For American communities of color, the latest revelations about U.S. government surveillance, at home and abroad, has been met without much surprise and with a long memory of the injustice suffered by minority groups since our nation’s inception.
“We are a settler-colonial nation,” explained Fahd Ahmed. “Race and social control are central to the project.” As the legal and policy director for Desis Rising Up and Moving, an organization dedicated to organizing and amplifying the voice of immigrant workers, Ahmed has seen first-hand how the government isolates and targets vulnerable populations. In particular, he noted the targeting of Muslims by the NYPD under the supposition of anti-terrorism efforts, but was careful to emphasize the broader scope of the present danger. “These practices won’t be limited to one community,” he said. “After all, surveillance has a purpose – to exert the power of the state and control the potential for dissent.”
Other panelists reached similar conclusions. Surveillance is “not anything new” for people of color, observed Adwoa Masozi, a communications specialist and media activist. Recalling the COINTELPRO programs of the 1960s and 1970s, she named the major difference between then and now: “The government is just more open about it.”
Alfredo Lopez, the founder of May First/People Link, called the recent news an indication that “the ruling class is figuring out how to rule a society that is rapidly changing beneath it.”
Seema Sadanandan of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Capital Area Affiliate called the last few months a “tough time for white people,” whose relatively unchallenged faith in the Bill of Rights has been profoundly shaken.
Still, the next steps were harder to assess. For example, what role do lawyers and the law have in movements against this kind of surveillance? And how should activists interact, if at all, with the Internet and popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter?
Edward Snowden’s revelations about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s (FISC) secret rulings have heightened scrutiny on the court and the work it does. The court, which meets in the same building as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is unique among federal courts in that its judges are not appointed by the president and then confirmed by the Senate. Instead, the court is made up exclusively of sitting judges who are appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States for seven-year terms with no legislative or executive oversight. Professor Theodore Ruger at the University of Pennsylvania said that the way the court is set up, the Chief has unchecked authority to appoint people to the court who share his views.
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece published in The Lawyer, a London based legal paper. My column, which questioned whether Edward Snowden is a whistleblower, drew passionate comment from those, like myself, who are counsel for individuals who are called whistleblowers because they have questioned corporate and government misconduct including lies. The discourse has caused me to continue to ponder the issue.
The question of whether an individual is indeed entitled to be called a whistleblower is not just a matter of academic discourse. Whistleblowers are generally entitled to protection from retaliation and, under laws like the U.S. False Claims Act and the Dodd-Frank Amendments; they may even be entitled to a bounty. Setting aside the legal issue, those who properly question immoral processes, laws, or conditions, are in some circles considered heroes. And so this is also about who we place on a pedestal as beacons of ethics, integrity, and plain guts.
For me there are two components to the analysis of who is a "whistleblower”: (1) the reason for questioning a practice or law, an effort which may involve the disclosure of private or confidential information, and (2) the method for doing so.
Merely making public private information - no matter how interesting the information may be - is not by itself a colorable act of whistle blowing unless there is some greater moral or societal purpose to be addressed. Then, of course, there is the question of the process employed to "blow the whistle."
As former National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA employee Edward Snowden continues to try to evade the US authorities, the spectacle has been the talk of Washington DC. While Snowden is characterised as a whistleblower, the affair raises questions about the US government’s surveillance efforts. Deeper questions exist as to the role of private contractors in implementing governmental functions.
At its heart the Snowden matter questions the role that contractors, including his employer, Booz Allen, play in the implementation of programmes most believe are run by government employees. Who would have thought that the US government would entrust a private contractor to conduct security clearance protocol? Learning about the number of employees working for private contractors demonstrates the extent to which such functions have been delegated to the private sector. That an individual with a sordid education and work history could secure high-level security clearance and access information maintained by the US government can only be explained by the negligence of a private contractor.
Tea party conservatives love to complain about big government and their solution is to contract out the work. At best, their argument is that the private sector is more efficient. The truth is that when the private sector contracts with the government the result is akin to the looting during one of New York’s famous blackouts. The government simply lacks the ability to monitor its contract workforce.
The irony is that if there was a whistle to blow, it should been blown on the process that allowed Snowden to be hired. It is apparently a process that allows unrestrained youth access to both potentially classified data and information about citizens’ private lives.
Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, in a piece for The Daily Best, wrote "Trust us' does not compute," in discussion about government national security surveillance programs. After a contentious, technical discussion at the ACS national convention of both the NSA's PRISM program and the cellular metadata orders, a panel of privacy law scholars were forced to concede that "trust us" is today's status quo when it comes to programmatic government surveillance.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. When the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was first passed in 1978, the law was designed to "put the rule of law back into things," explained Professor Peter Swire, co-chair of the Tracking Protection Working Group at the W3C and the first Chief Counselor for Privacy at OMB. The emergence of the Internet, however, changed everything. Intelligence agencies were faced with a legal framework that could not account for situations where "games like World of Warcraft [could be] a global terrorist communication network," he said.
But even as communications technology has been made to serve bad actors, it has also ushered in a Golden Age of surveillance. Modern technology today can easily determine an individual's geolocation, learn about an individual's closest associates, and connect it all together via vast databases. Within the federal government, without strong champions for civil liberties, the availability of these technologies encouraged government bureaucracy to take advantage of them to the full extent possible. Absent outside pressure from either the Congress or the public, "stasis sets in," Swire said.
Yet while service providers collect vast amounts of data about individuals, a combination of business practicalities and Fair Information Practice Principles which stress retention limits and data minimization mean that businesses simply do not keep all of their data for very long. As a result, the government has used Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to collect and store as much information as possible in the "digital equivalent of the warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones," said Professor Nathan Sales, who largely defended the government's efforts at intelligence gathering.