Scheer & Hedges: They Know Everything About You (1/7)
TRNN Top Stories of 2015: Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges interviews Truthdig’s editor in chief Robert Scheer about his latest book “They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy”.
CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to The Real News.
I’m speaking with Robert Scheer, one of the premier journalists, certainly one of the journalists I admire most in the United States, the editor of Truthdig. And I write a column for Truthdig for Bob. And we’re talking about his new book, They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy, which is a brilliant explication of the security and surveillance apparatus and the fusion of government and corporate power into every aspect of our lives.
And let’s begin a little bit about how this started, how it began.
PROF. ROBERT SCHEER, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Well, I think the surveillance state has been with us in one form or another. You just go watch the movie Selma and look at what was done to Martin Luther King.
And I remember those days well. I was editing Ramparts magazine. We exposed the CIA. In turn, they went after us. We were audited, we were followed, our office was broken into. And we published King.
And I remember the way King began to be seen not as a convenient icon, but rather as a radical thinker, and it was particularly when he opened his support to SNCC, the younger radicals in the civil rights movement, and then when he came out against the Vietnam War, when he gave that speech–actually, he did it before, but the most prominent was his speech at Riverside Church where he condemned the U.S. government.
HEDGES: And he did because of photos you ran in Ramparts magazine.
SCHEER: Yeah, but he was going to do it anyway. He was–and–no. And he gave the reasons in his speech. It wasn’t just those photos. It was, as he said in the speech, how can I go into the ghetto and tell young blacks to shun violence and to embrace nonviolence, and yet they’re drafted to go fight in Vietnam, where, in his words, the U.S. government is the major “purveyor of violence in the world today”? So, to have Martin Luther King reduced to a statue or a holiday as an inoffensive, benign figure is absurd.
And what I tell my students when they say, oh, what does it matter if we give all this information, they’re going to–well, it does matter. Martin Luther King, if you had today’s surveillance apparatus, Martin Luther King would have been destroyed,–
SCHEER: –because in those days you had to have somebody in the hotel room next to him listening or physically tapping into the phone, following him.
And I worked in totalitarian countries. I was in the old Soviet Union, I was in Egypt after the Six-Day War, and other countries. And you knew when you were being followed or you could assume you would know when you were being followed, and you acted accordingly.
But with today’s technology, you have the ability to know what book did Martin Luther King read, up to what page, and then who did he associate with. And then you can doctor it, you can make up a new profile, you can mix and match the data.
I think of someone like Eliot Spitzer. Eliot Spitzer was probably the most–from my point of view, the most promising progressive politician the Democratic Party had. As attorney general and governor of New York, he went after the banks, he was consistent. And what did they find? They find him in with prostitutes in some situation. How? Because they have all the records, all of your financial transactions, every movement you made. And they want to destroy this guy who–you know, if you look at a movie like a Wolf of Wall Street, evidently they all do cocaine and they all have prostitutes. So what Eliot Spitzer is accused of doing is rather minor. But on the other hand, it finished them, absolutely finished him.
And so the things that changed–I wrote an article–where the book began is I wrote an article in the late ’90s for Yahoo! Internet Life. I did a whole issue on privacy and the loss of privacy. And I was driven to do that because of the argument around the Financial Services Modernization Act, otherwise known as the act that reversed Glass-Steagall, that destroyed the main regulatory mechanism of the New Deal that separated commercial and investment banks from insurance companies and so forth.
And in a debate–not much of a debate, but those who opposed this devilish thing that Clinton had come up with, Phil Gramm, a Republican-Democratic cooperative–that was what my last book was about–they were going to allow insurance companies with medical records and your most intimate medical–to merge with commercial banks that are going to see whether you should have a loan and with investment banks that knew about the rest of your activity, and all of this data was going to be merged. And a few sensible souls who understood something about the thirst for privacy in this country that goes back not just to the Fourth Amendment, but actually goes back all the way to the Magna Carta and English common law after that, people, a few of them, raised this question: what happens to privacy when you’re merging all this data at a time when you have supercomputers, when you can store this data, when you can sort through it, and so forth, you know, and when people are surrendering more and more data? That was–so I did, I got interested in that.
And at that time–and they emerged as kind of prescient, somewhat heroic figures, somebody like Bill Safire, who I never thought I would write a book indicating any admiration for, Bill Safire, who was Nixon’s speechwriter, chief speechwriter, who then became a columnist for The New York Times, but he certainly sounded the alarm–and, interestingly enough, sounded the alarm about too-big-to-fail as well. When I went back and looked at his columns, it was privacy, but also, why do we want these banks to be so big? So there was a little bit of the genuine libertarian free-market idea. But he sounded the alarm on privacy, and he actually opposed not just that, but the total awareness state and all that stuff that was emerging. Ed Markey, who’s now a senator from Massachusetts, was a younger Congressman. He also raised this argument. And they said Bill Clinton should veto that bill, for a number of reasons, but certainly on privacy. The banks, which had put in $300 million to get that legislation, said no, you end our ability to merge this data, we don’t care about merging; it’s the data we want, so we can more effectively market.
