The Pervasive Technology of Surveillance With Johana Bhuiyan — Fannboy Friday

"I spend so much of my time basically trying to show the real harms that can happen to people through these supply chains and through the ad tech surveillance model and world that we live in because that's the business model of every company that we interact with right now."

The Pervasive Technology of Surveillance With Johana Bhuiyan — Fannboy Friday
Johana Bhuiyan is a senior tech reporter and editor at The Guardian. Her most recent beat covers surveillance of marginalized groups.

FannBoy Friday is a weekly column from Shahjehan Khan that highlights American Muslim creatives.

Johana Bhuiyan is a born and raised New Yorker, first in Queens and later on Long Island. After years of resistance, she moved to San Francisco in 2019. She’s a senior tech reporter and editor at The Guardian. She’s been working as a journalist since about 2013. Johana is half Bangladeshi, half Filipina; in other words, she’s super Asian. The good news is she can speak Bangla pretty fluently; the bad news is it doesn't sound pretty when she does. Her Tagalog, on the other hand, basically starts and ends at telling you to come and eat or asking you how much something is. Since she gave up her dream of becoming an archaeologist when she was about 8, reporting is all she’s wanted to do. Before The Guardian, Johana worked at the Los Angeles Times, Recode, BuzzFeed News and Politico. Johana went to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania for undergrad (via Johana’s website).

Johana was referred to us by previous guest Allana Akhtar.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Shahjehan:  So, what is a major story that you've been following this year?

Johana: I cover surveillance of marginalized groups, so there are always stories for me to cover. Unfortunately, it's quite depressing, but I just published a follow-up to a big series that I did on immigration surveillance. There is this company who used to monitor cattle that [now] works on behalf of ICE to monitor and surveil more than 200 thousand migrants in the U.S. They do that through ankle monitors, facial recognition apps and now a smart watch. A lot of Democratic administrations want to seem tough on immigration, but not [seem] tough enough that they’re putting people in ankle monitors. I just did a big investigation on them last year.

And then we just got ahold of a bunch of new public records about the program that answered a lot of the questions that we weren't able to get before. The company and ICE are both really opaque about things like “what do they do with the facial recognition images they collect through the app?” And “how often are they checking people's location?” It turns out they're storing that data for up to 75 years, which is someone's entire lifetime. 

Shahjehan:  What's something more niche that you're interested in?

Johana: I do think that unfortunately, with surveillance, a lot of things are niche because people take their privacy for granted. Probably one of the more insidious things that I cover is law enforcement requests and data brokers. ICE [or] your local police or your local sheriff can simply ask Google for all of your information, and that happens quite frequently. Google is probably the biggest target because they have so much data on us. And they do publish a transparency report, but … a lot of people's concern about what happens with that information starts and ends there. They're like, “I know, Google is seeing all of this information.” And they make jokes about the FBI agent on their phone getting to know them really well. But that supply chain goes much further … Google can give that information to law enforcement, but there are other apps that you're using. I remember there was a big story a couple years back where Muslim Pro was sharing information with a military government contractor.

I spend so much of my time basically trying to show the real harms that can happen to people through these supply chains and through the ad tech surveillance model and world that we live in because that's the business model of every company that we interact with right now.

Shahjehan:  What do you remember from publishing your first story or your first big byline? What was that like?

Johana: Oh, wow. So 10 years ago, I wasn't exactly a tech reporter yet. I was covering companies that I potentially wanted to work at, or just some of the competitors of [the company I worked for]. It was this big company that scoured the dark web for stories. That was their big thing that set [them] apart, that [they’re] better than Vice, [they’re] better than BuzzFeed. I just started getting a bunch of anonymous documents … mailed to me to my office with all of this information that showed [that] there's no dark web, like the secret sauce that they were using. They were just doing really deep Google searches. 

Funnily enough, it really ties to what I do now, because that's a lot of the same pitch that surveillance companies will make for police — “We scour the dark web to find connections that nobody else can find.” And it's just all snake oil, because they're just Google searching. We all do it. It was also very Deep Throat … [the source] had an anonymous pseudonym that was very cartoonish. And it was so exciting. It was exactly why I wanted to be a journalist, like [I was] getting freaking stacks of documents sent to me!

Then like in the middle of that story, I got recruited to go work at BuzzFeed. 

Shahjehan:  How would you say that the industry has changed from when you first started?

