Saturday, May 18, 2013

Total Exposure (or, how we gave up privacy and learned to love Big Brother)

Part Three of The Great Free Speech Robbery

In June 2000, a blue-ribbon US congressional commission on terrorism released some recommendations that made civil libertarians cringe. In order to prevent possible terrorist attacks, said the panel, which included a former CIA director and the Army general who investigated a 1996 attack on US troops in Saudi Arabia, restrictions on FBI wiretapping should be loosened and surveillance of foreign students should be increased. At the time, even the conservative Lincoln Legal Foundation said that the cure was "worse than the disease," arguing that such threats didn't warrant a suspension of constitutional rights.
     Most people barely noticed the dispute. But even if they had, even a year before 9/11 it was unlikely that too many would have expressed concern about the implications of more wiretapping or spying on students accused of no crimes. After all, the problem was terrorism.
     Despite the US preoccupation with individual privacy, surveillance of everyday life had already become so commonplace that it was difficult to resist such government intrusions. Video cameras perched around banks, airports, hospitals, ATMs, stores, freeways, and building lobbies and elevators. In the US and Europe, people often felt safer with cameras observing streets and parking lots. Some consumers did object to the collection of information on shopping preferences by Web sites and stores, yet most accepted it as a relatively harmless trade-off.
     According to Bill Gates, within a few years, computers would be able to inexpensively scan video records to find a particular person or activity. In his 2000 book, The Road Ahead, Gates envisioned (but didn’t directly recommend) a camera on every streetlight someday. "What today seems like digital Big Brother might one day become the norm if the alternative is being left to the mercy of terrorists or criminals," he wrote. In the future, Gates suggested, many people would choose to lead "a documented life," keeping an audio, written, and even video record of their everyday activities on a wallet PC.
     Once considered a threatening intrusion, surveillance has also become a form of entertainment. Using the Internet and video cameras, people proudly put their private lives online. Meanwhile, thousands line up to be watched by cameras (and a TV audience) 24 hours a day. On countless "reality" TV shows, contestants willingly surrender their privacy in the hope of winning (or in the case of many “celebrities,” recapturing) fame or fortune. Although such programs occasionally provide some instructive insights into group behavior, they also promote voyeurism, while indirectly undermining objections to other forms of surveillance.
     In the past, concerns about privacy centered on the government's activities. Thus, the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution provided protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the State, and US Supreme Court rulings have since suggested that there may be a constitutional right to privacy from government invasions. But there is no protection so far from the new technologies, and the dramatic expansion of private surveillance, along with a public embrace of "big brother" to guard against crime or provide amusement, make it harder to impose restrictions.
     The most problematic issue isn't conventional surveillance – a bugging device installed with a warrant or a cop with a camera – but rather the indiscriminate use of video and other tools, along with the implications for manipulation of human behavior. Clearly, people who know they are, or may be, watched end up acting differently. Through a combination of design and commercial accident, businesses are grafting surveillance to Skinnerian theory, creating a powerful new form of conditioning. In the name of efficiency, employers use cameras and PC tracking programs to monitor and mold employees. In the name of entertainment, TV puts people in a competitive goldfish bowl, promoting the idea that being totally exposed is a privilege and, with winning behavior, can lead to financial reward or at least celebrity.
     For people already suffering from narcissism (a social epidemic whose symptoms include addiction to vicarious, mediated experiences, fear of dependence and aging, and unsatisfied cravings), a life of total exposure can become a prescription for more alienation and a cynical detachment from reality. Traditionally, the narcissist has been viewed as the "beautiful person" who can relate only to his or her own image. However, the contemporary definition also includes the characteristics already mentioned, as well as dependence on the warmth provided by others, a sense of inner emptiness, and boundless repressed rage.
     Narcissists can be pseudo-intellectuals or calculating seducers. Often, they are also fascinated with celebrities. Yet, even though such frustrated climbers tend to seek out the famous, they are often subsequently compelled to destroy their fantasy figures. If this was merely a description of a few "sick" individuals we might find some comfort. But patterns of narcissism affect millions and are reinforced daily. Perhaps most disquieting, the narcissistic personality is ideally suited for positions of power. Be warned: a narcissistic leader will sell him- or herself to win at any price.
     Selling oneself has become a form of work in our mediated world, and success often rests on the ability to project "personality" and/or an attractive image. Self-promotion also meshes neatly with an idealization of powerful personalities who represent what the narcissist seeks. Narcissists identify with winners out of their fear of being losers. Objects of hero worship tend to give meaning to the otherwise unanchored lives of society's emotional casualties. Yet mixed with idealization is an urge to degrade the object of one's admiration, sparked when the narcissist's hero ultimately disappoints. This desperate urge, intensified by the machinery of mass promotion, can turn even assassination into a form of spectacle.
     In such an environment, the knowledge that intelligence agencies in the US, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand operate a cooperative electronic surveillance system that can monitor almost all the world's communication barely registers as a problem. After all, we are all being watched some of the time anyway. The more "spying" we learn about, or participate in, the less unusual or disturbing it seems to become.
     Being watched almost constantly may provide a superficial sense of security, and watching others may be titillating and fun. But it also can undermine the impulse to act authentically, while numbing both the watcher and watched to the hidden threats posed to their freedom and healthy development. Hopefully, once the price of the "documented life" becomes better understood, those will no longer be tradeoffs most people choose to make.

