Q&A with Heidi Boghosian, author of Spying on Democracy

“Heidi Boghosian’s Spying on Democracy is the answer to the question, ‘if you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you care if someone’s watching you?'”—Michael German, Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU and former FBI agent

We talk to Heidi about the ramifications of the disturbing increase in government and corporate surveillance of ordinary citizens and the danger it poses to our privacy, our civil liberties, and to the future of democracy itself.

1) Can you comment upon the recent news revelations regarding communications and intelligence gathering by the U.S. government?
The Obama administration has built on the worst abuses of Bush’s anti-terrorism surveillance agenda, expanding and institutionalizing warrantless domestic surveillance, criminalizing certain Internet activity, and tightening government secrecy, all based on increasingly opaque interpretations of laws like the USA PATRIOT Act. Recent revelations are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Online service providers like Apple and Google hand over information to government agencies as part of doing business; in turn government agencies may levy relatively small fines or punishments for gross invasions of privacy such as Google’s Street View Project, which was obtaining residents’ private data from unsecured wireless networks. Silicon Valley controls the way information flows across borders and is in many ways the new Wall Street.

Over-collection of data on a routine basis is not only bad intelligence practice, but it may also make us less secure as a nation. The current revelations show that the U.S. government has gone far beyond making limited, specific requests associated with criminal investigations and is in fact harvesting almost every transaction, online and in real time absent probable cause or reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. People need to be aware that personal information, once gathered and stored, may not only contain inaccuracies, but may very likely be used for purposes other than what it was initially obtained for.

2) In the book, you explain that since 9/11 there has been an upsurge in the level of private and public coordination of intelligence gathering, including data aggregation, and data reselling. Can you explain how these types of business arrangements work, naming some companies who are involved, and discuss some of the privacy risks are for citizens?
As our personal information is increasingly being collected electronically through daily transactions—banking, retail purchases, online activities, public records—this data has become, in effect, a commodity. It’s worth a lot both to businesses and to government intelligence agencies as they seek to track individuals and social movements critical of their policies. Data aggregators and data resellers are a specialized multi-billion dollar industry. Companies collect vast troves of data, often managing databases for banks and other institutions about purchasing histories, property ownership, health histories, browsing activity, and salaries. The risk is that erroneous information will be used without our knowledge, and that our information will be used for improper or discriminatory purposes.
As data is sold to marketers hoping to tailor advertising to consumers, the practices by which companies obtain the information increasingly infringe on privacy. As surveillance and analytics methods continue to become more and more sophisticated, most people are unaware that the information is being gathered in the first place. Profiles of our daily habits are easily assembled, and once that information is available in what are essentially electronic dossiers, they may be shared and used in ways that are inappropriate. Many of these records contain inaccuracies, but with no way to correct them.

No current laws in the US require that data brokers maintain the privacy of individual’s data unless used for credit, employment, insurance, housing or other similar purposes.
The Federal Trade Commission opened an inquiry into the practices of brokers, investigating how data is being collected, and is aware that most people don’t know of the existence of data brokers and what they do. Individuals should have notice of how the data is used, especially if information collected from your doctor’s office is then being handed over to the government for possible inappropriate misuse.

Booz Allen Hamilton, employer to whistleblower Edward Snowden, is one of the largest defense and intelligence technology consultants in the U.S.; their main client is the National Security Agency, as well as other federal intelligence agencies. In fact, the company states that the government accounts for 98% of their revenues.  Employees, like Snowden, have security clearance to sensitive documents, such as those related to top-secret U.S. surveillance programs.  In Snowden’s interview with Guardian UK columnist Glenn Greenwald, he explained how he could wiretap into anyone’s communications if they were on a public carrier.

Other companies engage in this work, such as Experien, which many people know as a credit reporting service, as well as the aggregator ChoicePoint, a private intelligence service both to private industry and the government. ChoicePoint sourced personal data from multiple public and private databases and kept more than 17 billion records of individuals and businesses, which it sold to an estimated 100,000 clients, including 7,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies .

3) Laws established to protect privacy are significantly affected by the government at times of perceived threats to national security.  Can you talk more about this phenomenon?
Historically, during times of crisis, civil liberties are infringed on. When the government cries the need to safeguard national security, many people seem to believe that it is acceptable to suspend the constitution and long-cherished fundamental protections. The problem is that suspending our rights does not make us safer. It gives the illusion of making us safer among a fearful public. And, instead of devoting time to investigating credible threats, law enforcement officials often target domestic political activists and ordinary citizens with legitimate grievances against government. An overarching effect of government rhetoric citing terrorist threats is what’s called the “chilling effect” it has on free speech.

4) Can you comment upon the Justice Department’s recent retrieval of AP reporters’ and a Fox News journalist’s communications, without either party’s knowledge, and without first obtaining warrants to do so? Is this legal?
Department of Justice guidelines regulate the use of subpoenas against the press, providing that all reasonable attempts should be made to obtain information from alternative sources. Any subpoenas issued for sources require approval from the attorney general. Unfortunately if prosecutors don’t obtain approval from the attorney general they are punished only by administrative disciplinary action.

Many states have “shield laws” for the purpose of protecting sources and not inhibiting the press. Spying on journalists for purpose of discovering sources, without notifying the reporter or news outlet, denotes a government clearly afraid of certain truths coming out; we see this increasingly with stricter measures being taken against whistleblowers and harsh Internet laws.

When the government targets journalists, and does so secretly, it discourages sources and whistleblowers and it raises the stakes for engaging in truth-seeking journalism. Now reporters may fear charges of espionage or even conspiracy.

5) In Spying on Democracy you write, “When powerful private interests are threatened, corporations will use their influence to mobilize and manipulate the government to rally to their defense.”  Can you provide examples?
One instance where this is easily seen is when public, or municipal police, are called on to protect private property, such as the financial institutions on Wall Street. In New York City, Goldman Sachs and many other corporations give generously to the Police Foundation, which supports a range of policing activities but is unaccountable to the public. When people gathered in lower Manhattan during Occupy, questions arose whether the police were shutting down public spaces and sidewalks in front of banks and on Wall Street because they were, in part, bankrolled by private industry.

Even before the Occupy movement began, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act requests show early collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security and various financial institutions across the country gauging potential threatening individuals. Fusion centers—centers where intelligence agency personnel and even military personnel work often with business partners—are sharing information about anyone they see as a threat to corporate profits. They compile dossiers on these individuals and track their movements, spending enormous resources on monitoring them in their homes, in public meetings, and while they conduct their daily activities.

6) Many people will say that they don’t care about surveillance as they have nothing to hide. Based on your own work, how would you respond to this notion?
We’re growing accustomed to having diminished privacy by trading in personal rights for convenience interests. Give us your palm scan and we will get you through the hospital paperwork faster. Use an E-ZPass to drive through the toll booth faster and we can track your movements and store them for future retrieval. Order your clothes online and have pop up ads appear whenever you log on with similar shoes or handbags.

We have a justice system where the burden is not to prove your innocence; the state must prove your guilt. For each time that we relinquish an individual right it makes it harder to enforce it in circumstances where guilt or innocence is not so easily determined, where a powerful corporation or state wields enormous influence, and where individuals may not have the resources to fight a protracted issue in court.
The laws are intended to protect us, in part, from an overreaching government, and we should not diminish those laws by giving up our privacy rights merely because, as many assert, “we have nothing to hide.”

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