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Cynthia Conti-Cook Addresses the Women’s Assembly

Cynthia Conti-Cook addressed the Women’s Assembly at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Good morning. I am a civil rights lawyer who studies technology and law, and I’m happy to join you today in my personal capacity on behalf of myself and on behalf of my grandmothers.

I have witnessed over two decades of experience how the state patrols and controls people, surviving through criminalized economies of self-managed care, surviving circumstances that are often forced upon them through state abandonment and various service deserts. I’ve witnessed this cause the most amount of harm in black, indigenous, disabled, migrant, gendered, queer, impoverished, and many more othered and historically oppressed communities.

And I’ve witnessed how this harm disrupts how much political power those communities have to fight for their futures. I’ve also witnessed this up close, the long-term trauma from imprisonment. My father, Jack Cook, was a Catholic worker in prison for resisting the Vietnam War.

I became a lawyer to better understand how a country could criminalize a pacifist and to understand the constitutional laws that liberated him. But for the past five years, I have specifically studied how digital surveillance technologies have enhanced the state’s ability to control many communities. I came here today to speak to the Women’s Assembly about surveillance and the soul, to talk to you about a technology that is often called a window into the soul, because I thought peering into the soul was our jurisdiction.

I came here today to tell everyone who concerns themselves with the well-being of souls about why we need three intersecting protections in this digital era. First, we need protections for both embodied and digital freedom from corporate and state surveillance. We need protection for political belonging, regardless of criminalized status, and protection from the use of state power to impose moral beliefs on others through laws and digital tools. 

What is the threat of digital surveillance? Why is digital freedom so intertwined with bodily freedom? It’s because the expanding capacity of corporate state surveillance has never been as powerful as it is today. Multiple women in the United States have already had their browsing history, their private text messages, and their credit card transactions used from their digital devices against them as evidence and prosecutions related to the conduct involved with terminating their pregnancies.

I have seen police get access to these digital devices, to people’s smartphones, through trickery, through asking, “Can I just see your phone?” But people don’t understand they have the technology to peer into their soul. That is not just the same as handing me your phone the way I might scroll through it. These are powerful instruments. The police can search text messages with keywords, they can map location history onto geographic space, they can connect the dots in your social networks, and they can put all of that in chronological order. More recently, state and corporate collaborations have created new ways for police to access corporate archives of online data that companies extract from our digital bodies as we travel the web. Police get access to our data directly from these corporations without us even being aware of it, let alone consenting to it, or being able to challenge it. A Nebraska teenager and her mother were recently convicted after Facebook shared private messages that it collected and archived about the teen’s pregnancy. But please let me clarify.

When I say that digital surveillance technology is a threat, I want to be clear about what I mean. Last year, I was interviewed by Michael Moore and someone reacted to the podcast on Twitter by assuring me that he, and he appeared to be a white man, had himself searched online for abortion pills and was not actually arrested the next day, and so I must be hyperbolic and exaggerating. But that is not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is happening is that communities already in the crosshairs of system state actors, like police and caseworkers, don’t get to select their privacy settings.

On the level of state control that they are subject to, but we in the political community do, and we must. Not only because of how disparately laws are enforced in criminalized communities but also because of how expediently criminalization creates hierarchies of belonging in political community. Which is why, in addition to protections for an integrated bodily and digital freedom, we must also protect political belonging in community regardless of conviction history and regardless of criminalized status. Recall how criminalization has been used historically to attack political opponents voting blocks.

Michelle Alexander taught us in New Jim Crow, explaining thousands of potential voters in black and Latino communities were disenfranchised through drug laws for the past five decades. And obviously the original Jim Crow laws similarly operated to criminalize blackness and curated the political community. And now the impact of mass criminalization of communities of reproductive care that followed the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade will disproportionately disenfranchise black women whose votes have dramatically changed the outcomes of recent races. And who are more likely to live in a county without access to care?

Over 3.7 million women live in a county with no or low access to abortion care or maternal services. Over 1.7 million of those women have access to neither. And we already know that all of those millions of women will go online to fill those gaps. Finally, we must also insist on protections from laws and from digital surveillance that impose the beliefs of some about how to relate to one’s body and the universe on others. Because first they will come for our bodies, but the threat of digital surveillance means that the state and those who covet its omniscient and omnipresent surveillance powers believe they have the tools to target our souls.

For example, a software company has sold its surveillance tools to religious organizations to monitor what its members are watching online. This past June, it was revealed that probation officers in Indiana were also forcing people under their supervision to download this technology and monitor their and their family members’ devices.

It was a condition of their probation, of their freedom. And sure enough, a probation officer has already arrested someone for what they were looking at on their phone through the software. It is a weaponized window into the soul.

And this is why I came to speak to you all today, because Christian conservatives are already conceptually buying the bodily control that Silicon Valley is selling. And if we allow state laws to impose others’ beliefs on us through coercion and control, through criminalization and digital surveillance, then they will have the power to deny all of us the freedom to self-determination based on our different belief systems. Because fundamental to our soul’s freedom to be moral beings and make moral choices is having the choice.

Because a choice to say yes to motherhood is what we should celebrate. Today, we celebrate Mary, who had to consent to her divine co-creation. We cannot force, through the threat of criminalization, cage, or digital control, Mary’s let it be to me. Her yes had to be totally free. As Denise Leveritov wrote in her poem, Annunciation, it was consent that illuminated Mary. Rather than using legal and digital technologies to force how someone makes a moral choice about their body, how can we instead use the collective tools of governance to protect an illuminated experience of consent and to protect the sacred space required by the freedom to choose and by the freedom to roam our bodies, our Earth, and our digital spaces freely.

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