Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of a speech delivered by Glenn Greenwald at this month’s Socialism 2012 conference, on the massive growth of government and corporate surveillance and their chilling effects on Americans’ rights.
Last year was my maiden trip to the Socialism 2012 world. I started off by standing up and saying — I was actually surprised by this, pleasantly surprised, because I didn’t know what to expect — how amazingly inspirational I actually found this conference to be.
The energy of activism and the sophisticated level of the conversation and the commitment that people displayed and the diversity of the attendees, really is unlike any other conference. And so when I was asked back this year, I was super excited to come back and accept. Not only because of that, but also because the conference organizers asked if I could speak about challenging the Surveillance State.
The reason that I was so eager to come and do that is because I really think that this topic is central to all of the other activism that’s being discussed here this weekend.
The Surveillance State hovers over any attacks that meaningfully challenge state-appropriated power. It doesn’t just hover over it. It impedes it, it deters it and kills it. That’s its intent. It does that by design.
And so, understanding what the Surveillance State, how it operates — most importantly, figuring out how to challenge it and undermine it, and subvert it — really is, I think, an absolute prerequisite to any sort of meaningful activism, to developing strategies and tactics for how to challenge state and corporate power.
To begin this discussion, I want to begin with a little story that I think is illustrative and significant in lots of ways.
The story begins in the mid-1970s when there were scandals that were erupting, arising out of the Watergate investigation in the Nixon administration and/or scandals surrounding the fact that, as it turned out, the Nixon administration and various law enforcement officials in the federal government were misusing their eavesdropping powers. They were listening in on people who were political opponents, they were doing so purely out of political self-interest, having nothing to do with legal factors or the business of the nation, and this created a scandal, and unlike today, a scandal 40 years ago in the mid-1970s resulted in at least some relatively significant reactions.
In particular, a committee was formed in the Congress and the Senate, and it was headed by someone named Frank Church, who was a Democratic Party of the United States senator from Idaho who had been, in the Senate, at this time, for 20 years as one of the most widely regarded senators, and was chosen because of that. And he led this investigation into these eavesdropping abuses and tried to get into the scandal. One of the things that he discovered was that these eavesdropping abuses were radically more pervasive and egregious than anything that had been known at the start of the investigation.
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It was by no means confined to the Nixon administration. In fact, it went all the way back to the 1920s, when the government first began developing the detective audio capability to eavesdrop on American citizens and heightened as the power heightened through the 1940s, when WWII would justify it; into the ’50s when the Cold War did, and the 1960s when the social unrest justified surveillance. What Senator Church found was that literally every single administration under both Democratic and Republican presidents had seriously abused this power.
And not in isolated ways, but systematically. This committee documented all the ways in which that was true, and the realization quickly emerged that, allowing government officials to eavesdrop on other people, on citizens, without constraints or oversight, to do so in the dark, is a power that gives so much authority and leverage to those in power that it is virtually impossible for human beings to resist abusing that power. That’s how potent of a power it is.
But the second thing that he realized beyond just the general realization that this power had been systematically abused was that, there was an agency that was at the heart of this abuse, and it was the National Security Agency. And what was really amazing about the National Security Agency was that it had been formed 20 years ago back in 1949 by President Truman, and it was formed as part of the Defense Department. It was so covert that literally, for two decades, almost nobody in the government even knew that it existed, let alone knew what it did. Including key senators like Frank Church.
And part of his investigation — and actually, it was a fairly radical investigation, fairly aggressive even looking at it through cynical eyes and realizing that the ultimate impact wasn’t particularly grand, but the investigation itself was pretty impressive — and he forced his way into the National Security Agency and found out as much as he possibly could about it.
And after the investigation concluded, he issued all sorts of warnings about the Surveillance State and how it was emerging, and the urgency of only allowing government officials to eavesdrop on citizens, that they have all kinds of layers of oversight in the courts and Congress, but he issued a specific warning about the National Security Agency that is really remarkable in terms of what he said. And this is what he said — and you can find this anywhere online, in the New York Times, everywhere — he said, as part of a written report, and in an interview:
The National Security Agency’s capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.
There would be no place to hide. If a dictator takes over the United States, the NSA could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.
