Heidi Boghosian on Spying and Civil Liberties
Moyers & Company - November 8, 2013
BILL MOYERS: Take a look at this perfect headline for the age of surveillance: “No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming NSA.” There it sat, above a chilling account by New York Times reporter Scott Shane of how spying by the national security agency has spread like a contagious virus. And there’s more, another Times article reports that the CIA has been paying AT&T more than $10 million dollars a year for access to its telephone records. Gives new meaning to the phone company’s old slogan: “Reach out and touch someone.”
True, it's a dangerous world out there and someone has to keep an eye on it. But if you think that the only targets of illicit snooping are suspected terrorists, foreign dignitaries, and journalists too close to the truth, guess again. Every one of us is under the omniscient magnifying glass of government and corporate spies. Yes, remember the corporations. Their data banks cover every sector of American society, aimed, as the foreword to a new book notes, “at school-children and mothers of school children, at church congregations, credit card members, and Facebook friends, at everybody and anybody at work or at play, with the tracking device otherwise known as a cell phone.”
How do we respond to this smog of surveillance? Well, start by reading this book: “Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance,” by Heidi Boghosian. She's executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, that’s a progressive legal organization started almost 80 years ago as an alternative to the more establishment American Bar Association. She’s collected story after story of how innocent lives are turned upside down. Even her own group has been subjected to surveillance and eaves dropping.
Heidi Boghosian, welcome.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: It's an honor to be here.
BILL MOYERS: How do you deal personally with the possibility that you might be tracked, tapped, or monitored?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: When you write an email, when you're on the telephone certain privileged information, especially between clients and attorneys, or about a client with a reporter for example, one must assume that is being monitored now. And we knew that years ago under the Bush administration with the warrantless wiretapping program, when many organizations actually filed lawsuits saying that they suspected their communications were being monitored.
And that really changes the relationship and makes an organization, have to travel long distances to have private communications in person with clients. You can't do as much on email or on the phone.
BILL MOYERS: So it's not a matter of your saying, as so many people are, "What if I'm not doing anything wrong, why should I care if anybody's watching?" You've heard that, haven't you?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Of course. I think that's a very simplistic answer because when one is under constant surveillance, be it from a surveillance camera on the city block and we have so many here in New York, to the possibility that internet communications are being monitored, it necessarily alters how you communicate. It makes us tamp down things that we might say.
And I think-- attempt to conform more to the greater corporate surveillance state. Whether or not we realize that, we may not engage in the kind of robust dialogue with our friends or our colleagues. We may not meet at public assemblies, because it's become really under the watchful eye and wanting to maintain the status quo of big business.
BILL MOYERS: You say in your book that we've become a surveillance state, a “government-corporate partnership that makes a mockery of civil liberties." Talk about that partnership.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: There is a revolving door really between the Pentagon and private business. For example, I think it's 70 percent of retired three and four-star generals then take jobs in the private sector as consultants advising the government through work with companies such as Raytheon and others, about policy.
And I think that's a conflict of interest. But more importantly, CEOs from many of the big businesses like Boeing, Raytheon, advise the president on matters of technology and national security. And they're conflicted out, because their profit motive really is the duty that they have, whereas the government officials have a duty to uphold the Constitution. I don't think that having 70 percent of our national intelligence conducted by private business is a way to ensure that our civil liberties are really protected.
BILL MOYERS: You write in here that from the moment you wake up, your everyday activities are routinely subjected to surveillance. Do you think that everyday Americans know that?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: They didn't a few months ago. I think that with the Snowden revelations and “The Guardian” coming forth-- we have a greater sense of the extent to which our communications are monitored. In fact, it seems not to be the exception, but rather the rule.
BILL MOYERS: That's what--
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Literally everything is gathered.
BILL MOYERS: That's what you call a staggeringly comprehensive network, tracks where we go, how long we stay, and what we browse, read, buy, and say. That's pretty exhaustive.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: It's exhaustive. And I think when the government says, for example, that metadata-- that doesn't collect the contents of our communications-- is an acceptable thing to collect, you have to realize that associations can be very easily garnered and tracked.
BILL MOYERS: What's metadata?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Metadata shows, for example, that I called you on a Friday night. It doesn't say what we discuss, but it says that we talked. So that if I called a physician, say, at a cancer clinic several times the government might surmise that I have cancer. Or if I engage in a certain political activity over a period of time, it allows them to develop a profile, even though they don't know exactly what we discussed.
