Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, heads an organization that knows, from history, that a government allowed to spy with few limits will inevitably use them to control resistance to the elite status quo. The distance from tracking alleged Al-Qaeda terrorists to monitoring climate change activists is only a change of target, not a shift in technology or perhaps even a dramatic change in collected data. Once a massive spying apparatus is in place that functions with minimum oversight, who is to keep it from being used for domestic and political and economic agendas in the name of combating terrorism?
These are the kind of questions that Boghosian explores in “Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance.”
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The following is the introduction to “Spying on Democracy,” which has just been released:
Alexander the Great amassed an empire in the fourth century B.C. with innovations in military tactics and strategy that continue to be used today. Spy networks, including soldiers counting enemy camps at night to plan counterattacks, were essential to his maneuvers. But while Alexander used stealth tactics and reconnaissance against enemies at war, corporations and our government now conduct surveillance and militaristic counterintelligence operations not just on foreign countries but also on law-abiding U.S. citizens working to improve society. Bicycle-riding environmentalists in New York City, journalists raising awareness of flawed national security initiatives, and lawyers representing unpopular clients are but a few examples of individuals whose lives are subjected to monitoring, infiltration, and disruption once they are seen as a threat to corporate profits and government policies.
From the minute you wake up, your everyday activities are routinely subject to surveillance. Retailers capture consumer data and sell it to data aggregators, telecommunications companies hand over records of customer calls to government agencies, and personal data shared on social media platforms is readily available to businesses that may share it with the authorities.
Whether you are the head of the Central Intelligence Agency arranging a secret sexual encounter or an ordinary citizen shopping at Target, your interactions with others are under a staggeringly comprehensive network that tracks where you go, how long you stay, and what you browse, read, buy, and say. An intelligence-gathering infrastructure that commands access to, and control over, so much personal information is the hallmark of a totalitarian regime.
Historically, successful government spies are acclaimed as heroes, while those caught spying for the other side face harsh punishment, including execution. The lauded ones were masters of deception, betraying trusts and confidences to gain invaluable intelligence. In similar fashion, government and corporate authorities abuse trusting Americans by monitoring them around the clock and amassing their personal data. The more an individual draws attention to a corporate or government misdeed, the more that person is subject to intrusive observation.
This book documents the way relentless surveillance makes people in the United States less free. As government agencies shift from investigating criminal activity to preempting it, they have forged close relationships with corporations honing surveillance and intelligence-gathering techniques for use against Americans. By claiming that anyone who questions authority or engages in undesired political speech is a potential terrorist threat, this government-corporate partnership makes a mockery of civil liberties. The examples in these pages show how a free press, our legal system, activists, and other pillars of a democratic society—and even children—suffer as a consequence. As the assault by an alignment of consumer marketing and militarized policing grows, each single act of individual expression or resistance assumes greater importance. As individuals and communities, we need to dismantle this system if we are to restore and protect our civil liberties.
From Outrage to Complacency
Spying on Americans is not new. For almost all of the twentieth century, hysteria on the part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other government intelligence agencies fueled suspicion of domestic dissidents and ordinary citizens. Cold War fears under J. Edgar Hoover spawned counterintelligence programs to disrupt domestic peace groups and to discredit and neutralize public figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and leaders of political movements such as the Puerto Rican Independence Party.
With revelations about covert spying in the 1970s, the public was galvanized in outrage and demanded investigations. In response, the FBI ended its covert counterintelligence programs. An era of regulation of political surveillance was launched, with Congress making permanent the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. In 1976, Attorney General Edward H. Levi established guidelines limiting federal investigative power into the First Amendment activities of Americans.
Half a century later, reports of nationwide surveillance and First Amendment infringements elicit scant outcry, and hard-fought legal protections have been all but eliminated amid fears of terrorism. Beginning in 1981, Ronald Reagan reauthorized many of the domestic intelligence techniques that had been restricted just a decade earlier. After the 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Bill Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 authorized the targeting of individuals and groups for surveillance, not on the basis of acts they had allegedly committed, but on their “association” with other groups or individuals. Days after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, nearly one million residents sheltered in place as authorities locked down Boston during a high-profile hunt for one 19-year-old suspect. After arresting him and announcing that a public safety danger no longer existed, the Department of Justice nevertheless invoked a rarely used public safety exception to the Miranda obligation to inform suspects of their rights.
The opportunity to abolish any remaining impediments to domestic spying was laid at the feet of the George W. Bush administration after 9/11. FBI agents can now visit public places, attend public events, and install surveillance devices to gather information on individuals and organizations without any indication of criminal activity. The Department of Homeland Security was created, providing a massive injection of funding to state and local police departments to identify terrorist threats, and bolstering an Internet surveillance apparatus. Federal and state agents access private databases and can search and monitor chat rooms, bulletin boards, and websites.