Now, there are several things that I find extraordinary about that statement. For one, the language that he uses. I mean, this is not somebody who is a speaker at the Socialism conference 2012. This was literally one of the people who was the most established institutional figures in American politics. I mean, he was in the liberal way of the Democratic Party but very much, he was mainstream for many years [ … ] And here he is warning the country of the dangers, not just of the U.S. government but specifically about the National Security Agency using words like “dictator” and “total tyranny” and warning of the way in which this power can be abused such that, essentially it would be irreversible. That once the government is able to monitor everything we do and everything we say, there’s no way to fight back because fighting back requires doing it away from their prying eyes.
And if you look now, 30 years later to where we are, not only would you never, ever hear a U.S. senator stand up and insinuate that the National Security State poses this great danger or use words like “tyranny” and “dictators” to describe the United States the way that Frank Church did only 30 years ago. Now it’s virtually a religious obligation to talk about the National Security State and its close cousin, the Surveillance State, with nothing short of veneration.
Just a few weeks ago, Chris Hayes, who’s an MSNBC host on the weekends, used the opportunity of Memorial Day to express this view in this very tortured, careful and pre-apologetic way that maybe it’s the case that not every single person who has ever served as an American soldier or enlisted in the American military is a hero. Maybe we can think about them in ways short of that. And this incredible controversy erupted, condemnation poured down on him from Democrats and conservatives, liberals and the like, and he was forced in multiple venues in the course of the next week to issue one, increasingly sheepish apology after the next. That’s how radically our discourse has changed, so that you cannot talk about the National Security State or the Surveillance State in these kinds of nefarious terms, the way that Frank Church, who probably knew more about it, did just a few decades ago.
The second remarkable aspect of that story, of that quote to me, is that the outcome of that investigation was a series of laws that were grounded in the principle that, as I said earlier, that we cannot allow government officials to eavesdrop on American citizens or in any way to engage in surveillance without all kinds of oversights and checks. The most illustrative of which was the FISA law, which said that no government official can eavesdrop on the occasion without first going through a court and proving to a court that we’re actually doing something wrong and getting the court permission before they can eavesdrop.
There was a similar controversy in the mid 2000s and in 2005 when the New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had been using the NSA to do exactly what Frank Church warned against — which is spying on the communication of American citizens. And the outcome of that was not new laws or new safeguards to constrain these sorts of abuses, it was exactly the opposite. In 2008, the Democratic-led Congress, with the support of President Obama, most of his supporters in the Democratic party and almost all Republicans basically gutted that law. Repealed it in its core and made it much, much easier for the government to eavesdrop on American citizens without constraint, and then immunized the nation’s telecoms that had participated in that illegal program.
So you see the radically different attitudes that the United States has to surveillance just some 30 years ago, when abuses resulted in a whole variety of a weak, but still meaningful legal constraint, versus what we do now when we find out that the government is lawlessly spying on us, which is act as quickly as possible to make it legal.
But the third part of why I think Church’s statements are so remarkable and important: If you look at what he said, he phrased his warning in a conditional sense. He said, If A happens, then B. A was: If the NSA starts using its eavesdropping capabilities and not directing them at foreign, nationals we suspect of spying, but instead at the American people, then B will happen. B being, we’ll essentially live under a dictatorship. There will be total tyranny where the American people will be unable to fight back because this net of surveillance will cover what we do.
And what’s really remarkable is that that conditional that he warned against — the apparatus of the NSA being directed domestically and inwardly rather than outwardly — has absolutely come to pass. That is the current situation, that is the current circumstance of the United States. The NSA, beginning 2001, was secretly ordered to spy domestically on the communications of American citizens. It has escalated in all sorts of lawless, and now lawful ways, such that it is now an enormous part of what that agency does. Even more significantly, the technology that it has developed is now shared by a whole variety of agencies, including the FBI, so that this surveillance net that Frank Church warned so stridently about, in a way that if we stood up now, we’d be immediately be branded a sort of shrill, submarginalized radical, has come to be, in all sorts of entrenched and legal ways.
Now there’s a few ways to think about the Surveillance State and try to understand its scope and magnitude. I think the most effective way to do that is to look at a couple of numbers. And to use the most mainstream sources to do that in terms of where we are, in terms of the American Surveillance State.