And what I came to realize then: that this internet–and I’m not a Luddite. I have an internet publication. I did–my first year in graduate school, I worked on an IBM computer that was in a warehouse, had less power than my smart phone does now. I studied engineering originally in college. I like technology. I’m an early adopter for every gadget. And I do applaud the internet as a great educational tool. We used to talk about having to learn Esperanto or some artificial language to talk internationally. Now with the internet we have instant translation. At Truthdig we put up a Hedges article, and somebody in Shanghai can see it at night. Someone in Shanghai has just read it. Someone in Dublin has just read it. It’s been translated automatically and so forth. So I applaud the internet as a great way-I used to be as a teacher–I teach at the USC, the University of Southern California. If I get a kid interested in something, in the old days they’d have to go to a major library in a major city to read something about what was Watergate or what was this. Now they get online and in a couple of hours they know more than their parents do about Watergate or any other subject, you know, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, or any other such thing. So I love the internet.
But the enemy of the internet is something called targeted advertising, and it’s the ability to sell stuff with an efficiency of a heatseeking missile, because people surrender their personal information for convenience. And we increasingly have come to define that the act of freedom as consumer sovereignty, not individual sovereignty, which was the basic notion of the American Constitution–we have the power as individuals, at least white males, yes (imperfect document, as Howard Zinn and others have pointed out [incompr.] But at the heart of the Constitution was an incredible notion that power should begin with the individual, and that the individual then surrenders power to the common good, to state or federal government, but it is power that can be withdrawn, can be checked, checks and balances, division of power.
And the odd thing is, that notion of limited government was put into the Constitution, and they accepted the Bill of Rights, by people who were going to be the government. And, basically, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Washington all said, watch us. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. You need the–it wasn’t–when they put in the freedom of the press, they knew the press was scurrilous and mean and nasty, they knew speech could be mean and nasty. You know, Washington’s a crook, a philanderer, or whatever. You know, terrible things were said about all these folks. And they knew when you assembled for a redress of grievances, you might be wrong or you might be exaggerated in your claim of grievances. There were at least one-third of the people who opposed the American Revolution who were living here and thought these people were scoundrels. So they were going to be the government, and they empowered the citizenry to check that government, to challenge it fundamentally.
After 9/11–and this was after I wrote that article for–or did the whole cover issue for Yahoo! Internet Life–this event, which in the–you know, the threats facing nations was really not existential. You know, we have the strongest military in the world. That’s not going to be overthrown. But somehow–and compared to the founders, who, after all, the English could come back, did come back, and they would be hanging from some tree. Nonetheless, after 9/11 this became the excuse for ramping up the surveillance state–unprecedented proportion. And, I think, that, combined with the fact that you have the ability to sift through information and that the public volunteers all this information, presented a toxic mix which has threatened whatever hope we had for democracy at this point.
HEDGES: Although, of course, at this point they have a lot of information we don’t volunteer. It is true that we volunteer, but they have our medical records, they have arrest, you know, legal records. They have everything.
SCHEER: Yes, exactly, yes, exactly the point of the book, and for two reasons. One, if this material was being volunteered and, in the process, was transparent–and this was the issue in the objection of Safire and Markey and others to Glass-Steagall–they said, if you’re going to have to people volunteer this information, this data you’re going to be mining and merging, okay, it has to be totally transparent. And then, when they know what you’re doing, before you merge this data, you should have to be required, this company, whether it’s Apple or Google or Facebook or anyone else, Chase Manhattan Bank, Travelers insurance, they should have to go back to the individual, because the individual should own that data, and it should have the opt-in principle. That sounds boring and archaic, opt-in. It’s very clear.
And when people say, we can’t stop this, it’s rubbish. You can stop it. If Bill Clinton had said–this is what Safire and Markey–I should have made this point–this is what they said: put in opt-in. Before Travelers, when they merge with Citibank and become the biggest bank in the world that then had to be bailed out by taxpayers, before they can merge that data, they should have to go back to you and say, you gave your medical records to Travelers, and now Chase is going to have it, okay, or Citi is going to have it; we have to ask you: do you give permission? That’s called opt-in.
HEDGES: But in the book you describe, I think it’s with Google or Facebook, where they create a mechanism by which you can click a box saying that you’re not allowed to share this information–I mean, I have it technically correct. But they rewrite the rules so they can share it if they want to.
HEDGES: So, I mean, this is what we’ve seen throughout both the legislative and the judicial process, that when there is any kind of an outcry, they essentially once again game the system by having a kind of facade, dealing with it in terms of rhetorically but not substantially.
SCHEER: Right, and for the reasons a person that we both admire, Ralph Nader, makes clear, there is no real consumer protection.
SCHEER: So we have this false notion of consumer sovereignty. To have real consumer sovereignty, even if we assume that’s the only area where freedom should matter, which it shouldn’t–we should care about political freedom and social freedom and so forth, but a robust notion of consumer sovereignty should mean that you have transparency, you know what’s done with your data, you know how you’re being manipulated and whether you agree to it. And that was the idea.
