About homeless people who use the library….
Some people from Radical Reference have put together a zine with anti-surveillance resources for the discerning library worker-slash-activist. (Full title: We Are All Suspects: A Guide for People Navigating the Expanded Powers of Surveillance in the 21st Century.) As I wrote on that site, the zine includes “know your rights” info; suggestions for applications, browser plug-ins, and other tech tools for online privacy; and, of course, a reading list!
Download it from the Rad Ref page, where there’s also contact information if you want to get involved in similar privacy education projects.
Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani are artists, archivists, and activists. Both have been involved in immigration rights activism, especially after 9/11, and they created the shifting exhibition Index of the Disappeared, now in its 10th year, to address the insidious surveillance, false narratives, and criminalization of dissent perpetrated by the U.S. government.
I saw the “Secrets Told” version of the archive at New York University last month. During a tour of the exhibit, Ghani spoke about her and Ganesh’s idea of “exploding the archive” and putting the fragments elsewhere. The information they’ve collected is all in the public domain, but what their project does is make the connections of disparate data more visible.
(If you want to read more, a previous incarnation of Ganesh and Ghani’s work was the subject of the essay Warming up Records: Archives, Memory, Power and Index of the Disappeared. As Alice Royer puts it, “Their project makes visible that which has been rendered invisible, re-politicizes that which has been deemed natural, and names the government as the perpetrator.” [Emphasis in original.])
The Q&A at the “Secrets Told” tour brought up the question of the line between the activist and the archivist, which is something Ganesh and Ghani want us all to grapple with. Today is the start of the two-day Radical Archives conference at NYU. The hashtag is #radarcs—follow along!
NSA Data Center — Bluffdale, Utah
In a recent post to this blog, I outlined how the debate regarding the National Security Administration’s data gathering activities pitted privacy against national security and sought to “balance” the two competing values. I suggested that framing the debate in these terms misses the more important concern that the NSA’s data gathering activities are a significant threat to democracy. In what follows, I will explain my concerns.
Although most reporters suggested that Edward Snowden was primarily concerned about the invasion of privacy when he revealed the NSA’s data gathering activities, Snowden himself made it clear that his primary concern was for democracy itself. In an interview about the reasons for his actions, Snowden worried that through his work for the NSA, he was “extend[ing] the capabilities of … [an] architecture of oppression” and that the government unilaterally was “grant[ing] itself powers to create greater control over American society and global society.” Snowden was calling on us to see the dangers of the NSA’s surveillance programs more broadly. These programs do not simply pose harms to individuals, they have the potential to transform the character of all political life in the country.
But what is this “architecture of oppression” that Snowden mentions, and how will it “create greater control over American society?” The answers lie in understanding the significance of collecting and accessing Big Data which is really the core of the NSA surveillance activities.
Far from merely poking into the privacy of individuals, Big Data potentially provides its owners with the ability to modify the behavior of individuals and entire demographic groups. The most obvious example of this is the data collected by internet companies like facebook and Google. By collecting information about a person via their voluntarily constructed on line profile or through recording their search behavior, facebook, Google, and other such companies are able to craft advertising messages that are increasingly able to direct our behavior on and off line. To be sure, the algorithms used to customize advertising and search results are not perfect, but one need not succeed in every instance to increase the odds that members of a market segment will be persuaded to make a purchase or view a website. Such is Big Data’s role in commerce – a role that is not especially worrying.
We should be concerned more, however, with the political use of Big Data. In the past, political strategists employed data collected by Boards of Elections. One’s voter registration record usually contained one’s name, address, date of birth, political party affiliation (if any), and the elections in which one voted. From this, campaigns tried to identify likely and unlikely voters as well as sympathetic and unsympathetic voters. Door-to-door campaigns could then be run more effectively. Furthermore, the campaign message could be tailored to specific groups to maximize voter turnout in favor of the candidate and suppress turnout for the opposing candidates.