In 2010 the Washington Post published a three-part series called “Top Secret America” written by their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin. The first installment in that series looked at the National Security State and the Surveillance State, how it functions in the United States, and this was one of the sentences that appeared in this article. Listen to this, it said, “Every day — every day, collections systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls, and other types of comunication.”
That’s every day, they intercept and store, and keep for as long as they want, 1.7 billion e-mails and other forms of telephonic communications.
William Binney is a NSA official, who is a high-ranking NSA official for decades, and he resigned in the wake of 9/11 because he was so outraged that the NSA was starting to be turned against the American people. And he resigned, and recently he has begun to speak out about the NSA’s abuses and he gave an interview on Democracy Now! three weeks ago, and this is what he said about surveillance under the Obama administration. He said,
“Surveillance has increased every year since 9/11. In fact, I would suggest that they’ve assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens: 20 trillion transactions have been assembled by the NSA and its related agencies about U.S. citizens interacting with other U.S. citizens.”
He then went on to add that, that’s only e-mails and telephone calls, and not things like financial transactions or other forms of video surveillance. So that pretty much tracks with the Washington Postreport as well — if you’re storing 1.7 billion e-mails and telephone calls each and every day, it’s likely that you’ll fairly quickly reach the 20 trillion level that William Binney identified.
Now the most amazing thing about the Surveillance State given how incredibly liquidated it is and how incredibly menacing it is, is that we actually know very little about it. We’re almost back to the mid-1970s when nobody even knew what the NSA was. The big joke in Washington whenever anyone would mention the NSA is that the “NSA” stood for “No Such Agency.” It was something that you were not permitted to talk about, even in government. No one knew what it did.
We’re basically at that point. We get little snippets of information like the two statistics that I just described that give us a sense of just how sprawling and all-encompassing the surveillance state is. But we don’t know very much about who runs it, how it’s operated, at whom it’s directed and who makes those decisions. And in fact, so clear is that lack of knowledge that there is an amazing controversy right now about the Patriot Act.
You may remember, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Patriot Act was something that was really controversial. And mid-September, October of 2001, Congress enacted this law and everyone went around warning that it was this massive expansion of surveillance that was unlike anything we had ever seen before — became the symbol of Bush-Cheney radicalism. Now, the Patriot Act is completely uncontroversial. It gets renewed without any notice every three years with zero reforms, no matter which party is in control.
There are two Democratic senators that are very, kind of, mainstream, loyal, Democratic Party supporters. They’re President Obama supporters [ … ] One is Ron Wyden of Oregon and the other is Mark Udall of Colorado. And what these two Democratic Party senators have been doing for the last three years is running around warning that the Patriot Act is so much worse than anything that any of us thought all that time when we were objecting to it. And the reason it’s so much worse is because the U.S. government has secretly interpreted it — what the Patriot Act admits it to do in terms of surveillance on American citizens, is completely unrelated to what the law actually says, and it’s something that almost nobody knows.
Just listen to these two quotes that they gave to the New York Timesa month ago. Senator Wyden said:
“I want to deliver a warning this afternoon. When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned, and they will be angry.”
Now he’s talking about a different American people than the one that I know, but the point is that if you were paying attention and cared about these things as you should, you will be stunned and angry to learn about what the government is doing under this already broad act.
Senator Udall said, “Americans will be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out.” Now they are two, as I said, established Democrats warning that the Democratic control of the Executive branch is massively abusing this already incredibly broad Patriot Act. And one of the things they are trying to do is extract some basic information from the NSA about what it is they’re doing in terms of the surveillance on the American people. Because even though they are on the Intelligence Committee, they say they don’t even know the most basic information about what the NSA does including even how many Americans have had their e-mails read or had their telephone calls intercepted by the NSA.
So one of the things they did a couple months ago is, they wrote a demand to the NSA saying, we don’t want you to tell us anything sensitive, we just need to know the basic information about what it is that you’re doing. Such as, for example, the thing we want to know, is how many American citizens on U.S. soil have had their e-mails read by you, and their telephone calls listened to by you. That’s what we want to know, most of all.
