Heidi Boghosian. Photo by Nina Subin
Heidi Boghosian. Photo by Nina Subin

In the last few months, Americans’ expectations about government interference in their lives has been turned completely upside down. Edward Snowden’s leaks have shown that the National Security Agency has paid millions to Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft, as well as telephone companies, for data about its customers. The government has information on hundreds of millions of its law-abiding citizens.

Heidi Boghosian’s new book, Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance, which details the myriad ways governments and corporations are spying on us — and not necessarily to the benefit of the nation — couldn’t be more timely.

Boghosian, the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, details the increase in surveillance of ordinary citizens and the dangers she believes it poses to our privacy and to democracy. Boghosian will be talking about Spying on Democracy at Berkeley Arts and Letters on Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m. Investigative journalist Robert Scheer will interview her. In advance of the discussion, Berkeleyside caught up with Boghosian:

9/11 happened more than a decade ago. Osama Bin Laden was killed a few years ago, significantly reducing Al Qaeda’s reach. The U.S. is withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, indicating the crisis has lessened. Yet you write that the government is still accelerating its surveillance of its citizens. Why is this happening?

Boghosian: Surveillance is highly profitable business, and control of information is attractive to those in power. By sustaining a number of perpetual “wars,” from the war on drugs to the war on terror, business lobbyists and government justify the need for more increasingly sophisticated monitoring systems. The infrastructure — both physical and attitudinal — for accelerated surveillance was erected well before 9/11. The U.S. Army has monitored the political activities of Americans since World War I. Aided by early computers during the Johnson administration, Army officials collected data and coded it to reflect a number of arbitrary categories about a person’s beliefs. As AT&T grew to become the largest repository of mass records, detailed dossiers of individuals were also amassed and stored by corporations. At the same time, military spending was in decline after the Cold War, so many businesses began developing surveillance equipment to sell to the government and boost profits. Going forward, it should be easy to justify surveillance with each ensuing national security crisis.

In your book Spying on Democracy, you write about the various ways the government and corporations collect information on American citizens. In his forward, Lewis Lapham calls this “hydra-headed.” You write about how since 9/11 there has been unprecedented coordination and exchange of some of this information between the government and the corporate world. What can they discover when they share information that they cannot do on their own?

Boghosian: The government can piece together disparate bits of information collected by corporate data aggregators to create personal profiles of Americans. Virtually any kind of sensitive information about an individual is readily available from data brokers, from religious practices, ethnic and racial information, interactions with other individuals, health issues, financial holdings, to reading habits. It’s difficult to know the scope of this information (although we know that Acxiom holds information on approximately 500 million consumers around the globe) as the field of data mining and reselling has been largely unregulated. But glimpses into different ways the government partners with businesses, and the reach of the data it accesses, emerge often by accident. The covert Project Hemisphere, for example, pays AT&T employees to work with the Drug Enforcement Agency in accessing stored telephone records dating back 26 years.

With the ubiquity of Facebook, people post photos of their families, children, parties, and outings. Do you think people are aware of how Facebook uses this information? Should people be concerned? How does giving away this information chip away at our democracy?

spying on democracy images

Boghosian: Few users of Facebook and other social media sites read the user policies or understand what they mean if they do read them. The government seems reluctant to improve policymaking that protects users, and may even benefit from improved and sophisticated social media marketing devices (the next presidential candidate may be marketed to voters based on what we put on Facebook). People should be concerned about the loss of control over personal information for several reasons. First, technology has both beneficial and detrimental uses. Despite the conveniences of affordable and personal telecommunications devices, the accumulation and storage of personal data risks being misused. Individuals who criticize corporate policies, for example, may be targeted, stigmatized and even labeled as criminally suspect merely for their political views. Second, vast quantities of stored data contain high levels of inaccuracy with no way for us to know what is in our electronic files and no way to correct them.

The recent revelations of NSA spying shows that the government has the ability to monitor everyone’s phone calls and computer communication. You write that routinely collecting such a vast amount of data may actually make the United States less secure as a nation. Why?

Boghosian: Routine and widespread data collection undermines U.S. credibility abroad. We’re already seeing how it impairs relations with allied nations. Also, there is a tendency for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to focus on domestic dissenters at times of heightened concern about national security. As a result, excessive resources are often devoted to individuals or groups holding particular ideologies, such as animal rights and environmental activists. That detracts from pursuing other investigative leads.

Another concern is that knowing that every communication is being monitored has the effect of making individuals conform to the status quo and watch what they say. President Obama’s “Insider Threat” program calls on government employees to monitor colleagues and report those who seem at risk of leaking information. Such subjective monitoring by peers stifles creative thought, especially where we most need it, since it may deter staff from sharing innovative ideas or from thinking expansively about ways to solve security challenges. Finally, the more we rely on private surveillance and information retrieval systems the more room there is for error. The transmission of erroneous records and false information—or having that information fall into hostile hands—can have devastating consequences for national security.

Why hasn’t there been more outrage about the revelations?

Boghosian: It takes a lot of courage these days to speak out publicly and to resist the enormous power of corporate America. Technology has crept into our lives so slowly that many are not aware of how reliant we have become on it and how complacent many are about trading personal information for expediency. If you walk down the street, it’s virtually impossible to find a public pay phone. Who waits in line any more to take money out from the bank? Having the latest gadget is not only a status symbol for many, it’s a practical reality that to keep abreast of the information overload we need to equip ourselves with heavily-advertised electronic merchandise. It’s quite difficult to escape pervasive advertising and the lure of ever-changing high tech contraptions. The role that corporations play in daily society has grown along with the technology creep. Hopefully, the more people think about and digest the negative impact of surveillance on a democratic society, the more will be emboldened to take action.

What can people do to maintain their privacy and push back against the uptick in data collection and surveillance?

Boghosian: The most important step is to become aware of the extent to which corporations build in mechanisms to get you to hand over personal information. Once you start seeing how quickly ads pop up for similar products after your order something online, or when you read questionnaires that ask you personal questions, you begin to realize that you have choices. While it’s difficult to extract ourselves from the technological connective tissue, we can all be smarter about guarding personal data. Don’t give out your social security number. Don’t give out your address, email address or fill out forms asking for the number of members of your household.

Let your elected officials know that you need them to step up and enact legislation calling for more transparency in government, and for more regulation of corporations that collect and share our data. Support any of the many organizations doing work to curtail the hold that an overreaching government and multinational corporations have on our democracy. The executive branch tends to exert too much power in times of uncertainty; we need the people to remind the legislative and judicial branches that they must hold the executive in check.

Boghosian will appear at Berkeley Arts & Letters on Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St. in Berkeley. She will also give a talk at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Oct. 1. Her book, Spying on Democracy, was published by City Lights Books.

Last summer, Boghosian shared a “data diary,” with the New York Times, recording all the moments in a day in which she was recorded.

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...