Government Surveillance: Then and Now

Does government surveillance really make us safer?
By Heidi Boghosian
July 2013
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“Spying on Democracy” reveals how the government uses technology to categorize and monitor people based on their associations, movements, purchases, and their perceived political beliefs.
Cover Courtesy City Lights
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Before Edward Snowden leaked top-secret documents to prominent newspapers, most Americans did not realize the extent to which our government is actively acquiring their personal information. In Spying on Democracy (City Lights, 2013), author Heidi Boghosian documents the disturbing increase in government surveillance of ordinary citizens and the danger it poses to our privacy, our civil liberties, and to the future of democracy itself. This excerpt is taken from the introduction. 

Government Surveillance: 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 profitseeking 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 government surveillance. 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.”

Reprinted with permission from Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance by Heidi Boghosian, and published by City Lights, 2013. 


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