Now, with the availability of Big Data, a campaign can understand the voting population much better. This data often is available freely on government websites, e.g., the US Census Bureau and the Federal Election Commission. These sites can inform a campaign about the socio-economic status of a precinct, the breakdown of renters versus home owners, an individual voter’s history of campaign contributions, and much more. Conceivably, other Big Data repositories could be made available from the private sector. Knowing which voters purchased SUVs, have health insurance, shop at discount stores, take advantage of “back to school” sales, subscribe to specific magazines, purchased home security systems, or visit certain websites can help identify individuals with specific interests that then could be exploited by the campaign. The candidate who has the most extensive access to these data sources and can hire the data analysts capable of mining the data will have an enormous advantage over candidates who do not.
This style of campaigning is not merely a prospect for the future. During the 2012 presidential campaign, the Obama reelection committee employed Big Data (or at very least a lot of data and very sophisticated data analysis) to contact voters with messages that brought them to the polls in numbers far greater than anyone expected. According to Jonathan Alter the analyses were sophisticated enough to tell the campaign “why placing ads on reruns of The Andy Griffith Show made sense on some cable systems but not on others.” Furthermore, data was collected to test campaign messages and to measure the persuasiveness of particular door-to-door volunteers. The data analysis used by the Obama campaign, however, mostly focused on creating a nation-wide database that linked likely voters, volunteers, and donors in order to make donors of volunteers and volunteers of donors. So in this sense, it was not as sophisticated as it could have been. Still, it was really only the first concerted attempt to run a Big Data campaign. It often has been credited for winning the election, and so it likely will become the model for future political campaigns that will make greater and greater use of data analysis. (For an illuminating account of the Obama campaign’s use of data in 2012, see Jonathan Alter’s recent book The Center Holds.)
But where is the danger to democracy in this? After all, it is still the voters who are deciding the outcomes. Well, the danger arises long before the voters have anything to say about the election.
As campaign data analysis becomes more sophisticated, voters will only be presented with candidates who have access to the largest data sets about the voting population and who have the resources to analyze these sets. All others will be screened out of the electoral process long before any serious campaigning begins. For a campaign to be successful, it will need to have supporters who own important data sets and can provide the technical expertise to exploit them. Such friends cannot come from the working or underprivileged classes. Obama’s digital campaign had a budget of over $25 million dollars and costs for future campaigns surely will be higher. Consequently, the only entities capable of amassing the financial and digital resources will be extremely rich individuals, major corporations, internet companies, and broad industry groups. The ability to affect an election will not be based on the democratic principle of one person – one vote. It will be proportional to the donor’s wealth. Even more so than today, these groups will have effective veto power over who will be a “viable” candidate for state and federal office. If the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United advanced the cause of plutocracy, then the private ownership of Big Data and its use in elections will ensure that plutocrats will be unchallenged in perpetuity.
George Orwell’s 1984 warned that video surveillance might ensure that a political party would one day establish unassailable control over a society. He wrote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. There is no way the Party can be overthrown. The rule of the Party is forever. Make that the starting point of your thoughts.” Today’s surveillance technology is not just Orwell’s simple video cameras. It is also the ubiquitous data and metadata harvesting by public and private entities. The NSA is merely one institution that is amassing this data, though it is doing so on an unimaginable scale and with an enormous budget. It currently is constructing a data center in Bluffdale, Utah, containing four 25,000-square-foot halls, filled with servers that will be able to handle yottabytes of information. (A yottabyte is equally to approximately 500 quintillion or 500 x 1018 pages of text.) Meanwhile, the NSA has only the slightest democratic oversight and ominously, it is working in support of a bloated National Security State that defends a plutocratic government. One might be tempted to call it an “architecture of oppression.”
I suspect (hope) that Orwell’s image of the future as a boot stamping on a human face is too extreme, at least for US domestic politics. More likely, if you want a picture of the future, it will not be much different from the present, but it will be less corrigible. We will see a wide disparity of wealth with a large, struggling underclass that is alienated from the benefits of economic progress. These condidtions will be guaranteed by governments that first of all serve the owners and managers of society. The pretense of democracy will survive only in the carefully manipulated elections contested by competing elements within the ruling class, and one of their most important tools for social control will be Big Data.
