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AI Case Study

MIT Fellow Assia Boundaoui to triangulate redacted information from FBI documents based on past releases using AI

Algerian-American filmmaker and journalist Assia Boundaoui had been investigation the FBI's surveillance practices on her Illinois Arab community. Following a lawsuit in 2017, the bureau has released 33,120 pages of information collected on Muslim communities. However, some information was redacted from the documents. As part of her fellowship at the Co-Creation Studio at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, Boundaoui is to apply AI to triangulate information from past releases of the FBI on similar matters to reveal the missing information. The program, called the Inverse Surveillance, is aimed at finding historic patterns in documents and has been demonstrated last October.


Public And Social Sector


Project Overview

"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.

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?

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”.

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”."

Reported Results

Results not yet available




"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.

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”."




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