BILL MOYERS: Well, what would they want that for?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Well, retailers want that information because they want to develop profiles about our purchasing and spending habits. We have groups such as Acxiom, which is a data aggregator, that really has quite complete profiles on many of us in this country.
BILL MOYERS: That's a market research firm, right?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: It's a market research firm. And they very cleverly recently came out with a website called “About the Data,” that allows you to go on and check what information they have about you and to correct it, therefore giving them actually more accurate information, if you were to do that.
BILL MOYERS: Where do they get that data?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: They get the information from a number of public sources but they also go to retailers and they purchase it from, say J C Penney, who has tracked what you've purchased from them over the last year. And then they sell it to third-party companies, including the US government. The problem being, of course, that they need to simplify profiles of us.
They may categorize us as sort of an up-and-coming 20 year old interested in-- maybe starting a family. Or you're about to retire. But they also put in information about your political activities, your personal interests, health interests, things that we may not want shared.
BILL MOYERS: This is the company I think Natasha Singer wrote about in “The New York Times” and she said that Acxiom “peers deeper into American life than the FBI or the IRS.” Quote, "If you are an American adult, the odds are that it knows things like your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, politics, buying habits, household health worries, vacation dreams, and so on." Why does our government contract with a market researcher?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Well, the government is constricted by the Fourth Amendment's provision that it may not engage in unreasonable searches and seizures. But businesses don't have those same constraints. So they can collect information about us that the government lawfully is not allowed to do.
BILL MOYERS: So you have said in here that data mining is the gold standard for spying on democracy now. Explain that.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Well, as we've become an increasingly consumerized nation and reliant on the internet. You'll know that when you do a search, for example, for a pair of shoes, you're going to be bombarded on the internet with other shoes from different companies. And I think that it's become hugely profitable for these organizations, such as Acxiom and others, because they really keep this information for years on end, we don't know exactly what they do with it. But we do know that they profit handsomely from it. And that really, information in this country, personal information, is the new commodity.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that Americans are largely in the dark about what we're talking about? Or do you think they now take it for granted and are complacent about it because what they're doing fits their convenience?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Certainly, generations that had been brought up on the internet and taught to type on a keyboard at the same time that they learned to read have a different notion of privacy and are willing even as children who may not know it, to give over personal information, for example, when they sign onto a Walt Disney site, or even a Coca-Cola site.
They are bombarded again with friendly images, animal type characters, that ask you for your date of birth, where you live, what your preferences are, we're becoming from a very early age accustomed to being groomed to be consumers for life. And along with that comes a kind of trust, I think. Corporations are so much a part of our daily lives, I would argue for the worse, but they market themselves as our friends.
And then the close partnership they enjoy with the government, blurs traditional lines of what government functions have been, and notions of privacy. So I think that most people who grew up on the internet may not be aware of traditional notions of privacy and are willing, as you say, for the convenience that it offers us and the, I think, appearance of ease of friendship and communication. But I think that we do need to take a step back and realize that protections haven't been put in place along with the fast pace that technology has really sped ahead.
BILL MOYERS: Some people will say, "Well, I hear what Heidi Boghosian is saying, and I'm as concerned as she is about the government use of data. But I'm not really concerned when she talks about the business, the corporate consequences of this, just because it's a-- I'm complicit I'm buying these things knowingly, I probably assume that somebody's going to be using this data to profile me and aren't-- and track me and, we think there should be a distinction between our fear or concern about government surveillance and corporate or business surveillance." Now, respond to that challenge.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: People need to know that for all intents and purposes, the distinction right now between government and the corporate world is virtually nil. They are hand-in-hand working to gather information about Americans as well as people across the globe, to really be in a race to collect more information than any other country can, because I think in their eyes, having this information, storing it, and being able to access it for years on end is a symbol of power and control. So that you can't really make that distinction anymore between big business and government.
BILL MOYERS: But government is looking, is it not, for that needle in the haystack, that potential terrorist that people want to stop before the terrorist strikes this country. And with the corporations and the business, aren't they looking for the person to whom they can market something? Or it helps me make my way through a busy life to be able to buy online. And if I have to give up a little information about myself, that's okay.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: And that's what they're telling us. And of course, that is part of it. But they're also looking to quiet those individuals who may be critical of corporate policies. And remembering how much corporations really factor into our daily lives, that should be of concern.
Many corporations have their own intelligence sections, for example, so that they may have a unit that spies on activists, animal rights and environmental activists are one of the prime targets, because the F.B.I. has labeled them a top domestic terrorism threat. So that if you go to a protest and you're an animal rights activist, you can expect that you're being tracked in one way or another.