The recent revelations that the National Security Administration has been collecting metadata for the phone calls of American citizens and that they have been acquiring data from Google, Yahoo!, facebook, and other internet companies comes as no big surprise to many. Sen. Frank Church’s investigation in the 1970s into government surveillance revealed a long history of surveillance. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, its subsequent amendments, and the PATRIOT Act left enough clues to create a disturbing picture of what the government might be doing. Furthermore, there have been plenty of past news reports providing evidence of surveillance; but with the revelations from Edward Snowden, any room for willful ignorance is now over. The surveillance programs are out in the open and have sparked a media debate. Even Congress took up the issue.
According to news reports, the debate is about “balancing” national security against privacy. Numerous news sources and blogs have published (verbatim) the sentence, “The revelations have reopened the post-Sept. 11 debate about individual privacy concerns versus heightened measures to protect against terrorist attacks.” Obama put the question this way: “How are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy?” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi put it most succinctly, “We have to have a balance between security and privacy.” Even critics of the surveillance policies have adopted this framework. American Library Association President Barbara Stripling writes, “We need to restore the balance between individual rights and terrorism prevention.”
The problem with framing of the debate in this way is that it tends to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the harms. Worse yet, the most important harms are overlooked entirely. Our attention is directed to benefits that accrue to the whole of society (national security) and to harms posed only to individuals (the invasion of privacy). We are led to think that the NSA surveillance programs protect us from terrorism, while the only down side is that certain individual’s rights to privacy might be underweighted in the “balance.” Framing the debate this way seems to ask: should the government be prevented from setting up an anti-terrorist database on the grounds that some security analyst might – as a side effect – discover that someone is secretly visiting internet porn sites or dialing 1-900-SEX-CHAT? Framed in this way, personal privacy amounts to a dispensable luxury, particularly when Obama assures us that the surveillance programs pose only “modest encroachments on privacy,” and that “nobody is listening to your phone calls” – they’re just collecting metadata.
Of course, embarrassing publicity can have important political consequences, particularly as it might be used against politicians, but the public is likely to conclude that a sexting politician is too stupid to deserve much sympathy. Beyond damaging particular high-profile political careers, there are more serious concerns. FBI agents might be led to discover who is organizing climate change rallies or Tea Party meetings and then obstruct these movements by causing trouble for perfectly law-abiding citizens. But even in these cases, the public is likely to conclude that targeting peaceful political groups will be limited by the FISA court and that covert interference with fringe political movements will be a criminal aberration made rare by the integrity of intelligence agents and the threat of prosecution. So much for privacy concerns.
In contrast to this, we are asked to consider national security, specifically, “terrorism.” The Director of the National Security Administration, Gen. Keith Alexander, tells us that the controversial surveillance programs “help[ed] prevent” fifty-four “potential terrorist events” – whatever that means. The terrorism threat, however, has been enlarged well out of proportion. The number of Americans killed or harmed by terrorists pales in comparison with the number harmed by the most routine dangers we face every day. Moreover, the harms that might come from “terrorist events” are largely speculative and vague enough that a scenario can be concocted that is so grim as to put any civil libertarian on the defensive. Think of Condoleezza Rice’s remark, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Even our ostensibly liberal president assures us that these programs “help us prevent terrorist attacks.” It is no wonder that many Americans are unconcerned about (even welcome) these surveillance programs.
What is seldom mentioned is that these massive surveillance programs do not just pose a threat to individual privacy. They pose a profound threat to democracy. When the threat to democracy is mentioned, it tends to be a rhetorical addendum. For example, Barbara Stripling writes, “the surveillance law erodes our basic First Amendment rights, all while undermining the very fabric of our democracy.” Stripling deserves great praise for her remarks on this issue, but we are left to figure out for ourselves how the fabric of democracy is undermined. I will explore this danger in a future post to this blog.
