questions about trans narratives, racial justice and her vision for the future.
ACLU: It seems like so often the media tries to control the narratives of trans people's lives. How does the media contribute to the violence that transgender people must navigate in the world? What can the media do to support trans people in telling their stories?
JANET MOCK: As someone who has worked in media, engages in conversations with media and consumes much media, I am invested in this conversation. What I've learned is that most media tends to focus on the sensational to entice viewers and readers, and trans people's lives most often are framed this way. On the one hand it's garnered us visibility, but on the other it's spread much misunderstanding. When belittling punch lines and sensationalized objectification are a marginalized community's only representation, it's dangerous because it reinforces the idea that we're not human and therefore worthy of mistreatment, exiling and violence. What leaves me hopeful, though, is that trans people are creating the media and the stories of their own lives, and this is the best way to combat this pervasive dehumanization of our lives.
ACLU: One of the key themes that emerges in your story is how the histories of racism and transphobia shaped the choices available to you growing up. What can the racial justice movement do to be inclusive of trans justice? What can the LGBT rights movement do to center racial and economic justice?
Note from Janet in response to question: I don't know if I'd say my work engages much with "transphobia" as much as it engages in the intersectional lens of those of us who embody multiple identities. I do think anti-trans rhetoric and discrimination shapes my work but through my own experience, I wouldn't call it "transphobia."
JANET MOCK: I center my work around the multilayered experiences of young trans women and/or trans women of color. By doing so, I challenge the single-identity focus that plagues many movements that believe in simplicity or universality of experiences. I can never just speak about trans women because I am not just a trans women; I can never just speak about Black folk because I am not just a Black person. So for me, my work -- particularly through my writing -- must be muddied and complex because we live complex lives. I would challenge both movements to be intersectional in their approaches. Simply put, the racial justice movement must realize that many of their siblings are trans, and the LGBT movement must realize that centering their work around white middle-class cis folk leaves many of us who live under the weight of multiple oppressions behind.
ACLU: A few weeks ago we wrote about the murder of Larry King. There is so much to take on in the world for trans youth, particularly trans girls of color. In your book you write about how you have "heard parents say all they want is 'the best' for their children, but the best is subject and anchored by how they know and learned the world." What is your vision and hope for the next generation of trans and gender non-conforming people?
JANET MOCK: My vision is that they are affirmed and validated, that they find people who will fiercely advocate for them in schools, medical establishments, governmental agencies and social services, that they are able to navigate the world safely and freely as their true selves and that they can be instilled with such possibility that provides them with an audacity to dream even bigger dreams.
ACLU: If you could pass along one message to young trans people who can't imagine a future of possibility, what would it be?
JANET MOCK: I would tell them that their identity is real and valid and that nothing is wrong with them. I would tell them that life is a long journey and though it seems like becoming and revealing their true selves feels insurmountable that all they must concentrate on is ensuring they are safe and comfortable with themselves. I would advise them to cancel out all the noise from detractors, even from their parents, and seek out solace and affirmation from folks who truly hear and see you – as you know yourself to be. You deserve to be affirmed, you deserve to be seen, you deserve all the happiness, all the joy.
ACLU: As you mention in your book and regularly in media appearances, trans people, particularly trans women of color, are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system. What do you see as the most important steps that advocacy organizations can take to end mass incarceration and the overrepresentation of people of color in prison and jail?
JANET MOCK: The most important step would be for movement leaders to push this as a central issue, realizing that the weight of institutionalized and systemic oppressions on trans women, trans men and low-income, trans people of color makes them all the more vulnerable to criminalization. We need to do a better job at connecting the dots, at shedding light on the lived experiences of low-income trans folk, particularly those of color, who overwhelmingly exist in joblessness, who are grappling with not having enough funds to pay for shelter, to pay for food, to pay for the vital medical care they need. This need for funds pushes many to engage in underground economies like sex work that are heavily stigmatized and overly criminalized, leading so many of our siblings into prisons which are unsafe spaces for all of us. I think raising our political consciousness, whether through the work of organizations like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Black and Pink or the book Captive Genders, is a great start.