And the NSA responded two weeks ago by saying — I’m not exaggerating, I’m not saying this to be humorous, I’m not being ironic, I’m not snippeting a part of it to distort it — their answer was, “We can’t tell you how many millions of Americans are having their e-mails read by us, and their telephone calls listened in by us, because for us to tell you that would violate the privacy of American citizens.” (Laughter)
And just so you believe me, because if I were you I’d think, “That’s just ridiculous.” I just want to read you from the letter that the head of the NSA wrote to the Intelligence Committee as a response, “The NSA inspector general and NSA leadership both agree that a review of the sort you’re suggesting would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.”
So, I think the important thing to realize is how little we know about what it is that they’re doing. But the little that we do know is extraordinarily alarming in exactly the way that Frank Church described. Now, I just want to make a couple other points about the Surveillance State, that don’t get enough attention but that really are necessary for completing the picture about what it really is and what it does.
We talk a lot about things like the NSA and federal government agencies like the FBI, but it actually stands well beyond that. We really live in a culture of surveillance. I mean, if you even go into any normal American city or even, increasingly, small or mid-sized towns, there are all kinds of instruments of surveillance everywhere that you probably don’t even notice. If you wake up in the morning and drive to your local convenience store, you’ve undoubtedly been photographed by all sorts of surveillance cameras on the street. If you go to the ATM to take out money to buy things, that will be then recorded. If you go into a convenience store to buy things you want to buy, you’ll have your photograph taken and will be reported.
An article in Popular Mechanics in 2004 reported on a study of American surveillance and this is what it said: “There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week. Americans are being watched. All of us, almost everywhere.” There is a study in 2006 that estimated that that number would quadruple to 100 million cameras — surveillance cameras — in the United States within five years largely because of the bonanza of post-9/11 surveilling.
And it’s not just the government that is engaged in surveillance, but just as menacingly, corporations, private corporations, engage in huge amounts of surveillance on us. They give us cell phones that track every moment of where we are physically, and then provide that to law enforcement agencies without so much as a search warrant. Obviously, credit card and banking transactions are reported, and tell anyone who wants to know everything we do. We talk about the scandal of the Bush eavesdropping program that was not really a government eavesdropping program, so much as it was a private industry eavesdropping program. It was done with the direct and full cooperation of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and the other telecom giants.
In fact, when you talk about the American Surveillance State, what you’re really talking about is no longer public government agencies. What you’re talking about is a full-scale merger between the federal government and industry. That is what the Surveillance State is. They are equally important parts of what the Surveillance State does.
I think the most interesting, and probably revealing, example that I can give you about where we are in terms of surveillance in the United States is a really ironic and unintendedly amusing series of events that took place in mid-2011. What happened in mid-2011 was that the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which as we know are very, very oppressive and hate freedom, they said that what they were going to do was ban the use of Blackberries and similar devices on their soil. The reason is that the corporation that produces Blackberries was either unable or unwilling to guarantee that Saudi and UAE intelligence agencies would be able to intercept all communications.
And the governments in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were horrified by the prospect that people might be able to communicate on their soil without them being able to intercept and surveill their communication. And in response, they banned Blackberries.
This created huge amounts of condemnation in the western world. Every American newspaper editorialized about how this showed how much these governments were the enemies of freedom, the Obama administration issued a stinging denunciation of both governments, saying that they were engaged in the kinds of oppression that we couldn’t tolerate. And yet, six weeks later, theNew York Times reported that, “The Obama administration was preparing legislation to mandate that all services that enable communications” — and I’m quoting from the New York Times — “to mandate that all services that enable communication, including in encrypted e-mail transmitters like Blackberry, social networking websites like Facebook, and software that allows direct pure messaging like Skype, be designed to ensure government surveillance,” which is exactly the same principle that everyone can damn United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for.
The principle being that there can be no human interaction, especially no human communication, not just for international between foreign nations but by America citizens on American soils that is beyond the reach of the U.S. government.
This was the mindset in 2002 when the Bush administration, to dredge up John Poindexter, from wherever it was that he was — and he was going to start the program that they call the Total Information Awareness Program. The logo which, I actually looked in the last couple of weeks, you should go look at that, you won’t believe how creepy it is, has a pyramid with this huge eye hovering over it. This eye is the “all-seeing eye” and the only problem with the Total Information Awareness Program is that, they just put a name on it that was too honest about what it was.