On February 28, 2013, Bradley Manning read a 35-page statement at a courthouse in Fort Meade, in which he detailed how and why he released certain information to the public. The redacted transcript reveals several intellectual freedom issues that have been central to some recent discussions at American Library Association meetings. Among these issues are recurring concerns about the national security vs. the public’s right to know debate and the over-classification of government information, both of which reinforce government secrecy.
When Manning discussed the release of diplomatic cables, he stated “the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other. I thought these cables were a prime example of a need for more open diplomacy.” Even the Obama Administration agrees that a more open government would be beneficial and joined the Open Government Partnership with several other countries devoted to making governments more transparent and accountable. In theUnited States’ Open Government Partnership action plan whistleblower protection and declassification of government records are listed as working goals, among many others. In addition, the action plan supports “accountability, which can improve performance” and refers to the famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Yet, Bradley Manning’s court case, along with several other instances of whistleblower persecution, point toward an opposite reality. In fact, the Obama Administration is taking the unprecedented path of charging Manning with “aiding the enemy”, a crime punishable by death and a charge for which Manning has pleaded not guilty.
In Yochai Benkler’s post in New Republic titled “The Dangerous Logic of the Bradley Manning Case,” he explains that “If Bradley Manning is convicted of aiding the enemy, the introduction of a capital offense into the mix would dramatically elevate the threat to whistleblowers. The consequences for the ability of the press to perform its critical watchdog function in the national security arena will be dire. “Perhaps Manning’s leaks of diplomatic cables along with other information on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been too much “sunlight”, or rather, not the kind of sunlight the Open Government program envisioned. This is where we see a great clash between the Public’s right to know and concerns for national security.
Unfortunately, invoking “national security” has often been used to limit intellectual freedom, including press freedom as outlined under the First Amendment, resulting in fleeting protections for whistleblowers who reveal injustices and abuses within organizations. A prime example is the decision by The New York Times not to publish a story in 2003 on the sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program by the C.I.A. after government officials informed the paper it would endanger “national security.” In addition, President Obama’s 2012 directive titled “Protecting Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information” does not extend protection to whistleblowers that disclose information outside of institutional channels for example, to the press or the public. Benkler asserts that “freedom of the press is anchored in our constitution because it reflects our fundamental belief that no institution can be its own watchdog,” for even though internal accountability systems are in place, secrecy “can be-and often is-used to cover up failure, avarice, or actions that simply will not survive that best of disinfectants, sunlight.” To ensure effective accountability that eliminates injustices and corruption within our government, we need better transparency and a media devoted to its critical watchdog role.
The International Federation of Library Associations, of which the American Library Association is a member, published the “IFLA Manifesto on Transparency, Good Governance and Freedom from Corruption” which offers some inspiration for librarians who are concerned with issues of national security, press freedom and the over classification of government information. It states that: “Corruption succeeds most under conditions of secrecy and general ignorance” and that since libraries in essence contribute to “good governance by enlarging the knowledge of citizens and enriching their discussion and debates” they should extend their work to be active in the “struggle against corruption.”
Moreover, several of the core values of our profession, as expressed by the American Library Association directly relate to the importance of whistleblowers. First, the core value in support of democracy: “A democracy presupposes an informed citizenry.” Likewise, the value of social responsibility, which includes “ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem.” Without a doubt, government transparency is a critical problem in our society, and has been a continuous balancing act since the inception of our constitutional republic. As Sunshine Week comes to a close, we are reminded to reflect on these issues and the progress we have yet to make.
As of now, the Obama Administration has denied FOIA requests more than any time in the Administration’s history due to national security and internal deliberations. The Espionage Act, enacted in 1917, has resurfaced in the persecution of whistleblowers who inform the public of government crime. National Security Letters continue to be used as a way to infringe on individual privacies, although a federal judge just recently ruled the letters unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment. This varied landscape of political control over information should be explored by information professionals in order to be better informed of the various perspectives and events that have brought it about. As librarians, professionals dedicated to equitable access to information, we should be acutely aware of and decidedly outspoken about the current threat to the vital role that whistleblowers play in times of heightened government secrecy, that of alerting us to troubling, unethical, immoral, and/or criminal acts in our name.
