Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance
(City Lights, 2013)
Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about widespread surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) confirm many people’s worst fears: once-lauded principles of American democracy are in jeopardy.
You are constantly being tracked, monitored, and surveilled. Increasingly, aspects of what Americans long took as personal privacy, especially with regard to their communications, are being eroded at an alarming pace. Government agencies—federal, state, and local—and private corporations are gathering, processing, retaining, and monetizing an unprecedented amount of information about each of our lives.
Heidi Boghosian’s new book, Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance, will only deepen your sense of paranoia. Boghosian is not optimistic about the current state of privacy. “An intelligence-gathering infrastructure that commands access to, and control over, so much personal information is the hallmark of a totalitarian regime,” she warns. Boghosian is more than a concerned citizen; as the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), a progressive public-interest group, she is at the frontline in the fight to preserve personal and political freedoms. (My daughter is a Guild member.) Her fear is that unless ordinary Americans, working with civil liberties groups like the NLG, force changes through Congress and the courts, things are only likely to get worse.
In a dozen short, punchy, and very readable chapters, Boghosian paints a picture of an increasingly integrated, government-corporate surveillance hydra. This many-headed beast collects a vast amount of your ostensibly personal communications, whether it’s your phone calls or emails, your online searches and purchases, or your Facebook and Twitter posts. As if that weren’t bad enough, Boghosian also warns that your car is likely being tracked through a network of C.C.T.V. cameras on city streets and by highway and bridge toll payments. News that the U.S. Postal System digitally records all mail shipments only adds to the problem. Boghosian combines an activist’s commitment and first-person experiences—along with an extensive knowledge of court decisions, government reports, whistleblower revelations, and media accounts—to tell her compelling story.
She discusses, for example, how the Occupy movement was monitored and infiltrated by local police. In Oakland, CA, the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) and the F.B.I. worked with local officials to thwart the incipient movement. (The F.B.I. urged local authorities to coordinate crackdowns at times when the press was unlikely to be around.) In New York, efforts to undermine Occupy Wall Street brought together representatives of the city government and police along with the D.H.S., the F.B.I., and other interested parties. The N.Y.P.D.’s Domain Awareness System command-and-control center in lower Manhattan had designated seating for representatives from the Federal Reserve, the Bank of New York, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, and Citigroup, but none for civil liberties representatives.
Boghosian also looks at the ways in which children have become targets of both corporate and police surveillance efforts. She details the increased prevalence of tracking software on youth-oriented websites and mobile apps with the growing use of a variety of “tools” by school administrators across the country to monitor students both in and outside school—everything from RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags embedded in school ID cards to GPS tracking software in school-administered central computers. Administrators aren’t even coy about their intentions, stating openly that the tracking devices are meant to increase security while also preventing truancy, cutting down on theft, and even improving students’ eating habits.
While the current wave of government surveillance came in the wake of 9/11 and the adoption of the Patriot Act, Boghosian reminds readers that a particularly paranoid style of American politics predates the attacks. She traces the historical roots of the N.Y.P.D.’s surveillance of Muslim students at CUNY from 2003-2006 to the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act, the Palmer Raids of 1919 – 1920, and the Cointelpro campaign against 1960s radicals. Boghosian notes that today’s use of private contractors by the C.I.A. and N.S.A. (like Snowden’s employer, Booz Allen Hamilton) has its origins in the federal government’s use of Pinkerton detectives in the 1850s. Her use of historical examples makes clear that both the scale and scope of snooping has reached unprecedented levels.
Her analysis would have benefited from a discussion of the government’s surveillance of the far right. Elements of the far right represent a very real threat, as Oklahoma City and anti-abortionist killings remind us. One can only assume that federal and local law enforcement track these fringe elements. Putting aside ideological differences, examining the government’s scrutiny of this sector would have provided a wider picture of the true scale of surveillance taking place in the U.S.
Unfortunately, Boghosian has little to say about how to address the growing power of the government-corporate security state. She has no plan or palliative to reduce the threat posed by the growing—and essentially unchecked power—of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Other than putting pressure on Congress, supporting legal challenges made by groups like the NLG, and attempting to expose government and corporate abuses, what can one do? While fears about national security, both foreign and domestic, have become the new hysteria, Boghosian suggests that our fear is not unfounded. Spying on Democracy can be read as a cautionary warning: it really is that bad.