AI used to reveal information hidden by FBI following decades-long programme of spying on US Muslims

‘I think the violence in surveillance is in the one-way gaze: that they can see you, but you can’t see them’

Director Assia Boundaoui discusses her documentary 'The feeling of being watched'

A journalist determined to shed light on an FBI operation that saw US Muslim families spied on for two decades is using artificial intelligence to fill in the blanks in a heavily redacted trove of 33,000 documents she forced the bureau to release.

Algerian-American filmmaker Assia Boundaoui ​had been investigating the bureau's covert surveillance of her Illinois Arab community for two decades before 911.

In 2017, the 33-year-old won a lawsuit to force the release of 33,120 pages of information collected on Muslim communities, including her own, across the US in an operation codenamed Vulgar Betrayal.

As a result, the FBI was compelled to send Ms Boundaoui records in bundles of 3,000 pages each month.

“I received the last batch a couple of months ago," she told The Independent. "The entire stack is more than 70 per cent redacted, which is extraordinarily frustrating after we went to war to get transparency and won, and after the government was compelled to be transparent.”

Ms Boundaoui said the information contained in the documents, which did not lead to any terrorism convictions of Muslim community members in Illinois, was apparently redacted in part for “national security purposes”.

Determined to get to the bottom of what the documents contained, she hit on the idea of using artificial intelligence to scan past releases by the FBI to triangulate the information that has been taken out.

The AI program, called the Inverse Surveillance, is being conducted as part of Ms Boundaoui's fellowship at the Co-Creation Studio at the MIT Open Documentary Lab. It will analyse hundreds of thousands of documents collated by the bureau on people of colour over the past 100 years, and will reveal historic patterns on tactics it used during operations such as COINTELPRO, which it launched to carry out surveillance on the civil rights and black power movements led by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It will also be based on historic surveillance of Arab, Latino, Asian and indigenous communities in America.

“The idea is to understand patterns the FBI uses, tactics they’ve used on communities of colour, how they ran these operations and why," Ms Boundaoui said.

“On a general level, I want to understand how the FBI operated for the past 100 years in communities of colour and why they’ve chosen to ‘otherise’ these communities. On the other hand, it’s really basic, I want answers to my questions, including: why did the FBI focus on my community?

“So it’s not just transparency as an abstract civic value, but I think when you’ve been hurt by something, the truth is really important to you. It’s actually imperative to your healing to understand the truth and what happened so you can move past that.”

Ms Boundaoui, who spoke to The Independent at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London – where her documentary about Operation Vulgar Betrayal, The Feeling of Being Watched, had its debut – said that once it was developed, the AI tool would be used to stage temporary public art installations.

She said her team had demonstrated it using “guerrilla art intervention” last October by projection-mapping redacted documents superimposed with family home videos over the FBI's Hoover Building headquarters, aiming to “shine a light on the secrecy that shrouds the systemic mass surveillance of Muslims in America”.

“We believe strongly open government data and proactive disclosure of public records will create better government transparency and accountability,” she said.

Ms Boundaoui said people worried about national security should be concerned about the FBI’s ethnic and religious profiling tactics because the bureau was “not actually finding or stopping terrorism in our communities, they’re just traumatising people”.

“I feel a responsibility to document what they’ve done and I feel like I’m empowered because I’m watching back, I can return this gaze," she said. "I think the violence in surveillance is in the one-way gaze: that they can see you, but you can’t see them.”

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She said she was less interested in using evidence of racial profiling to get politicians to change policy, and more in speaking with Muslim communities in the US and globally about how they had been affected by surveillance, their collective trauma and how to evolve beyond it.

Decades of internalising the shame of being investigated by the government meant people were helping the FBI keep its “dirty secret” because the American people “had no idea that the war on terror was playing out at home in the way that it was”.

The algorithm, she said, was a step closer to demonstrating how technology had the power to manifest radical transparency in such a climate of shame.

“Surveillance gets its power from secrecy and the best way to bust it is to not be secret about it, to talk out loud about it," she said.

"So it’s been very powerful, not just for people who have experienced this in the Muslim community, but for general audiences to share what happened, and to not keep this dirty secret any more.”

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