Johana: Many of the companies that I once worked at no longer exist. I used to work at BuzzFeed News. We had an internal listserv called Halal Feed, which initially was a way for us to get people to stop publishing videos and stories that were really silly when it came to Muslims — just poorly thought out, sometimes very offensive things. It also was a way for the Muslims in the newsroom to actually talk to each other and be friends. 

Then I worked at a smaller tech publication called Recode. It was such a big deal. Kara Swisher left The Wall Street Journal to start it. We thought of ourselves as the SEAL Team Six of tech reporters; we were the special unit. 

When I started as a reporter in 2013, it felt like media was on like an upturn. There were a bunch of new companies popping up. Venture capital money was being poured into the industry. A lot of individual star/marquee reporters like Kara Swisher, Nate Silver and Ezra Klein left traditional media to start digital media publications that were really centered around who they were and what they did in their particular brand of journalism. People were starting to get paid a livable wage.

Today, we're always waiting to hear which media company is going to lay people off. WNYC literally yesterday said that they were going to lay a bunch of people off. So it feels much more precarious than it did when I started. That being said, this happens to media in waves. We're facing new threats to our business model, but also new tests that prove once again that advertising as a source of our main revenue stream is just not viable.

Shahjehan:  What’s your daily routine as a journalist?

Johana: I'm not going to pretend that I don't sit on my bed and look at my phone. I go through Twitter, I go through my email. Before I get up,  I will often shoot a couple emails out, answer people really quickly and then figure out if there's anything that I need to be focusing on. Everything else is case by case. Depending on whether or not I'm working on a bigger story, I'll spend my time digging into that story a little bit more, which could mean I'm looking for more sources. So I use LinkedIn quite a bit. I cold email a lot of people through LinkedIn, or I set up calls or email people or whatever it is. I have basically until noon to myself because while I'm based on the East Coast, my team is on the West Coast. I actually just moved back from San Francisco a couple years ago. 

After 12:15 p.m., we have our morning meeting. And usually we'll get assigned some sort of daily story or [a] story to do for the next couple of days, depending on what's going on in the news. So like yesterday, I spent most of my day working on the news that the FTC filed its big antitrust lawsuit against Amazon. 

Shahjehan:  What are some of the most important skills that you think a good journalist ought to have?

Johana: Curiosity is so important. You don't have to be the smartest person in the room; I think a lot of people get that wrong … Some reporters and journalists think they need to be authorities on every single topic. It just doesn't make sense. Our job is to ask questions. And in fact, it doesn't help me to be the smartest person in the room. I want to be in a room where there are people there who could give me information and who know more about a topic than I do.

And then [it’s important to] be able to listen to someone and hear someone and not push to hear the sound of your own voice. While I need to prove to a person that I'm interviewing that I have good questions, that I'm knowledgeable, the thing that you can do that will actually help you and will probably help the source tell you more is just to listen really carefully and repeat back what you're saying to them. 

So I think those two things are the most important skills, because you can get better at writing and you can get better at interviewing people. Also, being able to distinguish what's a story and what's not a story can vary so drastically. My beat is really specific for a very specific reason. I cover surveillance of marginalized groups. I was really deliberate about that because I want to focus on and highlight a lot of the people from vulnerable backgrounds who are being harmed by these systems. Obviously, as a Muslim American who lived in New York during 9/11, pre-9/11 and then post-9/11, a lot of those stories are quite important to me. I've seen the impact that it has had on people who often don't have a safety net or a support system or [the] political capital to push back against these systems. 

Shahjehan:  Who are other Muslim-identifying journalists that you admire?

Johana: Rowaida Abdelaziz is one of my favorite reporters. She actually interviewed my dad for something, and my dad's not allowed to talk to reporters because I refuse to allow anyone to talk to reporters in my family. But he asked me if she was trustworthy. I [told him], “Oh yeah, she's literally the only journalist that I would trust you to speak with.”

Malika Bilal is an incredible journalist and does really amazing, thorough reporting.

Ahmad Ali Akbar, my former colleague from Buzzfeed, is an amazing food writer. He does so much justice to South Asian culture and really takes time to think about those topics so deeply. 

My former colleague at the LA Times, Suhana Hussain, does deep dives into labor with a very clear focus on accountability and human stories. 

Please follow Johana to stay up to date at her website.

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