They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy
By happy coincidence my two latest library books were delivered at the same time: a hardback on Shakespeare’s coded writing, Shadowplay, by Clare Asquith and a digital copy of Robert Scheer’s They Know Everything About You.
Though separated by almost 500 years they share a number of common themes: manipulation of the law, curtailment of individual rights and abuse of power.
It’s tempting to think of a meeting between Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham and his present day NSA counterparts. How he would have marveled at, and enjoyed, the apparatus of the watchers of the modern state.
Along with William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser, Walsingham turned England into a police state. Feared threats from Catholic plotters at home and Jesuit infiltrators abroad were met with manhunts, torture, extracted confessions and executions.
Fast forward to the post 9-11 period and substitute al-Qaeda or ISIS for the Catholic menace and the same tactics and justifications are being made for the extraordinary powers needed to protect the homeland.
Since 9-11 the US has spent more than $500bn on intelligence, according to veteran journalist Scheer.
Following the attack on the World Trade Center, “priorities shifted from viewing the preservation of individual liberty as the guarantor of freedom to the justification of unbridled government power exercised in the name of preserving national security”.
And we’ve all gone along with it. We’ve become inured to intrusion and surrendered our privacy.
We accept CCTVs recording our presence, we know our emails are sifted for keywords, we willingly surrender our location history, we helpfully codify our social networks, we give up our relationship status and a million other things without being compelled to do so. We do it because on balance it makes our lives easier; we’ve traded convenience for privacy.
So far, so yawn. But Scheer reminds us there’s also a darker side to today’s unprecedented level of data gathering: “The point of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was was to show that the public would come to accept totalitarian intrusion as part of the normal fabric of life, as something that was actually good for them”.
Except, of course, that it’s not. Scheer contends that the US surveillance state, governed by secrecy, drew the country into a futile search for weapons of mass destruction, a war with Iraq, and laid the foundation for the emergence of a jihadi caliphate hundreds of times bigger and better organized than al-Qaeda.
The war on terror had become a war on the public’s right to know, a bipartisan crusade that destroyed the foundation of democracy – an informed public.
It was only through whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures that we came to learn digital behemoths like Google, Facebook, AoL and Microsoft had been compelled (some more willingly than others) to surrender vast amounts of data to the state surveillance apparatus.
The dirty secret of the internet was that it was privacy and not just advertising that was being sold.
Scheer states: “While there is no doubt the commercial exploitation of our most intimate practices to enhance advertising sales is destructive of privacy, it is a qualitatively different assault than secret monitoring by a government agency.”
He argues that government intrusions subvert constitutional intent and basic rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of private space to collect one’s thoughts and papers free from the intimidating surveillance of government.
All the more surprising then that President Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has not only continued Bush-era surveillance powers but has expanded “on that horrid legacy” by cracking down on the press and prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous US presidents combined.
It is here that Scheer delivers his most withering criticism of the president using a campaign speech the then-Senator Obama delivered in 2007 to deride President Bush’s “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand”.
His own administration, he said, would provide tools to take out terrorists without undermining the Constitution: “That means no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime…No more ignoring the law when it is not convenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works…”
Scheer’s analysis is a gift to critics of the Obama administration but his frustration goes far deeper than simple partisan politics. He is neither a hysterical commentator, nor a soapbox scaremonger, but a man who believes the nation is sleepwalking on a dangerous path towards its own destruction.
In a rallying call for citizen action he cites the dictum that: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any”.
And he warns: “If we persist in apathetically accepting the privacy invasions of corporations and the predations of our own government – perhaps believing the war is already lost – our dystopian future is clear: a world where our private and public spheres are the same, where any agency or business or even individual who can afford the fee can scrutinize us at their leisure, and penalize us for any perceived defect or nonconformity.”