It freaked everybody out and they had to pretend like they weren’t going to go forward with it but what they did was incrementally, in a very clear way, recreated the Total Information Awareness Program under a whole variety of different legislative initiatives. And this idea that every single form of technological communication, by law, must be constructed to permit government backdoor interception and surveillance is an expression of what this Surveillance State mindset is: that there can be no such thing as any form of privacy from the U.S. government. That is the mindset that has led the Surveillance State to beam the sprawling, vast, ubiquitous and always expanding instrument that state and corporate power users employ in order to safeguard their power.
One other point worth making about how this works, about how the Surveillance State works and how powers exercise through it — and this I think is probably the most pernicious part. I refer to this as the one-way mirror. The government’s one-way mirror.
At exactly the same time (this is really, so remarkable to me), at exactly the same time that the government has been massively expanding its ability to know everything that we’re doing it has simultaneously erected a wall of secrecy around it that prevents us from knowing anything that they’re doing. There is this amazing controversy when the documents from WikiLeaks were disclosed, and the American media had to rush to assure everybody simultaneously that this was all a completely meaningless act and a completely horrible act.
So, the two claims that were made was, this horrible, traitorous organization, WikiLeaks, has severely damaged American national security, but at the same time we want you to know, there’s nothing new in anything that they disclosed. There’s nothing worth knowing. That was literally the two claims that was named and nobody ever bothered to reconcile those.
But what was true is that, of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pages that WikiLeaks disclosed, it’s actually an excess of a million now. The vast, vast bulk of it were very banal content. It was stuff that really wasn’t particularly interesting, that didn’t really reveal very much about anything that was worth knowing. And what was actually so scandalous about that was that very fact, because every single page that WikiLeaks disclosed was stamped “Classified” and they made it a crime to disclose any of it. Even though so much of it was banal and revealed nothing worth knowing. And what that reflected is that the U.S. government reflexively labels everything that it does of any conceivable significance as “classified” and “secret.” It keeps everything that it does from us, at the very same time that it knows more and more about what we’re doing. If you think about […] what a radical reversal [that is] of how things are supposed to work, it’s really startling.
The idea is supposed to be — and this is just basic political science, basic design of the founding — that there’s supposed to be transparency for government. We’re supposed to know virtually everything that they do. Individuals are supposed live in a sphere of privacy. Nobody’s supposed to know what we’re doing unless there’s a demonstrated, good reason to invade that wall of privacy.
We completely reversed that, so that the government now operates with complete secrecy, and we have none. The reason this is so disturbing is — you can just look at the famous aphorism, typically attributed to Francis Bacon that “knowledge is power.” If I’m able to know everything about you, what you do, what you think, what you fear, where you go, what your aspirations are, the bad things that you do, the bad things you think about, and you know nothing about me? I have immense leverage over you in all kinds of ways. I can think about how to control you, I can blackmail you, I can figure out what your weaknesses are, I can manipulate you in all sorts of ways. That is the state of affairs that this Surveillance State, combined with the wall of secrecy, has brought about.
Now if you want to talk a little bit about the mechanisms by which this has been done, and the reasons why it matters so much […] in relationship to the government and the corporate component of the Surveillance State […]
When you look at the way in which the war on terror functioned in the first, say five to seven years after it was declared, and the civil liberties abuses that it ushered in particularly and inevitably, you’ll find that all this, without exception (there were few exceptions), they were directed toward foreign nationals — not American citizens, but foreign nationals — who were on foreign soil, not on U.S. soil. And the reason is that governments, when they want to give themselves abusive and radical powers, typically first target people who they think their citizens won’t care very much about, because they’ll think they’re not affected by it. And that’s pretty much what happened.
We detained, without charges and without trials, a bunch of Muslims who remain nameless, who were being picked up in places that nobody really knew about or cared much about. We sent drones to assassinate them. All of these powers were directed at foreign “others.”
