Image by Tak Toyoshima
In 2015, people are increasingly aware that the government is watching their backs. And their fronts, and their sides, and in many cases quietly perusing their computer metadata. Lucky for us, there are surveillance reformers who are dedicated to preserving certain constitutional amendments that mobs of protesters in camouflage rarely vocally defend, but that we all defend in some sense every time that we get vocal. Or wear camouflage.
In Greater Boston, researchers at Digital Fourth, “the Massachusetts campaign to protect digital data from warrantless government surveillance,” are on the front lines of perpetual state deception, often taking on the thankless task of deciphering reality through lies through and noise. Only a fool would get their news on these intensely granular issues from traditional news sources, which often fail to acknowledge the concerns of privacy advocates who warn outside of the Democrats versus Republicans narrative. So in the wake of so much hubbub over the final passage of the USA Freedom Act, now that certain dust has settled and there has been time to parse the votes, we contacted Digital Fourth President Alex Marthews—not only for his expert perspective, but for his group’s statistical tracking of Congressmembers on surveillance reform issues.
In the past few weeks, voices ranging from the New York Times to the group Demand Progress have blasted the Freedom Act as an insignificant change from, if not an even bigger insult to privacy than its much-maligned predecessor, the USA/Patriot Act. We asked Marthews if this latest measure, as derided by the GOP as it was praised by leading Dems, is as awful as it seems, and whether our entrusted Massachusetts delegates in Washington D.C. are watching after us, or just watching us from hidden cameras.
DB: What did this scorecard show you? What were you surprised about?
AM: [With] the 114th Congress … we were able to determine for everybody a good measure of where they stood [on surveillance reform]. One thing that surprised me was that there are people who vote very well on surveillance matters, and people who vote very poorly on surveillance matters, [and neither have] been very vocal or written about in the press [for those votes].
DB: What was covered as far as the USA Freedom Act? Do you believe that members of Congress got off the hook for their positions?
AM: When you’re talking about any political subject, if you’re talking about what people in general know, they don’t have a strong incentive to learn deeply about politics. I think it’s not hugely different for surveillance … If you asked people in the street what Congress was doing about the Patriot Act, most wouldn’t know …
There was quite a bit of coverage, but certainly earlier on a lot of it was oversimplified, particularly on TV news, as a fight between reformers as represented by Democrats and President [Barack] Obama and the people who want the USA Freedom Act, and opponents represented by Republicans who want the Patriot Act to continue to keep us all safe—and then you have and Rand Paul, who is the crazy guy. That was pretty much the level of the coverage, but the efforts Paul went to in delaying the [voting] process made it necessary for the media to go a little bit beyond their usual coverage of these issues. So you had people actually asking, ‘Is this really reform? Is something that the CIA and NSA come out in support of really a significant change?’
DB: What are some things that really stand out about the Massachusetts delegation?
AM: We see in two [newer members], [Congressman Seth] Moulton and [Congressman Joseph] Kennedy, that for Democrats they are pretty opposed to surveillance reform. For Moulton, this may relate to his military background, and for Kennedy, this may point to his having higher aspirations for office someday … [Congresswoman Katherine] Clarke has gone in a very different direction, and she has voted at more or less every turn she could to strengthen surveillance reform. That’s praiseworthy.
DB: How about Elizabeth Warren? How surprising is her low grade?
AM: I think it’s clear that this is not a core issue for Elizabeth Warren, or that she doesn’t perceive it as a core issue, and that she’s really focused on economic issues and financial reform, and she is not strongly motivated where it comes to the surveillance state. What you do have though is a strong tradition in Massachusetts of our long-term legislators like [Congressman Richard] Neal, and [Congressman Jim] McGovern, and [Congressman-turned-Senator Ed] Markey who are very passionate and are committed to reform and have been doing something about this for a long time. That’s great—the Massachusetts delegation on average is much stronger than the delegation for the average state [on these issues].
DB: What does any of this mean for constituents?
AM: When it comes to actions on the ground, we want to be looking at ways the state government can take steps to protect our privacy [in ways] the federal government is not necessarily yet willing to do. We can do things like [advocate for] warrants for the use of drones, make sure that local communities get a vote on the ways that drones are used, and make sure officials get a vote—we have a bill on that [in the Massachusetts legislature]. When it comes down to the local level, the issues have more to do with police accountability, and how they share and use information. We’ve been keeping an eye on how law enforcement resources are used to investigate peaceful groups, and there are a variety of measures that are in the state legislature that deal one way or another with that issue.
This is something that all people in Massachusetts can come together around. Dealing with the harassment [of surveillance] in local communities is deeply important to African-Americans, and it’s very important to people in the tech sector … We should also look very closely at the discussion around cyber security. There are lots of round tables and discussions, and it’s important for people to understand that the federal government is trying to get companies to share information on you. That’s not really security at all, and it needs to be called out.
SCORECARD: Marthews: The scorecard ‘incorporates all relevant votes on and sponsorships of legislation from the last Congress and this one.’
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.