Just in time for Banned Books Week, here is a bit of news that I hope comes to your attention if you are concerned with civil liberties and the freedom to read.
A couple of young people in Portland, fresh faced college students who like to say that they’re anarchists, have been arrested as part of an investigation of vandalism of a courthouse in Seattle. It doesn’t seem that they were involved, but the FBI regards anarchists not as a tribe of harmless bohemian-ish young intellectuals with a vague, semi-coherent political philosophy and taste for history, but as “criminals seeking an ideology to justify their actions” who are “not dedicated to a particular issue” (according to the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Guide). The FBI’s search warrant that ordered the raid on their house specified that they were looking for “anarchist literature”…. which seems to imply that books containing anarchist political philosophy are considered illegal by the FBI.
In my opinion, this is a matter that deserves our attention during Banned Books Week. Not to minimize the importance of protecting the rights of teens to read novels that have mature themes that some members of their communities believe they are not ready to be exposed to yet (or the importance of questions about what teens are in fact ready to be reading), but this seems to be a case of political repression based in part on what books these young idealists may own. Raising further red flags about civil liberties questions is the fact that their subpoenas have been to appear before secret grand juries where the proceedings can’t be monitored by the press.
I read about this issue at Sound and Noise.
Two links to share about what may be a growing trend – travel restrictions as a way to stifle political speech.
A column in Salon by Glen Greenwald a few days ago talks about the Department of Homeland Security’s detention of filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras at the U.S. border. They detained her and took possession of her camera and laptop, downloading all of the files on both. Pretty scary. Funny how we have become numb to this kind of thing. Greenwald’s column also talks about other, similar instances.
An article in Haaretz today reports that several airlines have canceled the flights of about 60% of the activists who have been planning to fly in for a protest against the building of new settlements in Palestinian territory. The article begins:
Over 60 percent of the 1,500 pro-Palestinian activists due to arrive in Israel on Sunday to take part in a fly-in protest have received notifications from airlines that their flights have been canceled, the spokesman for the “Welcome to Palestine” protest told Haaretz on Saturday.
The recent assaults by the police on various Occupy movement encampments highlight the tenuousness of our right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. Certainly, there is good reason for municipal ordinances against permanently occupying public spaces. Under many circumstances, this would amount to appropriating public spaces for private use, but the Occupy encampments do not fit these circumstances. The Occupy encampments are of a kind with the recent and ongoing occupations of Tahrir Square in Cairo, the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and the occupation of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in 1980. All of them are or were peaceful efforts to confront a nation’s political power structure and to rally fellow citizens to oppose corruption, abuse, and undemocratic institutions. President Obama has condemned state violence against Egyptian protesters, but it is no surprise that he and his administration remain silent when the right to assemble for political expression is denied in U.S. cities. The impulse to silence dissent (or to allow dissidents to be silenced) is strong among those in power.
Apologists for police repression in the U.S. point out that the crackdowns in Egypt, China, and Poland were far more brutal and of a greater scale than what is happening in our cities; however, the violation of our first amendment rights is no less a violation simply because less violent tactics are employed against smaller demonstrations. The ostensible reason for destroying the encampments is to protect public health, but it would be quite easy to work with the protesters to address any issues related to sanitation and public health, while respecting the right to assemble and petition the government for redress.
Beyond the right of the people to peaceably assemble, the freedoms of speech and of the press are also under attack. This has been made evident by the reported arrests of and assaults on journalists and the restrictions placed on them by police at encampments. It also has been dramatized recently by the confiscation and destruction of the People’s Library during an attack on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. The People’s Library contained over 6,000 volumes. Its destruction by the police illustrates the disregard that the New York Police Department and Mayor Bloomberg have for political expression. City officials are more concerned with fostering a certain image of the city and protecting Wall Street than they are with our constitutional rights. They are using City ordinances to crush political dissent.