But what has happened in the last three to four years is a radical change in the war on terror. The war on terror has now been imported into United States policy. It is now directed at American citizens on American soil. So rather than simply sending drones to foreign soil to assassinate foreign nationals, we are now sending drones to target and kill American citizens without charges or trial. Rather than indefinitely detaining foreign nationals like Guantanamo, Congress last year enacted, and President Obama signed, the National Defense Authorization Act that permits the detention — without trial, indefinitely — of American citizens on U.S. soil.
Rather than sending drones only over Yemen and Somalia and Pakistan, drones are now being approved at an alarming rate. Not just surveillance drones, but increasingly, possibly, weaponized drones that will fly over American soil, watching everything that we do in ways that say, police helicopters could never possibly accomplish.
Even when President Obama promised to close Guantanamo — and lots of his defenders say, not accurately, that he was prevented from doing so because Congress blocked the closure — the plan that he had was not to close Guantanamo and eliminate the system of indefinite detention that made it so controversial. The plan was to take that system of indefinite detention, close Guantanamo because it had become an upsetting symbol, and import it, move it, onto American soil (video cuts out) …
So what you see is the gradual importation of all the abuses of the war on terror. Now they are entrenched and not just into foreign nationals but to U.S. citizens and on U.S. soil as well. That’s the mechanism by which this is being done.
If you listen to US officials — intelligence and defense officials — talk about terrorism, what they emphasize now is not Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, which they largely acknowledge has been eliminated. Or even Al-Qaeda in Yemen which isn’t really much of a threat to anybody. What they talk about is the threat of a home-grown terrorism.
This is now the grave menace that American terrorism officials will warn, needs to be restrained, and the solution to that has been the gradual transference of all these abuses that we let take root because they weren’t happening to us but were happening to us but were happening to people “over there,” and are now being imported into domestic powers.
And the reason that’s being done isn’t difficult to see. American policymakers know that the financial unraveling that took place in 2008 that’s even more visible in European states like Spain and Portugal and Greece, has never really been rectified, and it can’t be rectified because there are structural problems. The way in which oligarchs in the United States monopolize wealth and then use that wealth to control our political processes, ensure that this is not going to change, it’s only going to worsen. Mass unemployment, mass foreclosure, all these income inequality pathologies are here to stay, and the future that America policymakers see is visible if you look at what happened in London for a weak period of time and what happens all the time in Athens, what is happening with increasing frequency in Spain: huge amounts of social unrest. And you see lots of that happening. I think that’s what the Occupy movement, in many ways, is.
And the elites in the United States, both corporate and government, are petrified about that type of unrest, and what people in power always do when they fear unrest, is they start consolidating power in order to constrain it, in order to suppress it.
And this is what the Surveillance State is designed to do. It’s justified, in the name of terrorism, of course that’s the packaging in which it’s wrapped, that’s been used extremely, and in all sorts of ways, since 9/11 for domestic application. And that’s being, that’s happening even more. It’s happening in terms of the Occupy movement and the infiltration that federal officials were able to accomplish using Patriot Act authorities. It’s happened with pro-Palestinian activists in the United States and all other dissident groups that have themselves [dealt with] with surveillance and law enforcement used by what was originally the war on terror powers.
I just want to close by talking about why I think this matters. The attitude that you typically encounter, and it’s not a very easy mindset to address or to refute, is that, and one that the government has sold continuously and peddled…is that privacy in the aspect I can understand as something to value, but ultimately, if I’m not really doing anything wrong, if I’m not one of the terrorists, if I’m not plotting to bomb a bridge, I don’t really have much reason to care, and people are invading my sphere of privacy and watching and learning what it is that I’m doing.
So I think it’s worth talking about the reasons why that is such an ill-advised way to think. Why it absolutely matters that privacy is being invaded in these systematic ways. I mean, one obvious answer is that any kind of social movement needs to be able to organize in private, away from the targets of the organization. (applause)
If you look at the revolutionary movements in the Arab world, one of the greatest challenges that they had was that the government sought all sorts of ways to prevent them from communicating with one another, either at all, or in privacy. The fact that the Internet was not nearly as pervasive in those countries actually turned out to be a blessing because it enabled them to organize in more organic ways. But if the government is able to know what we speak about and know who we’re talking to, know what it is that we’re planning, it makes any kind of activism extremely difficult. Because secrecy and privacy are prerequisites to effective actions.