The National Lawyers Guild gets calls all the time about people whose families and friends have been visited by the FBI in advance of a certain, say, Republican National Convention, or another demonstration, wanting to know information about certain activists. They definitely have files, they circulate photographs.
They now identify what they call the anarchist threat. And that's basically anyone who I think may be continuously critical of government and corporate policies, who speaks out, and who isn't intimidated by corporations. So they spend vast amounts of money to track these individuals.
BILL MOYERS: So this is why you write that corporations no longer spy merely to protect or steal trade secrets.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security created what are called Fusion Centers, allegedly to better streamline the coordination between local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, and businesses. So that these some 75 centers across the country work hand-in-hand with businesses, gathering information about local threat assessments including anarchist and so-called activist threat assessments. We saw that with the Occupy Movement, where the Department of Homeland Security worked with financial businesses and banks to let them know that there would be protests in their municipalities all around the country, well before the protests started.
BILL MOYERS: But you say this has a fallout on dissent and truth-telling.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: When you are afraid to go, for example, to a mass assembly because you know that law enforcement will be there in riot gear with so-called less lethal munitions, when you know that corporations have done their research, gathered dossiers on you, may have their own private security guards, as they do now at most protests it makes people who maybe have never gone to a protest before, who want to express a view on something, afraid of that.
I think that's very damaging to the notion of democracy because the streets, the public parks, which are now increasingly corporatized in many urban areas don't belong to us as a people anymore. They belong to corporations. And if we're afraid to go there and congregate it's a sad testament to where we are.
BILL MOYERS: One of the surveillance cameras down at the site of Occupy Wall Street is still there.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: A couple of years later. So what do you think's happening to us as a free and democratic people?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: I think that we've been understandably enticed by all the exciting forms of technology, and I think that of course there are many wonderful uses of technology that we should harness for the appropriate reasons. I just think that our laws and our social conscious has not kept a step with those developments.
We need to take a breath and say, "Where are we? What do we value? What do we want to recapture in terms of our rights as Americans and our constitutional protections? And how can we balance the positive gains of technology with privacy and the laws of the land?"
BILL MOYERS: You say, "We need more troublemakers to bring us to our senses." Troublemakers?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: That was a quote from a judge in New York over an Occupy Wall Street case, and the judge said that Occupy, in effect, had shone a light on these so-called troublemakers. The police department called them troublemakers. And he said that they really provide an invaluable service in terms of reminding us what's important in our country.
BILL MOYERS: You would consider Edward Snowden a troublemaker, right?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: A troublemaker, and a true hero and patriot.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Working as he did for a private corporation, handling sensitive information, and being told basically that there was no problem, there was nothing he could do, he then took matters into his own hands, knowing that he would probably face imprisonment for the rest of his life. And I think that doing that, because he saw something wrong, contrary to the values and contrary really to, I think, why he went into his work make him the ultimate hero because he sacrificed his life to uphold the nation’s values, democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Could you have done that?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: I would like to think I'd be brave enough to do that. I'm cautious in some ways because I am a lawyer and I know I have taken an oath to uphold the law. I would like to think that I could've done that. I'm not sure.
BILL MOYERS: I really like your last chapter, which is called “Custodians of Democracy.” Who are the custodians of democracy?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: The custodians of democracy are the ordinary people that make up this country and make us so special. They believe that we can be a thriving democracy and that we do not have to cede our lives and our autonomy to multinational corporations who I think have really robbed us of some of the privileges that we've been so fortunate to have over the history of this nation. And they're not afraid to stand up to leaders.
I was inspired by the school child who did not want to wear a tag, an ID tag at school that had a radio-frequency-identifying chip in it, RFID chip. And she fought, brought a lawsuit, she had to transfer to another school, but it raised attention. And I think especially when a child says, "I don't want this," knowing that she can then be tracked for a number of other reasons, I applaud that courage.
And there's a community in California, for example, that went to their city council meeting and said, "You've just approved having a surveillance drone in this area and we don't like that." And they put pressure on their elected officials and there's not going to be a surveillance drone there.
And the custodians of democracy, they're not afraid to take action that may get them in trouble, get them expelled from a school, for example, or even arrested. They take to the streets, they speak out, and they lead by example, by doing something that unfortunately has required a great deal of bravery in what should really be the ordinary way we conduct our lives.
BILL MOYERS: Well, one way to become a custodian of democracy is to read “Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance.” Heidi Boghosian, thank you very much for being with me.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Thank you so much.