Next: Merger Madness
(Total Exposure originally posted 3/9/09)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Info Insecurity: It Only Takes a Pretext

As Census forms reached homes across the country in 2010, some people were being approached by scam artists disguising themselves as Census workers. What they were after, in most cases, was personal information like Social Security numbers, work history and home values, baseline data for possible identity theft.
     But others are more afraid of what the government might do with all the information it collects. Some groups, for example, worry that the Patriot Act or other laws allow officials to share information from other agencies with law enforcement authorities. The response from the Justice Department, on the Census at least, is “absolutely not.” On the contrary, officials note, Census information helps minority communities and leads to better enforcement of civil rights laws.
     The basic message has been that, despite anti-government anger and free-range paranoia, there’s really nothing to fear. The authorities and most media assure the public that, by law, Census information can’t be shared with any other government agency, including the FBI. Case closed, right? And yet, there are possible legal loopholes, as well as evidence that, in the past at least, collecting Census information has been used as a pretext for government spying.
     Perhaps the most egregious abuse occurred during World War II. Census data was brought to the White House -- with the approval of FDR -- and mined for information on which West Coast homes had Japanese occupants.  This information was then  shared with the military, which used it to round up tens of thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry for indefinite  confinement.
     To understand how the FBI could exploit the Census, let’s go back to another time when Congress was eager to liberate intelligence agencies. After the post-Watergate revelations of the mid-1970s, lawmakers had moved briefly toward defining standards for covert operations. By the time the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was passed in 1978, however, the mood was shifting back toward broadening the powers of the FBI and CIA.
     Congress was responding to complaints that covert programs had been hamstrung by new rules and congressional oversight. Thus, they looked away when the CIA or FBI didn't completely notify Congress about their operations. An infamous case in point was the “secret” war launched in Afghanistan – as it turns out, before the Soviet Union invaded. Nevertheless, many civil libertarians feared that Supreme Court decisions could be even more damaging than congressional action (or inaction). As a result, they supported FISA, which set up a secret court to handle wiretap warrants – the same court that the Bush administration decided to sidestep in its “war on terror.” Emboldened by this win, the FBI and CIA next pushed for legislation to legitimize the kind of covert activities that had provoked protest just a few years before.
     A glimpse of how the FBI operated – and how the Census was involved – emerged in early 1980, just days before the launch of that decade’s count. Sometimes it takes only one document to tell a larger story. In this case it was an FBI report about the surveillance of a nurse practitioner in Vermont.
     Like many people, Jed Lowy just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In his case, the place was a so-called “commune” that the Bureau considered a gathering spot for “extremists.” The difference was that Lowy obtained his FBI file via the Freedom of Information Act and then shared it with me.
     One entry in the file revealed that the Bureau was trying to identify the driver of a Blue 1970 Volkswagen, which had “previously been observed at New Left locations in Vermont.” The Albany FBI office contacted its Newark, New Jersey counterpart and discovered that the car belonged to a 53-year-old man, Lowy’s father. A search was initiated to see who might be driving it.
     The article I wrote for Vermont’s alternative weekly, The Vanguard Press, published on April 4, 1980, charged the bureau with misusing the US Census. The evidence was a document that said the following: “A (deleted) to (deleted) the (deleted) of a spot check for the 1970 census resulted in a (deleted) with the (deleted) from whom the following was obtained.”
     Not much to go on. But in a letter to Lowy the Bureau explained that the deleted portions referred to other people whose privacy rights were being protected and the investigative techniques that had been used. Once they had Lowy’s name, they zeroed in on him through the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles and continued investigating for another six months. Despite the lack of any evidence of involvement with “extremists,” they kept at it because of an alleged association with the Fresh Ground Coffee House, “a known contact point for extremist(sic) and associated with the Red Mountain Green Commune.”
     When I contacted the FBI, an agent in Washington, DC office issued the standard denial: “The FBI does not utilize census information. Period.” Once I read portions of the memo, however, he decided to get back to me. In a follow up call, the new line was that he wasn’t “at liberty to discuss documents that the FBI has.”
     He didn’t repeat the denial. We had apparently struck a nerve.

