Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | June 14, 2013

How Governments Could Have Used Metadata to Crush the Civil Rights Movement

Apropos Kieran Healy’s post regarding using metadata to identify Paul Revere as a key individual in patriot circles prior to Lexington and Concord (noted in my earlier post), Burt Likko at the League explains how, in an earlier era, governments could have used metadata to harass, intimidate, and chill the civil rights movement:

In 1958, the Supreme Court held that the state of Alabama could not compel disclosure of NAACP’s membership list, because to do so would intolerably chill the right of people to associate with one another to advocate for political change.

If Alabama’s Attorney General had access to metadata such as is already held by the Federal government, it wouldn’t have needed to have been given a copy of the list. It would have only needed to have known the names of a few suspected leaders within the group, leaders who could have been readily identified by their own public activities. From there, seeing who they contacted and who contacted those people, it wouldn’t have taken long to come up with a statistically reliable extrapolation of everyone important in the group.

See some similar thoughts from Chris Bertram here. Prof. Bertram is writing from the Left, of course, but his points have general applicability to anyone who is a critic of the status quo:

Foreign Secretary William Hague told us that “law-abiding citizens” have nothing to fear. Not only do I not wish to be the kind of person Hague thinks of as “law abiding”, more generally it is social movements that willfully break the law that are most likely to bring about change and to threaten established power and privilege. And it is just such movements, and their leaders, who are at risk from pervasive state surveillance of our communications.

The social democratic model of social change has it otherwise, of course. We line up obediently behind Miliband (or Obama, or Hollande) and, having persuaded enough of our fellow citizens to vote for a programme of progressive reform, our social-democrats then enact that very programme. That’s democracy. Except that it very rarely happens like that. What actually happens is that hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of ordinary men and women demonstrate, by their acts of lawbreaking, disobedience, even violence, that there are injustices up with which they will no longer put (I’m channelling James C. Scott here). Neither the US civil rights movement of the 1960s nor the Gezi Park protestors of today are willing just to wait for the next election and hope it all turns out right: rather they want to move the window of political possibility, to make some injustices impossible and to make some concessions inevitable. (And in our “post-democratic” age, the myriad lobbyists and corporate interests aren’t waiting either. Typically they are trying to box in all elected governments to programmes of neoliberal “structural reform”.)

So here’s the worry. Just as the FBI tried to discredit Martin Luther King, so government agencies, equipped with all the latest surveillance techniques, will attempt to damage lawbreakers in pursuit of social justice. There’s nothing new about this, just the tools to do so are far more powerful.

And Stephen Walt:

The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people — even on just a single issue — and you decide to go public with your concerns, there’s a possibility that someone who doesn’t like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you. It doesn’t have to be the attorney general either; it might just be some anonymous midlevel bureaucrat or overly zealous defense contractor. Or maybe it will be someone who wants to suck up to their superiors by taking down a critic or who wants to have their own 15 minutes of fame. It really doesn’t matter: Unless you’ve lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times.

My point is that once someone raises their head above the parapet and calls attention to themselves by challenging government policy, they can’t be sure that someone inside the government won’t take umbrage and try to see what sort of dirt they can find. Hoover did it, Nixon did it, and so did plenty of other political leaders. And that means that anyone who wants to challenge government policy has to worry that their private conduct — even if it has nothing to do with the issues at hand — might be fair game for their opponents. And the deck here is stacked in favor of the government, which has billions of dollars to spend collecting this information.


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