Scheer and Hedges: They Know Everything About You (2/7)
Truthdig editor in chief Robert Scheer and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges discuss how data-collection began as a commercial enterprise that was eventually co-opted by the state.
CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Chris Hedges. And this is part two of my interview with the author Robert Scheer, who wrote They Know Everything about You, his brilliant study of the security and surveillance apparatus and how we got there.
In this book, Bob, you begin, at least from my reading of it, by positing that the security and surveillance apparatus really began as a commercial enterprise, primarily, and that government then came in, then saw what was going on, saw its usefulness in terms of the data collecting, and came in later. Would that be–?
PROF. ROBERT SCHEER, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Yeah. At first it was really a boondoggle of the Defense Department. You know, we’re going to have–if we have a nuclear war–first of all, if we have nuclear war, there is no life, so there’s nothing to do. But the idiots that were talking about mutual assured destruction in the Defense Department and how do you fight a nuclear war and said, well, the first thing that’s going to go is the communications system–you know, electromagnetic impulse and all the other things that happen when you set off these bombs. So we won’t even be able to talk. We won’t be able to tell our plane, you can’t make the rubble, radioactive rubble dance unless you move over to this position; there’s still some surviving person in the Ukraine or something you’ve got to take out. And so they had this idea, how do we have redundancy in communication. And the whole idea of the internet is a system that’s decentralized.
And that has turned out to be the wonderful thing about it. It can be added on, it can be factored in, it can meet the situation in different countries. And we know that. That’s the great thing.
And so, suddenly the Cold War was over, you really didn’t have much reason for it. And meanwhile, the internet was out there. And the reason it was out there was that the people who want to sell stuff came to understand that in fact it was the great marketplace.
And the reason was that before the internet, when you were a newspaper or broadcast television or what have you, you could only guess at the impact of your readership on sales. You know, I worked for the L.A. Times for 29 years, and my wife was even a vice president and in a much higher position, and they would tell people on auto row or in the movie business, take out these full-page ads and you’re going to have people go to the movies this weekend or they’re going to buy cars. And broadcast television, it was the same thing: we have all these eyeballs, and they’re going to watch this, and they’ll buy stuff.
But it was really an inexact science, indeed a fraudulent one, you know, your Nielsen ratings and your surveys and focus groups. They basically were lying to the advertisers about who you can deliver. You could–you know, newspaper–did they buy it for fish wrap? Did they buy it for the sports section? Did they buy it for the classified ads? And yet, you know, you were claiming millions. You worked at The New York Times, I worked at the L.A. times. But economic model was based on kind of a phony, certainly inexact science of who’s reading stuff.
HEDGES: Well, it was a scattershot [crosstalk]
SCHEER: Yeah. And what the internet did is suddenly you had information on who these people are. You know–you started to see, you could know their most intimate habits, their emails, their shopping habits, their networks, particularly when social networking and things like Facebook developed, who their friends are, and so forth. And they were willing, these people out there who’re doing Google searches or on Facebook, to surrender voluntarily an enormous amount of information that you never had before about their age and their marital status and their sex life and their dress size and whether they’re bald or have a lot of hair or are taking different medicines. I mean the most intimate knowledge of people, not just in the United States, but all over the world, and you have this incredible data.
And then you’re able to target your advertising to get these people. And not only could you get them in the sense that you could find out if they went to an ad, clicked onto that ad, but you could find what they did with it. Did they tell somebody about it? Did they ask for more information? And the killer app of all: did they buy something? And were they satisfied with it? And then you could retarget them.
And so this heat-seeking missile of targeted advertising turned out to be a source of incredible profit, not for the producers of art and books, you know, or news articles. It really–The New York Times is in deep trouble, even though it’s still a very important paper. Why? Because the advertisers don’t really need to go to The New York Times. Once they got the readers and they got them in other databases, they can mine that data.
HEDGES: Well, it broke that monopoly, ’cause newsprint had for almost a century a monopoly connecting sellers with buyers.
HEDGES: And that’s with the internet did. And that is why newsprint is withering away as quickly as it is. And classified, as you know, was 40 percent of most newsprint revenue.
HEDGES: And that immediately switched to the internet.
HEDGES: But there’s something else about the internet. It’s not just about surrendering information. You now have large corporations–not only does the government have profiles, but large corporations–it’s a huge, multibillion dollar business–have profiles on us. So if we go to apply for a job, you can pay one of these corporations, and you get an entire profile. They have everything on us, stuff that we couldn’t even imagine that they have. So it’s not just about connecting advertisers with consumers, but it is now, this data mining has become an independent business in itself.