     The story created a national sensation. Vermont’s congressional delegation said the repercussions could be serious and promised to investigate. Within days, Lowy was being interviewed on the CBS Evening News. A week after the initial story, the FBI finally acknowledged that, although census information hadn’t been used, an agent had indeed posed as a census worker.\
     The technique, a bureau spokesman told The New York Times, was known as “pretext interviews,” in which agents assume false identities. But, he added, new FBI guidelines said that agents shouldn’t pose as representatives of other Federal agencies without the consent of that agency. That, of course, raised the question of what the Census Bureau knew. Unfortunately, the investigation never went that far.
     Instead, the FBI released a less deleted version of the memo. What it revealed was that a “pretext call” – the first deleted phrase – to the Lowy home had “resulted in a conversation with the maid…” In other words, the FBI agent had posed as a census worker to find out more about a 30-year-old health worker who had merely visited a “commune.” FBI Director William Webster quickly protested that the technique was legal – but all field offices had been told not to do it.
     Attorney General Ben Civiletti was a bit more candid. In a letter to US Senator Patrick Leahy, he said the FBI knew “it is wrong for an FBI agent to pose as a representative of the Bureau of the Census for any reason,” and had so informed its special agents. Webster subsequently put the revised policy on paper: the pretext of being a census employee shouldn’t be used, or even be requested.
     Nevertheless, the public never learned whether this was an isolated occurrence or a standard procedure. And that, unfortunately, raises a nagging question. Despite any assurances, how certain are we that Census information is never used by other parts of the government?
     Given the many high-tech ways that information can be gathered these days, a visit or “pretext” phone call by a fake Census worker sounds a bit labor intensive and therefore pretty unlikely. On the other hand, the Patriot Act does leave the basic issue unresolved. Section 215 of the law has made it much easier to gain access to records being held by a third party. Under the law, the FBI can force doctors, libraries, bookstores, universities, and Internet service providers to turn over information. All the Bureau needs to do is claim that the request is related to an ongoing terrorism or foreign intelligence investigation. Plus, if that happens the organization turning over the information can’t tell anyone. In other words, if Census information was being used, it would have to remain secret.
     To assuage fears, the Justice Department has reassured the Asian Pacific, Black, and Hispanic caucuses in Congress that Section 215 doesn’t override federal statutes guaranteeing the confidentiality of Census data. "If Congress intended to override these protections," wrote Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, "it would say so clearly and explicitly."
     In addition, amendments to FISA make it necessary to get approval from a top official at either the FBI or CIA when sensitive records are being sought. In short, protections have been increased. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get Census data using Section 215. As the US Supreme Court noted in St. Regis Paper v. United States, confidentiality requirements are only binding on specific covered individuals. In other words, census records themselves aren’t off limits, as long as the government can get them from a “non-covered” individual.
     Is Census information completely confidential? It’s hard to say. But given the general erosion of privacy rights and the fact that the “war on terror” remains a powerful pretext for all manner of mischief, it’s not a stretch to think that even Census records aren’t completely protected, especially if they can be gotten from a source other than the “designated” officials.
     There’s even a name for this – Plausible Deniability. That’s when someone at the top allows an action to be taken by a third party, often a person lower on the chain of command and also less accessible. If something goes wrong, the higher up can deny any knowledge of or connection to what happened.
     Not coincidentally, the term was coined by CIA Director Allen Dulles, and first came into public use during post Watergate investigations of intelligence agency abuses. You never know, with a timely pretext it could be back.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Fragile Freedom in the Big Apple

     In order to see the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan you must first remove your belt and anything metal, pass through airport-level security, and show your ticket at six separate check points. After making it past all this on a sunny afternoon I did not feel especially free by the time I entered the site.
     Still, the Memorial can provoke powerful emotions that tend to eclipse the oppressive experience of being processed, prodded and examined before acceptance. Standing in the wide court surrounding the two pools, built on the same spots where the Twin Towers stood, you cannot help sensing what is missing. Still water circulates below the names of victims, each die-cut into bronze, and then descends the thirty-foot waterfall into a void. 
     The guide touts it as the largest water cascade in North America.
     Personally, I was never a fan of the World Trade Center. Growing up in New York before the towers went up, I found them unwelcome ego-additions to the skyline that projected Rockefeller power. Returning decades later, however, the space finally feels like it belongs to everyone who visits.
    People stroll slowly around the large square pools, often stopping when they find a familiar name or group of first responders. School classes search for people on electronic directories. Others sit on stone benches to reflect. Eventually the site will include a museum, set to open this fall, office and retail space, and more than 400 newly planted trees.
     At the moment the surrounding area is a loud and crowded construction site as work proceeds on 1 World Trade Center and other commercial buildings. Large TV screens hawking products, plays and films have been mounted onto subway entrances to lure tourists visiting the memorial. It is also a security zone, watched from cameras and vigilantly patrolled by cops and Memorial staff.
     You get a sense that if someone spoke too loudly or uttered any “inappropriate” thought it would take only seconds before an armed team descended and removed them. It’s certainly possible that someone might want to attack such a monument. But doesn’t the same go for many other sites?     
     According to a message from Mayor Bloomberg, printed in the official guide, the 9/11 Memorial is supposed to act as both a reminder of loss and a symbol of hope for the future. As a reminder, it succeeds – in both intentional and unintended ways. But as a vision of the future this part of Manhattan currently suggests a more tightly regulated society, one where you are free to mourn -- after submitting to strict authority in order to qualify -- but probably not to question, criticize or protest.
     Like Bloomberg, Memorial and Museum President Joe Daniels calls it a reminder – of “what we have endured” and “our ability to come together in the wake of tragedy.” That is clearly true. But visiting also points to some of what has been lost or surrendered since the attacks more than a decade ago. Daniels adds that the recent official opening marked “a new chapter in the history of New York City and the United States.” 
     At this point it’s still hard to tell how the chapter will end.