Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Frontline: “The United States of Secrets,” part 2 (WGBH/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up watching a TV program, an episode of the long-running PBS documentary series Frontline called “The United States of Secrets,” actually the second part of a two-part program under that title. The first part had aired last week, it had been two hours long and I had recorded it (fortunately on the same blank DVD on which I recorded the new one!); this one was a follow-up called “Privacy Lost” and it covered Edward Snowden and his leaks, as well as one of the knottier and least discussed aspects of the whole issue: the role of Internet companies in general and Google and AT&T in particular facilitating and enabling the government’s spying on everybody. The show features Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman and also manages to include the point of view of the NSA and other people with the national security establishment (though for some reason the entries for it on PBS’s Web site include below-the-line credits but not a list of on-camera interviewees, and has posted a partial list for the interviewees in part one but not part two), and the portrait is basically a chilling one of the government and private industry in collusion. It was Google co-founder Sergey Brin who said as early as 1995, “Privacy is over — get used to it,” and their business model (copied by other Internet companies in general and Facebook in particular) has been to monetize their sites by collecting as much information as possible on all their users and sell that to advertisers. This means that these companies are collecting, 24/7, immense amounts of data on their users — and according to the U.S. Supreme Court, once you have “voluntarily” given your data to a phone company, a Web site or an ISP, you no longer own that data and therefore you no longer have a privacy interest in protecting it. (This was decided in a 1979 case called Smith v. Maryland which has since been applied to uphold the constitutionality of the NSA’s universal surveillance program of all Americans even though in 1979 neither cell phones nor e-mail existed.)

When Charles and I watched the movie J. Edgar I noted that J. Edgar Hoover had dreamed of one day having an FBI file on every single American that would include in-depth information on his or her political beliefs and affiliations as well as personal financial data and other indicia that might predict criminal behavior, and though the movie presented this as an impossibility, it struck me that Hoover had simply been ahead of his time. The Internet and its ability to collect data, automatically and unobtrusively, 24/7 on everyone who uses it has made Hoover’s dream — impossible in his lifetime — not only technologically possible but also real. This Frontline documentary also explodes the carefully constructed myth that the NSA was only collecting “metadata” — i.e., information about who was making phone calls, who was receiving them and where both parties were when they took place — and not inspecting the content of the calls. They are inspecting the content of the calls, and the precedent was set by Google, which introduced G-mail in 2004 with the intent of making money off scanning people’s (presumably) private communications so they could profile them and sell those profiles to advertisers for targeted marketing campaign. And under the “freedom of contract” doctrine of Smith v. Maryland — the legal doctrine that no one has to work for, or do business with, a giant corporation, and in particular no one has to have phone service (or e-mail, or Internet), and once you make the totally voluntary decision to have a phone (or a computer, or a cell phone, or a tablet — and any mobile device automatically puts you under surveillance every minute of every day, even if you have turned it off), the data you have provided the company so it can give you that service becomes the company’s property and is therefore fair game for government requests. That is the world we are living in, one in which government and corporate power have come together to record our innermost thoughts and most private communications continually and store them in huge data banks — and all this is happening simply because it can: because modern-day governments (including ones in nominally republican countries like the U.S.) can keep watch on us all the time and thereby fulfill the dreams of J. Edgar Hoover and the people who ran the KGB and Stasi to discover all political dissent and nip it in the bud.