Heidi Boghosian’s Spying on Democracy is the answer to the question, ‘if you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you care if someone’s watching you?’ It’s chock full of stories about how innocent people’s lives were turned upside-down by public and private sector surveillance programs. But more importantly, it shows how this unrestrained spying is inevitably used to suppress the most essential tools of democracy: the press, political activists, civil rights advocates and conscientious insiders who blow the whistle on corporate malfeasance and government abuse.
Government spying is a hot topic in the wake of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing disclosures, which are more startling with each new revelation (the latest from the Washington Post here), but Heidi makes clear the NSA isn’t the only culprit. The FBI partners with the NSA on its domestic programs, but also has its own long and recent history of spying on protest groups, political opponents, whistleblowers and reporters. And the Department of Homeland Security and State and Local police do their own spying.
These are issues the National Lawyers Guild, where Heidi serves as director, covers on a regular basis (as does the ACLU). Spying on Democracy covers the history of government spying and provides contemporary accounts of how police powers, aided by new technology, are once again being used to suppress First Amendment activity.
But Heidi’s book fills out a less discussed aspect of the surveillance state: corporations that increasingly spy on us (and our children) during the normal course of business in an increasingly wired world. Much of this data collection is just a product of how business is transacted in an electronic environment, but once collected the data becomes a valuable commodity. Indeed, spying has become a business model in itself, in a variety of ways:
-for data aggregators whose sole purpose is to collect and sell data, whether to other businesses for marketing purposes or to the government;
-for government contractors who work on behalf of federal, state and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the lucrative business of surveillance outsourcing; and finally,
-for private investigative agencies who spy for hire on behalf of private entities, such as major corporations who want to get the edge over competitors, labor, and citizens’ groups that protest their products or activities.
Rather than regulating these private spying outfits, the government leverages them, just as corporations leverage the government’s police power by portraying protests against their business practices as threats to security. The best example documented in Heidi’s book is the way private companies pressured the FBI into declaring environmental activists the number one domestic terror threat (despite the fact they’ve killed no one), and successfully lobbied Congress into passing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.
Heidi’s book will be a handy resource to people who have just recently become concerned about domestic spying in the wake of Snowden’s revelations, and for policy makers trying to understand the scope of the problem to begin charting a path for reform.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]