Of the many outrageous promises made by Donald Trump during his successful campaign for the presidency, none has seemed quite so ominous as his threat to enforce mandatory registration for Muslims in the U.S. The hypothetical registry, which Trump said last year he’d “absolutely” implement, is of particular relevance to the tech industry, since the work of creating such a database would almost certainly fall to coders, and possibly contracted tech companies.
So far, tech companies themselves have held the question of collaboration with Trump at arm’s length. Last week, the Intercept’s Sam Biddle asked nine companies if they would aid the government in building a database; only Twitter responded with a firm “no” (the only other comment came from Microsoft, who said that “We’re not going to talk about hypotheticals at this point”). In an internal email mistakenly sent to BuzzFeed’s Nitasha Tiku, Facebook described questions about a Muslim database as a “straw man.”
But Trump hasn’t backed off of his promise of Muslim registration, and other tech-industry workers are willing to speak out, even if the sector’s institutions aren’t. This week, a subset of coders, developers, and engineers in the tech industry and beyond circulated a pledge, promising to refuse to help create or maintain a database of Muslims. The first paragraph of neveragain.tech reads:
We, the undersigned, are employees of tech organizations and companies based in the United States. We are engineers, designers, business executives, and others whose jobs include managing or processing data about people. We are choosing to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and all people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies. We refuse to build a database of people based on their Constitutionally protected religious beliefs. We refuse to facilitate mass deportations of people the government believes to be undesirable.
Through a bulleted list of specifics, the signatories “refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin” and commit to lobbying their tech-giant bosses to “minimize the collection and retention of data that would facilitate ethnic or religious targeting.” The signatories also endorse “[scaling] back existing datasets with unnecessary racial, ethnic, and national origin data.”
For anyone worried about tech-industry collusion, the pledge is heartening. As a public show of solidarity with understandably anxious American Muslims, it’s extremely successful.
The problem is that the Muslim database that Silicon Valley doesn’t want to build already exists.
Most of Silicon Valley’s most successful businesses are built on enormous data-collection operations. This is explicitly clear for the companies that are, at their core, advertising giants — Facebook and Google — but even consumer-tech companies like Apple and retail businesses like Amazon keep vast stores of data on their users. None of this data collection is sinister in intent, but it means that those companies know an enormous amount about you — and their other hundreds of millions of users.
And it doesn’t matter if you don’t explicitly note your religion (or sexuality, or political beliefs) in your usage. These companies spent the past year crowing about “artificial intelligence” and “deep neural networks” and “machine learning” — buzzwords that translate to processes that can deduce new information about users from existing data sets. In other words, no matter how coy you might be about your religion online, if you’re a regular user of Facebook or Google, those companies can likely accurately predict it anyway. Now these same organizations remain silent as the prospect grows that their tools may be used for nefarious purposes.
In one notorious instance, Facebook was able to predict whether users were gay, even when those users hadn’t explicitly noted their sexuality in their profiles. Again, this isn’t surprising, nor is it, in the abstract, nefarious — businesses rest on collecting as much information about its users as possible. And advertisers, for example, cannot target users based on their stated religious affiliations (the “Religious Views” section of one’s profile), but they can target people who have listed Islam as an interest. The thing is, tools that target users for advertisers can also target them for the government. Identifying Muslim users on Facebook is a relatively simple database query.
In the same way, even if you haven’t told Google your religious affiliation, you have probably signaled it very effectively. If you’re constantly Googling when sunrise and sunset are during Ramadan, there’s a decent likelihood that you’re Muslim. If you have a recurring Calendar entry for Bible study every week, there’s a good chance that you’re Christian. If, as I have, you’ve Googled “when is Hanukkah” six times this month, you might be Jewish. If your Chrome browser history is full of visits to the atheism subreddit … well, you get the picture.
Mapping and navigation apps are another treasure trove of signaling data. If you’re repeatedly querying how long it’ll take to get to a mosque or temple or church, or you’re taking an Uber there, you’ve effectively told these companies how you worship.
Obviously, this is all still a hypothetical concern, and you can hope that enough people would stand against a president reckless and evil enough to force American Muslims to register themselves, and it’d never come to this. But it’s not an abstract one. None of these companies, to state the obvious, meant to create a religious database, and the vast troves of data linked to Silicon Valley and sitting in server farms and warehouses across the country are not a comprehensive database. But they’re close, and getting closer, and the fact is that no matter how much more a Trump presidency might hypothetically want, the tech industry has already done much of the legwork.
It is telling that, as of now, not a single Facebook employee has signed the pledge at neveragain.tech (those who have did so in a personal capacity, not as representatives of their employer). The intent of this pledge, and its signatories, is laudatory. But the unfortunate truth is that the toothpaste is already out of the tube.
*A version of this article appears in the December 26, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.