Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Suspicious Urdu: Shameful profiling in NYC

by Salman Hameed

One of the great things about New York City is the cacophony of languages you hear on the streets. In fact, it is this diversity that makes New York - well New York. I did my undergraduate near NYC and had a chance to visit the city on many occasions. As far as a I remember, I had conversations in Urdu on many occasions - and no one batted an eye. Oh - but that was the 1990s. As it turns out, Urdu has become a suspicious language - at least for the NYPD. Here is an article about this profiling based on Urdu and Bengali. Okay so I can potentially see why Urdu is considered suspicious (thanks to people like Faisal Shehzad), but how did Bengali speakers got roped into this? May be the NYPD is still using some pre-1971 maps. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Earlier this summer, Thomas P. Galati, commanding officer of the New York Police Department’s elite intelligence division, sat for an unusual legal interrogation, during which he talked of his keen interest in Urdu-speaking New Yorkers. 
“I’m seeing Urdu,” Assistant Chief Galati said of the data generated by his eight-person demographics unit, which has eavesdropped on thousands of conversations between Muslims in restaurants and stores in New York City and New Jersey and on Long Island. “I’m using that information for me to determine that this would be a kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in.” 
Chief Galati, whose job it is to stalk the terrorists who may live in our midst, continued along this line. “A potential terrorist could hide in here,” he said. “Most Urdu speakers would be of concern.” 
All of which sounds reasonable, sort of, maybe. Except that something in the neighborhood of 80,000 New Yorkers, mostly of Pakistani and Indian descent, speak Urdu. 
A little later, Chief Galati turned to those New Yorkers — perhaps another 20,000 or 30,000 — who speak Bengali. 
“The fact that they are speaking Bengali is a factor I would want to know,” he said, adding that the information was used solely to be able to determine where “I should face a threat of a terrorist and that terrorist is Bengali.” 
Hmm..interesting. From that logic, there must be a lot of other potentially suspicious languages (kind of like Minority Report for languages - and, there is an unintentional pun in here as well). But I'm sure that this program of tracking Urdu and Bengali speakers must have led to a number of terrorist leads:

But here is the problem for those eager spies among us. Asked if all of this compiling of Urdu- and Bengali- and Arabic-language hangouts, and all of this listening in on the chatter, had resulted in tips about potential terrorist plots, Chief Galati conceded it had not. 
“I could tell you that I have never made a lead from rhetoric that came from a demographics report,” Chief Galati said. (His larger intelligence division has participated in many terror investigations.) 
The lawyer Jethro Eisenstein, arguing on behalf of plaintiffs in a long-running civil liberties dispute, conducted the legal grilling of Chief Galati. He is trying to determine whether the Police Department’s counterterrorism policies violate a consent decree limiting surveillance of political groups. 
Oh - okay. So there were no leads from this kind of profiling - and the Chief still thinks it is/was a good idea. Yikes! I wonder how many people were investigated for this particular linguistic proficiency and who now have a file in the police investigative record.

Read the full article here.

And while on the topic of languages, it appears that Turkey is now even expanding its influence over English. Researchers are now claiming that Indo-European languages, including English, had its origin in Turkey 9000 years ago. How convenient - and I would say, a bit suspicious...

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