Government officials insist that mass surveillance makes us safer. In the absence of substantive national debate, most of the population—96 percent of which approves of public surveillance cameras, according to a 2009 Harris Poll survey—seems convinced of that assertion. The events following the Boston Marathon attack revealed to the world the extent to which individuals’ movements are monitored and recorded from multiple angles. Lord & Taylor, the country’s oldest high-end retail store, was among the many retailers that provided police investigators with tapes of individuals walking on surrounding sidewalks. When surveillance tapes help lead to the apprehension of criminal suspects in terrorism cases, as happened in Boston, lawmakers are quick to urge installation of even more monitoring devices. Exploiting public fears of terrorism, New York Republican representative Peter King praised surveillance cameras as a way to keep Americans safe from “terrorists who are constantly trying to kill us.”
This convergence of government and business intelligence operations has created all the elements of an Orwellian mass surveillance network: a trusting and fearful public, a shift to preemptive policing justified by opportunistic citing of a nebulous enemy threat, domestic use of military equipment, and communications devices that provide direct portals into private transactions. Each component element is formidable. Together, they are a nightmare for democracy.
Normalizing Cultural Obedience through Surveillance
Every day you leave your home, your image is caught on surveillance cameras at least two hundred times, it is estimated. Little public debate has addressed the possible consequences of nearly continuous surveillance. Cameras monitor us while we shop, ride elevators, tour museums, stand in line at banks, use ATMs, or merely walk down streets, desensitizing us to unceasing observation and recording.
People growing up in the digital age may have a hard time imagining life without the self-consciousness and self-censorship prompted by today’s surveillance state. Others may recall a time when the nation expressed outrage when its citizens were “bugged,” trailed, or tracked. Today, only those living off the grid in rural areas of places such as Montana or Alaska are exempt from being monitored all the time. If they are determined to be “persons of interest,” however, they too can be tracked down and monitored.
A new generation of advertisement-driven Americans is persuaded from an early age to buy cell phones, tablets, and computers with built-in monitoring capability. Disney and McDonald’s, along with many other corporations, lure children into online worlds or amusement parks where personal information is collected in exchange for special rewards. At the same time, policymakers, quick to approve sweeping counterterrorism measures, have dismantled many levels of legal safeguards that evolved over time to protect individuals’ civil liberties.
Normalization is the process by which we accept and take for granted ideas and actions that previously may have been considered shocking or taboo. Michel Foucault wrote that modern control over society may be accomplished by watching its members, and maintaining routine information about them. Foucault emphasized that Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century panopticon, a continuous surveillance model for prisoners who could not tell if they were being watched, exemplified an institution capable of producing what he called “docile bodies.”
Distracted by the rush and convenience of information technology, few of us discern that opening a window into our personal transactions helps shape a culture of conformity and normalizes the nefarious business of domestic intelligence gathering.
Military Applications Turn Homeward
Spying on democracy at home is seamlessly connected to military intelligence and intervention abroad. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security and intelligence coordinating entities known as fusion centers encourages collaboration between branches of the United States military, a host of government agencies, and profit-seeking corporations in collecting, storing, and acting on information about citizens.
Weapons of war used for national defense abroad are now being deployed against people at home. Military hardware such as drones, originally intended for tracking and killing enemy combatants in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, are now used on U.S. soil.
Seeking to avoid revenue loss from reduced military contracts, electronics and computer companies have expanded into new markets with equipment originally developed for military use. Although better known for calculators and other consumer electronics, companies such as Texas Instruments started out by selling computer and surveillance systems to governments. Increased sophistication of surveillance, identification, and networking technology (including ID cards, radio-frequency identification chips, data matching, biometrics, and various other systems) began to be used—for efficiency’s sake—on such groups as immigrants, military personnel, and convicted offenders. Gradually they came to be employed more widely, often under pressure from manufacturers and their lobbyists, making it easier to conduct routine and widespread surveillance of broad segments of the population.
As military equipment is repurposed for domestic uses, more and more civilians are being classified as threats to national security. Domestic dissenters are no longer labeled “subversive” as they were in the 1970s. Now they are “terrorist” threats. Police used to photograph and videotape activists. Now they operate “Domain Awareness Systems” and roll “SkyWatch” mobile surveillance towers to public spaces on a daily basis. One such tower was used to monitor the Occupy movement’s activities in New York’s Zuccotti Park and remains a permanent fixture there, keeping tabs on those who come to the park to sit, talk, play, organize, and engage in free speech.
Over a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the government’s methods for securing freedom are informed by little, if any, public debate about the consequences. Perpetual war, paid for on a credit card, threatens national security through economic debt and instability, thinning the lifeblood of democracy through the increasing intrusion of a surveillance state.