Some might attempt to excuse the destruction of the People’s Library on the grounds that much of the collection was not unique and that it might have appeared to the police to be an ad hoc, ephemeral assortment of books and not a “real” library. It might have been seen as one of many things to be cleared from the park. However, American Library Association President Molly Raphael correctly observed that “the very existence of the People’s Library demonstrates that libraries are an organic part of all communities. Libraries serve the needs of community members and preserve the record of community history. In the case of the People’s Library, this included irreplaceable records and material related to the occupation movement and the temporary community that it represented.” She went on to express support for the librarians and volunteers working to reestablish the People’s Library. Roughly discarding tents and sleeping bags is one thing, but destroying the media of public discourse is a direct assault on democracy.
It is clear that the real intent of these police actions is simply to suppress political dissent. This serves no good purpose. Indeed, allowing the protest to continue would be of great benefit to everyone – both those who are sympathetic to the protest and to those who are not. It would allow the public and politicians to understand the depth of support for the Occupy movement. Without police interference, the size and longevity of the protest would be proportional to the indignation felt by the protesters and the popularity of their cause. If the grievances are trivial, the protest would soon evaporate. If they are serious, the growth and staying power of the encampments would make this known to everyone. Destroying the encampments merely obscures the issue, while it makes a mockery of our most prized civil liberties. It has, however, demonstrated the narrow boundaries of acceptable political dissent in the U.S. We owe great thanks to the occupiers for the sacrifices they are making to push back those boundaries and enlarge our freedom.
Not exactly a library issue, but one which rests on the same ideals.
It seems urgent to me that we legalize making video recordings of on-duty police officers. (Only illegal in some states.)
Here is a scary if unsurprising bit of news: a report in PC world on a recent study by Christopher Soghoian: “US Police Increasingly Peeping at E-mail, Instant Messages.” Soghoian’s paper is linked in the article, which begins:
Law enforcement organizations are making tens of thousands of requests for private electronic information from companies such as Sprint, Facebook and AOL, but few detailed statistics are available, according to a privacy researcher.
Police and other agencies have “enthusiastically embraced” asking for e-mail, instant messages and mobile-phone location data, but there’s no U.S. federal law that requires the reporting of requests for stored communications data, wrote Christopher Soghoian, a doctoral candidate at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, in a newly published paper.
“Unfortunately, there are no reporting requirements for the modern surveillance methods that make up the majority of law enforcement requests to service providers and telephone companies,” Soghoian wrote. “As such, this surveillance largely occurs off the books, with no way for Congress or the general public to know the true scale of such activities.”
The introduction to Adam Klein’s A Space for Hate: The White Power Movement’s Adaptation Into Cyberspace is now online.
I thought the FBI had been shamed out of spying on pacifists long ago, but check this out. Incredible. Greenpeace, Thomas Merton Center, Catholic Worker, and other anti-war activists got put on terrorist watch lists and were the subject of 200 page reports. It’s almost funny how much the reality matches liberals’ paranoid fears post 9/11. Watch out for the FBI! They seem to think they are in a spin-off of Mad Men.
Amy Goodman and David Goodman (of Democracy Now) have an article in the current Mother Jones magazine about the great Windsor, Connecticut librarians’ defiance of the FBI and the PATRIOT Act and ultimate court victory for all of us on constitutional grounds.
I’ve always been appalled by British libel law as long as I’ve known about it. Basically it puts a strong onus on defendants to prove that what they have said is true, rather than on the accuser to prove that it is false. The result is an excessive real-world limitation on freedom of speech for authors, journalists, and speakers. It has recently resulted in something known as “libel tourism,” where a powerful person or corporation that has been criticized in the press or in a book can take sue the author in British courts to take advantage of their favorable laws.
Now the United Nations has taken a position. They say that British libel law violates human rights. The UK Guardian has a report on the UN’s statement from their Thursday issue.