But I think that the more difficult value of privacy, the one that’s harder to think about, the one that’s more important than the one I just described. And that is that, it is in the private realm exclusively, where things like dissent and creativity, and challenges to orthodoxy, reside.
It’s only when you know that you can explore without external judgment, or when you can experiment without eyes being cast upon you, that the opportunity for creating new paths comes and there are all kinds of fascinating studies that prove this to be the case. There are psychological studies where people have sat down at their dinner tables with their family members and friends talking for a long time in a very informal way. Then suddenly one of them pulls out a tape recorder and puts it on the table and says, “I’m going to tape-record this conversation just for my own interest. I promise I’m not going to tell anybody, I’m not going to show it to anybody, no one’s going to hear it, I’m just going to tape-record it because I like to go over all of the wisdom that you give me.”
And it’s an experiment to psychologically assess what the impact of that is. And invariably, what happens is, people who are now being recorded radically change their behavior. They speak in much more stilted sentences, they try and talk about much more high-minded topics, they are much stiffer in their expression of things because they now feel that they are being monitored. There was a pilot program in Los Angeles six or seven years ago that was in response to a couple of exaggerated news stories about rambunctious school children, elementary school children, on buses that were apparently being bullying and abusing other students.
The solution that they came up with was, they were going to install surveillance cameras in every single public school bus in Los Angeles county, which is the second or third largest county in the United States. The response, when it was ultimately disclosed, was well, this is going to be extraordinarily expensive! How can you have tens of thousands of working surveillance cameras with people monitoring them, recording them, every single day for every school bus in LA county? The answer that they gave was, Oh no, we’re not going to have working cameras in these buses, there may be a few buses that have working cameras, just so nobody knows which buses have those. We’re going to have faux cameras, because we know that if we put cameras up, even though they’re not working, that will radically change the behavior of students.
In other words, we are training our young citizens to live in a culture where the expect they are always being watched. And we want them to be chilled, we want them to be deterred, we want them not to ever challenge orthodoxy or to explore limits where engaging creativity in any kind. This type of surveillance, by design, breeds conformism. That’s its purpose. that’s what makes surveillance so pernicious.
The last point I want to make is this. One of the points about the Surveillance State, one of the things that happens is that, the way in which it affects how people think and behave is typically insidious. It’s something that is very potent and yet it’s very easy to avoid understanding or realizing. Now sometimes people do know about the effects of the Surveillance State and the climate of fear it creates.
I went on a book tour last October and early November and I went to 15 different cities and in each of the cities, I honestly didn’t really care about the book events, I was much more interested in going to the Occupy camps in each city. It was much more enlightening.
One of the things that would happen is — literally almost the entirety of my book tour was taken up by taking about the Occupy movement. It’s what everybody was thinking about, they had written many times that it was by far the most significant political development in many years, and I still think that. Everywhere I’d go to talk about the Occupy movement, literally all the time I would get people who would say things like (and I would be on radio shows, and I’d get calls that say this), like, “look, I’m really supportive of the Occupy movements. I want to go down there and be a participant in it, but I’m a woman who has a small baby. Or, I’m a man who has a bad leg, and given all the police abuse that’s taking place there and all the infiltration, I’m just afraid of going and participating in these movements.”
That was definitely part of the effect of this infiltration and police abuse had, it created this kind of fear in the way that people knew.
I spend a lot of time with American Muslims and American Muslim communities doing the work that I do and where I go and speak, and one of the things that emboldens me and keeps me very energized and engaged about these issues is if you go and speak to communities of American Muslims is you find an incredibly pervasive climate of fear.
And the reason is that they know that they are always being watched. They know that they have FBI informants who are attempting to infiltrate their communities, they know that there are people next to them, their neighbors, fellow mosque-goers, who have been manipulated by the FBI to be informants. They know that they are being eavesdropped on when they speak on the telephone, they know that they are having their e-mails read when they speak or communicate to anybody. What they will say all the time is that it’s created this extreme suspicion within their own communities, within their own mosques to a point where they’re even afraid to talk to any new people about anything significant because they fear, quite rightly, that this is all being done as part of a government effort to watch them.
