In Defense of Free and Open Society


By Al Markowitz

Every breath you take, Every move you make, Every bond you break,
Every step you take, I’ll be watching you.
     – The Police


I value my privacy. Trust is important to me. Having worked in Mental Health I am a strong believer in the sacredness of confidentiality. I don’t engage in Facebook or other social media, preferring real face to face conversation to the unaccountable and growing web of the virtual world. I prefer my old, limited clam-shell phone to smartphones. I’m sometimes accused of being a Luddite but the more I know, the more I avoid these things.

A recent article in the Pilot titled “Untenable Invasion of Privacy” reported that local law enforcement are tapping into, stockpiling, and sharing cell phone data. This includes not only conversations, but contacts. According the Center for Investigative Reporting, “The database, which affects unknown numbers of people, contains phone records that at least five police agencies in southeast Virginia have been collecting since 2012 and sharing with one another with little oversight. Some of the data appears to have been obtained by police from telecoms using only a subpoena, rather than a court order or probable-cause warrant. Other information in the database comes from mobile phones seized from suspects during an arrest. The five cities participating in the program, known as the Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network, are Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Chesapeake and Suffolk. The effort is being led in part by the Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Task Force.”

The focus on drugs is not surprising as it connects to a larger national counter-narcotics program with access to an enormous AT&T database containing the records of decades of Americans’ phone calls. I know that like myself, most of you reading this have never engaged in any telephone conversation with the mildest implications of anything resembling even misdemeanor criminal activity, but it may still make you uncomfortable to know that everything you’ve said and every text you’ve sent over that last twenty or more years is permanently recorded and shared between government agencies including the DEA, NSA, and local police.

Technology developed after the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and used in Iraq has, in the hands of a continually expanding NSA, been used increasingly to monitor American citizens. One example is a device called “Stingray” used by the FBI to create electronic, “fake,” cell phone towers and track people via their phones. These fake cell phone towers have been spotted around the country, though to my knowledge, not in our area.

The increased surveillance isn’t limited to computers and cellphones. Even curmudgeons like myself may find snail mail being monitored. An article in the New York Times reports, “the United States Postal Service reported that it approved nearly 50,000 requests last year from law enforcement agencies and its own internal inspection unit to secretly monitor the mail of Americans for use in criminal and national security investigations.” The program, called “mail covers” scans and records names, return addresses and any other information from the outside of letters and packages before they are delivered to a person’s home. Apparently, it has been an inefficiently monitored program open to abuse.

The information monitored and collected from government spying as well as that willingly given by users of social media, is also sometimes shared and used by private business interests from credit rating agencies to employers and advertisers. It includes every purchase you make using your debit or credit card, every place you go, and everyone you contact.

This level of intrusion into our private lives has grown steadily with the metastasis of the National Security State, especially since 2001. The excuse was to protect us from terrorism but has it really made us safer and more secure? The realities of extensive citizen surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden began a national conversation that is vital to the future of a free society. Snowden made this point stating, “It’s not enough to believe in something; it matters what we actually defend. So when we think in the context of the last decade’s infringements upon personal liberty and the last year’s revelations, it’s not about surveillance. It’s about liberty. When people say, “I have nothing to hide,” what they’re saying is, “My rights don’t matter.” Because you don’t need to justify your rights as a citizen—that inverts the model of responsibility. The government must justify its intrusion into your rights. If you stop defending your rights by saying, “I don’t need them in this context” or “I can’t understand this,” they are no longer rights. You have ceded the concept of your own rights. You’ve converted them into something you get as a revocable privilege from the government, something that can be abrogated at its convenience. And that has diminished the measure of liberty within a society.”

A recently released and important film about Eric Snowden called “Citizenfour” will appear at the Naro Cinema in December. The film was produced by journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras who experienced the heavy hand of the state first hand prior to making this film. Having created an award winning documentary film on Iraq called “My Country, My Country,” she found herself singled out for extra scrutiny every time she crossed the U.S. border. She states that, “What is disturbing about this is that there is no due process. You’re put on this list and you’re never told why and you’re never asked a question and it comes with these consequences of being detained and searched and interrogated” As a consequence of this harassment, Poitras moved to Germany. In an article in the New Yorker, she recounts finding herself living in a strange and paranoid world of dissident expats. She describes wondering if she was exaggerating the overreach of the NSA when she was contacted by Snowden. The information he presented confirmed that she was not alone and that her own observations and those of others were in fact true. Many of the realities of abusive government intrusion revealed by Snowden and others are available on “the Intercept” website.

The intrusion and surveillance Snowden refers to have grown in large part due to the Patriot Act, passed initially with the justification of fighting terrorism. This includes a provision which allows police to conduct searches of your property without informing you. Referred to as “Sneak and Peek,” this tactic is broadly used though rarely, if ever, in terrorism cases. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that out of more than 11,000 requests for those delayed-notification searches in 2013, a grand total of 51 were used for terrorism cases. Almost all of the other Sneak and Peek warrants went to drug investigations.

Criminals and drug users aside, many law abiding activists have found themselves under surveillance. Some have had their computer hard drives seized. Some have been wrongly charged with criminal activity or falsely accused of aiding terrorist organizations. Others, like award winning investigative journalist James Risen face incarceration for refusing to expose his sources. Risen pointedly states that, “Obama performed a neat political trick: he took the national security state that had grown to such enormous size under Bush and made it his own. In the process, Obama normalized the post-9/11 measures that Bush had implemented on a haphazard, emergency basis. Obama’s great achievement — or great sin — was to make the national security state permanent. Of all the abuses America has suffered at the hands of the government in its endless war on terror, possibly the worst has been the war on truth. On the one hand, the executive branch has vastly expanded what it wants to know: something of a vast gathering of previously private truths. On the other hand, it has ruined lives to stop the public from gaining any insight into its dark arts, waging a war on truth. It all began at the NSA.” As Snowden, Poitras and Risen make clear, the growth of the National Security state has undermined our privacy and civil liberties based on lies and exaggerations. Rather than making us safer, it has made us far less secure.

I am not personally a paranoid individual, but as a long-time activist, I am aware that I have been monitored in the past by our local FBI station. As a small-time local activist and writer I do not, to my knowledge, think I have been personally targeted, though due to the growth of the internet and the more information readily available, my writing, activism, and online posting over the years have impacted my ability to find employment. Others in our area who have done more than I, like PETA and the Catholic Worker, have been targeted and are watched.

I do a lot of research and, being aware of online monitoring, I often use proxy sites. I dump my cookies regularly. Rather than using Google, Yahoo or Bing, I use Startpage for my search engine. It is a go-between which uses Google without tracking you. I’m careful about conversations using electronic media. We should all be reasonably careful. People have lost jobs because of something posted on the internet. Employers and potential employers research our internet presence, credit rating, and even purchase history. While I don’t live in fear, neither am I careless or cowed into silence. You shouldn’t be either.

As citizens who value our freedom, we need to be active in demanding the protection of our civil liberties and Constitutional rights. We need to demand a reversal of the so-called “Patriot Act” and an end to the National Security State. Though we need a realistic and adequate defense, we need to break up the secretive supra-legal monstrosity of the CIA and NSA that has undermined our legal system and created havoc globally. That some, like Eric Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, James Risen, Laura Poitras, and many others put themselves in danger to defend our freedoms should inspire us to demand better from our own government.



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