And I don’t want to lose track of that, because when they say, oh, you can’t do anything about it or the cat’s out of the bag, nonsense. If right now our government were to say, no, you cannot mine data, you cannot mix it, you must go back to the consumer and have their permission, they’ve given some medical center their data, no, you can’t sell that data to a third party, you can’t use it for your affiliate, you have to go back and say, we’re going to use your medical record to give it to the banks to decide whether you’re a good risk on a loan, well, most people would say, no, I don’t want you to do that.
And what we have instead is this opt-out thing. If you should learn that your data [incompr.] maybe you could write a letter, maybe something would happen. So we don’t have transparency. We don’t really have an honest connection between the consumer and these companies. That’s true.
But what Edward Snowden did, and the reason he’s one of the most important individuals to emerge in modern American history, is that the courage of this 29-year-old at the time in turning over this massive amount of data made it irrefutable that this government has destroyed the notion of the free market. That’s what is being ignored by the people who call Snowden a traitor, I think. Snowden provided this incredibly invaluable educational service to say there is no private sector, that the private and the government are merged.
SCHEER: This is the military-industrial complex with a vengeance that Eisenhower warned about, but now it’s a military-intelligence complex.
And the internet was formed by DARPA, by the Defense Department. The original purpose of the internet was, in the event of a nuclear war, to have redundancy in communication: how do you communicate when the nuclear explosions are going off? So it can’t be a centralized system. The internet is built on a decentralized system to withstand an attack. Okay?
However, it was learned it’s a great means of communication. It had a robust life. It’s expanded.
But the main reason it’s expanded is because it’s a great source of profit, not for those who produce content, whether it’s The New York Times or Truthdig. We’re all hurting. You know, anyone who produces plays a writes poems or music, we’re all hurting, all of us out there. But it’s a great source of profit for the aggregators. Why? Google, you know, Facebook, so forth. Because they get this data, they get your private data, and they can do the targeted advertising. So you’re reading an article about shoes, and suddenly there are ads for shoes. And then, oh, that’s a customer we want. We can find out where they go, where they live, how they shop, how much money they have, and you have this heatseeking missile of targeted advertising.
Okay. That was acceptable to most of the world’s consumers as long as they thought it was totally in the private sector. Yeah, it’s nice to know what restaurant is near me and it’s good to know what shoes are being sold. That even seems like a bargain. But when you mix that, all that data, and you say, as Edward Snowden revealed, that that’s all available to the government, whether Google wants it or not–we could argue about the degree of complicity, but there’s no question after Snowden that there are no barriers to the government grabbing that data. They go under the ocean and cut into fiber optic cable and scoop it all up. They set up dummy cell stations and listening posts all over the world. They go through the backdoor channel, Google. They implement, so we now know, SIM cards that are in everything, every phone, everything, that we have had billions of SIM cards phonied up, and so they’re in people’s phone. And so even when the phone is off, it becomes a mechanism for spying on you in your bedroom, in your most intimate meetings. If you want to talk to people about maybe joining Occupy or joining the Tea Party, they can spy on your meeting. So what we’ve had is actually a subversion of this very exciting technology which could bring people together and communicate and turns it into a spying mechanism.
And the irony right now is that because it threatens–when Snowden revealed this, the intimate relationship between these big internet companies and the government, which I discuss in the book, you know, right up to the highest level, once Snowden revealed it, it became untenable in the eyes of many people in the world–less so in this country, ’cause we have a really distorted view of government: as opposed to the concerns of the founders that we should regard government with suspicion, we’ve now been propagandized to think of government as benign and only protecting us against terrorists and so forth. But most of the world will not see it that way. They see an American company that claims to be a multinational, claims to be above national–that’s what a multinational is–you know, they’re rising to a higher purpose, at least a higher purpose of selling us stuff all over the world, so they have to be loyal to consumers all over the world. Well, if they’re just a puppet of the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, why should anyone in Germany trust those little Google trucks to ride around all your neighborhood, taking pictures of your houses, so that those pictures can show up back in–all over the United States? Well, what does the FBI do with those pictures? Or they’re photographing your biometrics, or you buy an iPhone 6 and you’ve–give the thumbprint. You know, hundreds of times a day, every time you buy a book, every time you go to movie, every time you have a meal, and then your thumbprint is compared to other people’s thumbprints, and you have people–you know, they have the most inclusive evidence of every moment of your life, everything you’re doing, and correlating it now with supercomputers and vast data storage–the haystack is infinite, okay. And as people like William Binney and Thomas Drake and others have pointed out, it’s woefully inefficient as far as stopping terrorism or so forth.
HEDGES: That’s not why it’s designed.
SCHEER: Yeah, it’s not why it’s designed.
HEDGES: We’re going to come back with part two with this interview with Robert Scheer, the author of They Know Every Thing About You. So please join me for part two with Robert Scheer.
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