SCHEER: Sure. And the reason people have done that–if a government, any government in the world, had asked for this kind of–required this kind of information, okay, how far did you read in that book, what movie did you go to, who did you have dinner with, you know, the information that is gathered up now by the so-called private sector, that would be considered the most totalitarian, invasive, coercive, threatening model. Right? I mean, this is something the Stasi in East Germany couldn’t presume. I mean, this was something Stalin never dreamed of. It’s something oHitler, Goebbels could not dream of, this kind of knowledge and following and the movement and the action and the thoughts. And then being able to manipulate it. You know, after all, in my book I describe Facebook’s experiment to give you cheerful news or depressing news. And we know, whether it’s Barack Obama or George W. Bush, they now do very effective political advertising. They can get this data and then they can target these people.
HEDGES: Well, the advertising is different depending on who you are.
HEDGES: Just the same–and I think you also mentioned about news stories. I mean, they kind of–they develop a profile of your habits, and then they feed those habits.
SCHEER: Right, and they can manipulate those habits, whether it’s taste or political direction or so forth.
So what happened was that in the private sector this became a source of enormous profits–not for the artists, though–we have to remember that–not for the news gatherers, not for the people doing the hard work, but for people who want to sell stuff. And they can grab this data, through Google searches or Facebook or so forth. So the people who are really making the money are not the people who are going to support journalism or the arts, right? Book publishing is in trouble. You know, Amazon may get the word out there, but they rip off the money. But the main money being made is being made by, without your really knowing it, exporting your data.
Now, again, if that were really a transparent activity and it remained in the private sector, you could see that as a matter of individual choice. If you really want to give Facebook all of this information and allow it to be marketed [incompr.] so forth, okay, that’s your stupid decision. But maybe you have the right to make that stupid decision. When you don’t know what’s happening with the data, then you’re not an informed consumer.
HEDGES: But it even goes beyond that, because if you go down to the pharmacy and run your credit card through, they immediately know what medicine you bought, and that goes to your profile. That’s not giving it up. I mean, we have gone far beyond the voluntary–it is far more sophisticated than that and far more intrusive.
SCHEER: Yes. And that’s why it’s important to have laws that protect our right to our data, to know what’s happening to our data.
But what changed in this picture and has alarmed people–and it bears repetition–is the connection between the private sector and the government. And as a result, thanks to Edward Snowden–and there were other whistleblowers, William Binney and Thomas Drake and others, but Edward Snowden occupies a the unique place, in my mind, of respect and decency and courage, that he let us on to the fact that we have what our founders, the framers of our Constitution, feared. Okay? Our protection in the Bill of Rights does not really do much to protect us in the private sector. It is aimed at protecting us against government overreach, totalitarian government, because if the government allows you no zone of privacy, then you have this thing that humans have feared throughout their history.
HEDGES: Well, we have no zone of privacy. I mean, we have no zone of privacy.
SCHEER: Right. And the reason we have no privacy is: if the government had demanded this information, we would know it’s a totalitarian government. What happened here, this intellectual sleight of hand, is that increasingly the government was grabbing this data from the private sector. And the private sector was complicit. If you look at–in my book, for instance, I trace Google’s connection with the Pentagon and the top people at Google being on the top Pentagon [crosstalk]
HEDGES: Right. And then, when they’re exposed, they’re all saying it.
SCHEER: Yes. And so what changed was not suddenly the private sector was stricken by conscience: hey, we’re party to betraying the Fourth Amendment, we’re party to enslaving the American people, we’re party to destroying the most precious–. I begin my book by saying, when it comes–you know, privacy is the ballgame for freedom, ’cause if you don’t have a zone where you can collect your thoughts, where you can talk to friends, where you can organize, where you can think the different idea–.
Just take something Tea Party people Rand Paul, Ron Paul have thought about: should the Federal Reserve be abolished? Okay? And they’re–you’re having a discussion in your living room. But if your cell phone has been turned into a listening device, whether it’s on or off, because the government has grabbed the SIM card and given you a phony one and hardwired it, okay, and is recording this whole conversation, and you’re talking to your neighbors, and you say, why do we have a Federal Reserve? Oh, the Federal Reserve, as the Tea Party, many believe, and as Ron Paul and Rand Paul and other libertarians believe, oh, the Federal Reserve really just serves the banks and rips us off and steals our money and prints money to make our things worthless and so forth; we should abolish the Federal Reserve; it’s an agency of totalitarianism. Okay. And you’re having that conversation. That conversation is being recorded by the NSA, by the CIA, which we know, you know, FBI, and they’ve got this data. And they say, oh, in this really dangerous meeting that took place in this home in Texas, these people were plotting the end of the Federal Reserve. Now, in that profile they don’t say, they’re plotting the end of the Federal Reserve by voting for a Congressman who would abolish it. No. You can then add other information. Oh, I read this book by Ayn Rand or I read this book or that book–these people are plotting to blow up the Federal Reserve.
