Who watches the watchers: Robert Scheer discusses corporate surveillance

Renowned author and journalist, Robert Scheer, was greeted on SMC's campus this week by a standing room only crowd eager to hear his presentation on his new book, “They Know Everything about You: How Data Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies are Destroying Democracy.” So large was the crowd of students, faculty and general public that the venue had to be moved to larger accommodations at the last minute. Scheer was a war correspondent during Vietnam, has interviewed U.S. presidents, was a Los Angeles Times national correspondent, is the founding editor of truthdig.com and contributes weekly to the “Left, Right, and Center” program at KCRW.

His latest book takes the reader from as far back as the Magna Carta, through the American Revolution, World War II, the 9/11 attacks and into the present in order to set the stage for his exposé on how our freedoms are being eroded away by a government that has become the very evil our founding fathers stood up against.

His main point centers on the idea that democracy is entirely dependent upon the sovereignty of the individual and that power is ceded to the government by these individuals. He says that when the founding fathers penned the Constitution, the country was still under constant threat of attack from Britain and other sovereign states. But post-9/11, our government has worked diligently to convince citizens to give up those freedoms in order to protect us from foreign invasion. He referred to “1984” by George Orwell often throughout the evening.

Setting the stage at the birth of our democracy, Scheer says that, although the word “freedom” does not appear in the Constitution, there is “the notion that sovereignty exists in the individual rather than in other forms of social organization.” He says, “The sovereignty of the individual is the essence of intelligence, of responsible governance, of fairness and everything else. This is at the core of our main document, the Constitution, as well as, the Bill of Rights.”

Scheer wants his readers to understand that, post-9/11, our nation is under no more threat to its national sovereignty than it was when Adams and his contemporaries carved out our guaranteed freedoms in the Constitution. They did this at great risk to their own lives should they have lost the war with England.

He says that our present government attempts to convince us that we are in perilous times and should give up our freedoms in order to protect ourselves from various threats to our nation.

Scheer reminds us that no terrorist has ever crossed the U.S. and Mexican border and that all of the 9/11 terrorists were in the country legally, yet our post-9/11 government would have us believe that the border poses some sort of relationship to terrorism in this country. He says that Hitler used similar concerns for safety and strong propaganda to seduce the German people into giving up their freedoms.

When Washington, Adams and the rest of the founding fathers penned the Constitution, Scheer says, “[They] did not treat freedom as a luxury in the best of times. They inserted that language in the worst of times... They did it because freedom makes you stronger not because freedom makes you weaker.”

This freedom was challenged when the Supreme Court reached a decision in the case of James Otis two years ago. According to Scheer, police got into Otis’ cell phone hoping to discover anything that could lead to more charges against him.

The Justices ruled unanimously that the police violated Otis’ Fourth Amendment right. Scheer says that this right goes all the way back to the Magna Carta and that, “Privacy does not appear in the Constitution but what does appear is an incredibly strong, clear sense of your individual sovereignty. Government starts with you.”

As well as being a pioneering journalist, Scheer was also an early pioneer in the emergence of computers. His experience goes back to 1959 when he did his first year of graduate work. He explains that he worked, “On a machine that had much less power than my iPhone and it took up a whole, huge warehouse.” His plug for the Apple watch on his wrist is evidence that he has stayed current with the evolution of computer technology.

Scheer says in our drunkenness with this technology, we are giving private companies, “A power that no dictator in the world ever had—to follow your every movement." He says through the terms and conditions of the apps and programs that we use, we willingly grant them more surveillance on our every move and that data mining is another form of surveillance which violates the constitution.

He quotes Google’s Eric Schmidt as saying, “If you have something to hide, don’t do it." Scheer says, “The whole point of our Constitution is that you should not face that choice... The whole point of ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’ is that, if you’re under the microscope of government, the essential condition of freedom will not exist.”

Speaking passionately about Edward Snowden, Scheer says, ”If you get anything out of this talk, and you may not agree with me now, but I assure you 20 or 30 years from now you will know that Edward Snowden was one of the great figures in American history.”

Comparing Snowden to Daniel Ellsberg he says that, “They were the truth tellers when others did not tell us the truth... There was supposed to have been a million people who had the kind of clearance that Snowden had," and they did nothing about what they were witnessing.

Scheer says that the level of collaboration today between private companies and government in surveillance is an unprecedented violation of the Constitution and is in opposition to our founding fathers' guarantee that any such violation of our individual sovereignty is illegal, even if we consent to it.

CultureAndrew StinsonComment