It doesn’t really matter whether it’s true in a particular case or it isn’t true. This climate of fear creates limits around the behavior in which they’re willing to engage in very damaging ways.
But I think what this Surveillance State really does more than making people consciously aware of the limits in those two examples I just described: people not wanting to go to Occupy movements and people in Muslim communities being very guarded is, it makes people believe that they’re free even though they’ve been subtly convinced that there are things that they shouldn’t do that they might want to do.
I always use dog examples. I have 11 dogs. It’s one of the thing, examples that I use. I know you probably think I’m crazy, it’s all rescue dogs, it’s one of the things we do, so I draw a lot of lessons from dogs. One of the most amazing things about dog behavior is, if you don’t want dogs to go into a certain place because it’s dangerous for them, one of the things you can do is put a fence around the area that you want to confine them.
But eventually, you can remove the fence and you don’t need the fence anymore because they will have been trained that the entirety of the world is within the boundaries that you first set for them. So even once you remove the fence, they won’t venture beyond it. They’ve been trained that that’s the only world that they want or are interested in, or known.
There are studies in what was formerly East Germany, which was probably one of the most notorious surveillance states in the last 50 years, where even once their boundaries were removed, once the Stazi no longer existed, once the wall fell… the psychological effects on East German people endure until today. The way in which they have been trained for decades to understand that there are limits to their life, even once you remove the limits, they’ve been trained that those are not things they need to transgress.
And that’s one of the things that constantly surveilling people and constantly communicating to them that they’re powerless against this omnipotent government corporate institution does to people, it convinces people that the tiny little box in which they live is really the only box in which they want to live so they don’t even realize being in prison.
Rosa Luxembourg said, “He who does not move does not notice his chains.”
You can acculturate people to believing that tyranny is freedom, that their limits are actually emancipations and freedom, that is what this Surveillance State does, by training people to accept their own conformity that they are actually free, that they no longer even realize the ways in which they’re being limited.
So the last point I just want to mention, and we can talk about this in the discussion that follows and it probably will, it’s usually what discussions afterwards entail, is what can be done about all this?
There are just a few quick points I want to make about that.
One is that you can do things that remove yourself from the surveillance matrix. Not completely, but to the best extent that it can. There are people who only engage in transactions using cash, as inconvenient as that is, it at least removes that level of surveillance. There are ways of communicating on the internet using very effective forms of anonymity, which I will talk about in a minute. There are ways of educating yourself about how to engage in interaction and activism beyond the prying eye of the U.S. government.
There are important ways to educate yourself about the rights that you have when interacting with government agents. So much of what the government learns about people is that they let them learn that without having any legal obligation to do so. So much of government searches or government questioning is done under the manipulative pretext of consent, where people thought they had to consent or they don’t have the right to, and give up information about information they didn’t need to give up. And educating yourself about what your rights are by going to the Center for Constitutional Rights Web site or the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms or the ACLU. Lots of places online will tell you how to do that.
Very important means of subverting this one-way mirror that I’ve described is forcible, radical transparency. It’s one of the reasons I support, so enthusiastically and unqualafiably, groups like Anonymous and WikiLeaks. I want holes to be blown in the wall of secrecy.
The way that this ends up operating effectively is only because they’re able to conceal what they do, and that’s why they consider these unauthorized means of transparency so threatening.
The last point I want to make about things that can be done is that there are groups that are pursuing very interesting and effective forms of anonymity on the internet.
There are things like the Tour project and other groups that enable people to use the internet without any detection from government authorities. That has the effect of preventing regimes that actually bar their citizens from using the Internet from doing so since you can no longer trace the origins of the Internet user. But it also protects people who live in countries like ours where the government is trying to constantly monitor what we do by sending our communications through multiple proxies around the world that can’t be invaded. There’s really a war taking place: an arms race where the government and these groups are attempting to stay one tactical step ahead of the other. In terms of ability to shield internet communications from the government and the government’s ability to invade them and participating in this war in ways that are supportive of the “good side” are really critical as is veiling yourself from the technology that exists, to make what you do as tight as possible.
I really don’t think there’s one any more important front, or battle, if there are any, than combating the Surveillance State. So that’s why I’m so interested in the topic, and I’m so happy to be able to speak with you.