Civil Liberties Ceded to Consumerism and National Security
Political free speech isn’t the only thing that triggers monitoring. Corporations no longer spy merely to protect or steal trade secrets. Ruffling corporate feathers can prompt not just surveillance but more aggressive reactions. Businesses spy to stop people from exposing them and holding them accountable for harmful environmental, financial, or labor practices. When environmental and animal rights advocates scored successes in bringing attention to harmful corporate policies, the FBI called them domestic terrorists. In an era when data is money, corporations are increasingly committing acts of infiltration and espionage against individuals, volunteer groups, and nonprofits that could hinder revenue or bring into question corporate reputations. The range of targets is wide and diverse. Lucrative intelligence-related contracts and equipment specifically designed to afford police easy access to customer information blur the lines between law enforcement charged with protecting the public and corporations seeking to profit from it.
The surveillance net ensnares once sacrosanct relationships. Attorney-client privilege—the ability to communicate freely in private with a lawyer—is now subject to monitoring, especially for individuals who have expressed views critical of corporations and government policies. Journalists who report on harmful or illegal actions by corporations or government agencies have their phone records subpoenaed in efforts to find confidential sources.
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—the meaning of these hallowed words is undermined and challenged by the rise of the national security state. Our daily experience as Americans is, increasingly, less about freedom and more determined by credit reporting, consumerism, militaristic internal security, and the rise of corporate-government domination over what is left of the public space and the civic powers available to us within it. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren’s observation in the 1967 case United States v. Robel rings true today: “It would indeed be ironic if, in the name of national defense, we would sanction the subversion of one of those liberties—the freedom of association—which make the defense of our nation worthwhile.”1
The FBI began planning a multimillion-dollar secret surveillance unit in Quantico, Virginia, to invent new technologies to help government authorities eavesdrop on Internet and wireless communications as early as 2008. The Domestic Communications Assistance Center (also referred to as the National Domestic Communications Assistance Center) is to be staffed with agents from the U.S. Marshals Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Along with countless gigabytes of data afforded by wireless providers and social networks, it will house customized surveillance technologies targeting specific individuals and organizations.
The unit was originally conceived to combat a “going dark” problem. Going dark means that as communications shifted from telephones to the Internet, wiretapping became more difficult, with investigations encountering delays in executing court-authorized eavesdropping, as communications companies were not mandated to design backdoor ports of entry. The FBI told Congress that the problem was sufficient reason to expand the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994. CALEA required telephone companies to design their systems so that law enforcement could eavesdrop when needed. The proposed expansion calls for a variety of computer programs to be designed with online communication capacities that will afford police similar backdoor means of entry.
The Department of Justice, in a funding request for 2013, noted that the Domestic Communications Assistance Center will facilitate sharing of expertise between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies as well as telecommunications companies looking to centralize electronic surveillance.
Dismantling the Surveillance Infrastructure
In George Orwell’s 1984, the all-seeing state is represented by a two-way television set installed in each home. In our own modern adaptation, it is symbolized by the location-tracking cell phones we willingly carry in our pockets and the microchip-embedded clothes we wear on our bodies. For every way in which a microchip or cell phone might improve daily life, other sinister applications give big business and government authorities increased access to and power over our lives. The ubiquity of such devices threatens a robust democracy. Rather than advancing freedom and equality, inescapable surveillance enforces a form of authoritarianism that undermines both. It degrades the ability of members of society to challenge and organize against government and corporate injustices. The loss of cultural freedom stifles individual creativity and the unfettered community interaction necessary to keep power in check and to advance as an evolving society.
Constant surveillance influences how we live, connect, and learn. It impacts how we exercise freedom and contribute to democracy. As the state and big businesses increasingly monitor our lives, challenges to their authority are increasingly portrayed as a gateway activity to more ominous and intolerable threats. Political resistance, whistle-blowing, investigative journalism, and social and environmental advocacy of all kinds, by their very nature, question and challenge authority. They can now attract resources and responses associated with counterterrorism operations, as seen with the coordinated national repression of the nonviolent Occupy movement. An increasingly militaristic national climate, and the symbiotic corporate culture that profits enormously from it, are now virtually uncontested fixtures in the American experience.
As individuals, as communities, and as a society, we must dismantle the surveillance system if we are to protect and advance the basic conditions required to live our lives in real freedom. To accept anything less out of convenience or fear would be to embrace a grim and stunted future. For the more we accept that all kinds of information about us and our everyday lives is recorded, the more we succumb to the potential abuses of cyber-surveillance. In short, we run the risk of our civil liberties, to borrow the FBI’s term, “going dark.”
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Copyright 2013 by Heidi Boghosian. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author.