Robert Scheer says Americans are giving away their freedoms one click at a time
By Carl Kozlowski
Americans reacted in shock and horror when former National Security Agency analyst turned whistleblower Edward Snowden told the world in 2013 that the NSA had been data-mining nearly every conversation and electronic correspondence in this country and much of the globe.
While Snowden headed into self-imposed exile in Russia, journalist Robert Scheer was hard at work on a book tracing the decades-long erosion of the expectation of privacy in America.
He discusses “They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy,” published in February, on Saturday at the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice.
Scheer worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times for 17 years and continued as a columnist there for another 12 until the paper let him go in 2005, a controversial move that he felt was an attempt to silence his relentless criticism of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.
These days, Scheer runs the left-leaning online news magazine Truthdig and his columns continue to be syndicated nationally. He can also be heard on the syndicated political analysis radio program “Left, Right, & Center,” produced at KCRW 89.9-FM in Santa Monica.
In an interview about his book, Scheer said that his interest in privacy and the Fourth Amendment, which limits the government’s search and seizure powers by requiring warrants and probable cause, began no later than the Clinton administration.
“I worked at the LA Times for a long time, and I was there in the 1990s while Clinton was doing his financial deregulations in cahoots with Republicans,” recalled Scheer. “One of the issues that came up was that it allowed the banks and investment houses to merge, and in the process they were merging everybody’s data. I was in Washington covering this terrible legislation.”
What drew Scheer’s attention in particular was the fact that both Democrat Edward Markey — then a congressman, currently a Massachusetts senator — and prominent conservative William Safire both raised questions about that legislation’s privacy protections. They appealed to President Clinton to veto the bill if it did not provide enough protections to individuals from having their data shared with and used by third parties.
But, in the end, “Clinton listened to the banks and caved in as he did in so many ways,” said Scheer, who describes that legislation as a Pandora’s Box of corporate information sharing — and information taking.
“I investigated privacy issues for the first time and traced the history of the Fourth Amendment back to its relationship to the Magna Carta and the essence of British law,” Scheer said. “That’s an important connection, because as [U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John] Roberts pointed out in 2014 in a unanimous Supreme Court decision, the American Revolution was started over the right to be secure of your information from searches by the king.
“The Roberts Court issued a very strong summation of Fourth Amendment — the right of the people to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. He said technology doesn’t trump the Fourth Amendment, but in fact calls for a more vigorous practice of it.”
Scheer noted with exasperation some of the myriad ways that American citizens have forgotten their Fourth Amendment rights. The real issue, he said, isn’t just keeping the government from spying in our homes using high technology — it’s that the average citizen does not realize they have more information on their smartphones than they have ever had in their homes and, even more importantly, that police cannot automatically search smartphones for data.
“Yet the NSA and Google and all these other parties have violated this,” said Scheer. “Without that protection, the First Amendment doesn’t do a whole lot to protect you. This is an assault on human rights in time. My book goes into the Pentagon-corporate connection. The CIA invested in hundreds of Silicon Valley companies, including the company which does data mining for all of our intelligence agencies and for the L.A. Police Department. Who are they accountable to?”
Scheer continues to see 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terrorism as the root catalyst for a contemporary War on Privacy.
“After 9/11, many said freedom was a luxury, not a necessity, and we couldn’t afford the expectation of privacy,” he said. “The American government is to be treated with suspicion, not the citizen. We want limited government and protection of citizens from the government, but we said we could no longer afford this because of terrorism. The people put the Fourth Amendment in the Constitution because they thought the king would come back, and they said freedom was not a luxury for good times but a necessity for the worst. That’s the principle we violated.”
Despite all the harrowing implications that this war on our privacy has created, Scheer does see glimmers of hope — not only Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but many private corporations pushing back against government data requests. While telecom companies are still serving the government’s every whim, he said, there are signs of “serious pushback” from the likes of Facebook and Apple.
“The good news is that these companies are pushing back, because being multinational corporations, they have to have confidence from consumers throughout the world that they are out to make money, but not as agents of the U.S. government,” said Scheer. “Much of the world doesn’t have the same innocent view of the U.S. government, and so there’re votes to rein in the NSA and people are speaking out.”
Robert Scheer speaks at 4 p.m. Saturday at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. $5 suggested donation. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org.