HEDGES: Well, what happens–I mean, and all of the great writers of totalitarianism have written on mass surveillance, Hannah Arendt being one in The Origins of Totalitarianism. And she says that when you collect data on every single citizen, it’s no longer about crime or justice; it is about having material so that when you criminalize a certain category of people–and Stalin was kind of the master of this–you can instantly arrest them, because there’s always something, and they can exactly do what you’ve done, where they take that rather innocent discussion and twist it to serve the ends of the state. That’s the danger of mass surveillance.
One of the things in your book is that you–I think you chronicle brilliantly, as I’ve said, the apparatus and how it works, and yet I would argue with you that we already live in a corporate totalitarianism that has extinguished any idea of democracy. Now this security and surveillance is so pervasive–and it was, of course, as you said, exposed by Snowden–but it’s not implemented, because they don’t need it. It is used very effectively against those who carry out dissent. We saw it in the Occupy movement. So, for instance, because everyone in Occupy communicated electronically, afterwards they knew who the engines of Occupy were, and they have gone back and used that data to slap them with felony convictions, usually for client crimes they didn’t commit, put them on probation for five years, so that if they do any kind of activism, they have to serve the sentence and they’re locked up, effectively neutralized. So they’ve–and I’ve watched in New York, and I was close enough to the Occupy movement to tell you they went after the right people.
We live in a period where we don’t have hyperinflation, you know, we’re not convulsed by catastrophic effects of climate change yet. But the moment that that comes, the mechanism is in place so that it’s just the flick of a switch, isn’t it? I mean, at this point, is there really any going back?
SCHEER: Well, there is going back, for a number of reasons. One is that what we do, our government does, can be done by any government. We’re setting a standard for the world. And, in fact, if–one of the great things about having somebody like William Binney, who worked in the NSA for 36 years–he’s the guy, for people who don’t know, where they broke into his house. His wife had worked for the NSA for 26 years. So this is–and he had been–before he was in the NSA, he was in the military for four years during the Vietnam War era. He was in the Army. And then he goes into the NSA for 36 years. So he’s a good Boy Scout and he believed in all this, right, till 9/11.
SCHEER: He designed the system.
HEDGES: He designed the system and so forth. But he designed the system called ThinThread, which at least preserved privacy, respected to the Fourth Amendment, so forth. That system was taken over after 9/11 and distorted into something that became this vast spying network.
His wife had worked for the NSA for 26 years. I only bring that up because when the FBI, 12 FBI agents blasted into his home, and pointing guns, first at his son and then at his wife, and then he’s in the shower, you know, and there they are pointing guns right at his face, right, without any basis whatsoever–he’s never been charged with anything, okay, never been charged with anything. Terrorized. You know. Why? Because he told–he didn’t even do what Snowden–anything like Snowden. He went to a congressional committee and said, they’re wasting money, they’re not doing due diligence. We have–you know, they’re spending billions [crosstalk]
HEDGES: And they’re creating a system to spy on everyone.
SCHEER: And they’re–yeah. And he was a genuine, basically a conservative person who believed in limited government, that government is not supposed to spy. But he has been a translator for us of what these slides that Snowden revealed tell us. He’s one of the important translators. I’m speaking out of some knowledge, ’cause he just was at the University of Southern California, where I teach, for four days telling graduate students and everything how it works. And it was an incredible eye-opener, even after I’ve written this book, ’cause he said, look, here’s one of these sideshows, the degree of cooperation. So these are where we have these partnership agreements with Saudi Arabia. Okay?
HEDGES: With Israel.
SCHEER: With Israel, with Egypt, you know, all of these countries. Okay. But let’s take Saudi Arabia for example. That means if there’s some Saudi dissident who’s criticizing the Saudi Arabian government and he’s living in Detroit or she’s living in Cleveland, that our government is cooperating with the Saudi government to give them information on these dissidents living here. We had the Arab Spring. We had people in Egypt protesting for freedom. We’ve now forgiven the military junta that came back in power, we now give aid, or we’re cooperating with them on intelligence. So any Egyptian anywhere in the world, whether they’re in exile or at home, and they’re writing critically about the military dictatorship of Egypt, our government collecting all this data is cooperating with the secret police here.
HEDGES: And we know that they are collecting data on American citizens–
SCHEER: Oh, yeah.
HEDGES: –who are not dual nationals and giving it to countries like Israel.
SCHEER: Yes. But let me just say–.
HEDGES: Let me just–we’re going to go on, Bob, so I’m just going to stop here.
This is the end of part two. This is Chris Hedges for The Real News. I’ve been speaking with Robert Scheer on his book about the security and surveillance state called They Know Everything About You.
Thank you very much, Bob.
And please join us for part three.
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