Although he affirmed his oath of office on the Bibles of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama might just as well have laid his hand on the corporate charter of Northrop Grumman. In outsourcing at least 70 percent of its intelligence operations, his administration has continued the shift from a co-dependent relationship with telecommunications companies and military contractors to a deferential one. Domestic spying accelerated after 9/11 as federal intelligence agencies used fear to justify widespread surveillance. Given that the Pentagon’s vast information network was developed by technology companies on which the National Security Agency depends to analyze data, the new terrorism rhetoric has paved the way for government abuse of authority. But it was facilitated by corporate power brokers.
The irreconcilability of public and private sector missions means our government’s mandate to serve an entire population has ceded to producing profits for an elite few. This shift is evident in the NSA’s covert Prism program, which began in 2007. It can also be seen in secret legal interpretations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act used to justify open-ended mass surveillance. The government more or less lacks lawful authority to sweep up personal data on Americans without indication of crime, so it skirts the law by paying industry giants to do it. The Fourth Amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures by government but not by corporations.
Thirty officials from Lockheed Martin, Sprint Nextel, Verizon, Microsoft and others serve on the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee and counsel the president on information and telecommunications policies. Fusion centers created by the Department of Homeland Security encourage collaboration between intelligence agencies and corporations in collecting, storing and acting on private information. In a 2012 report, the Senate questioned the relevance of fusion centers. A two-year investigation found they yielded intelligence of uneven, outdated and frequently substandard quality, at a cost of between $289 million and $1.4 billion since 2003. Fusion centers could possibly invent new domestic security threats to justify their existence. The danger is great that they will assist the government in waging campaigns of political repression more nefarious than the covert initiatives of Richard Nixon.
More than a decade after 9/11, the government’s method for securing fundamental freedoms has involved compromising and reducing them. There has been little public debate about the consequences of this. Ten years of war paid for on a credit card have not only threatened national security through debt and instability but also thinned the lifeblood of our democracy—civil liberties—through an increasing intrusion of the state. The threat to democracy isn’t just found in the reach of technology; it’s also in government’s collusion with corporations. The consolidation of power in tracking everybody makes us less secure in our freedoms. We are also less secure in practical ways. As we siphon dollars into Silicon Valley, talented federal intelligence personnel take jobs in the private sector. They may be lured by higher salaries, but they also leave because the Pentagon has placed a cap on its civilian workforce, which forces managers to hire contractors. When intelligence agencies are without talented IT program and contract managers, when outsourcing replaces fundamental government functions—and when contracts are awarded to those who don’t have our best interests at heart—our defense system is compromised.
Our nation is further weakened when we subsidize flawed projects. Project Trailblazer, overseen by Science Applications International Corporation, was launched in 2000 to analyze communications networks. As whistle-blowers asserted, an existing program called ThinThread could have performed the same functions in a manner that protected consumers’ privacy. True to its name, Trailblazer raged ahead, incurring hundreds of millions in cost overruns. It was canceled in 2006 after whistle-blowers complained to the Department of Defense about fraud, waste and unlawful domestic spying. There’s no shortage of mismanaged projects that show how billions of taxpayer dollars have been squandered. Problems plagued Project Groundbreaker, run by Computer Sciences Corporation to provide support to NSA’s information technology systems. The company estimated it would need to transfer 750 NSA employees to work for it or other corporations on its contracting team. In 2007 CSC was rewarded with a three-year extension.
The three branches of government showed their deference to corporations in 2008 when Congress passed and George W. Bush signed the FISA Amendments Act, which granted immunity to the telecommunications industry from lawsuits. Since then, courts have deferred to the act. Companies were protected from liability when they assisted the government in warrantless eavesdropping on Americans’ e-mail and phone activities. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted corporations might be unwilling to cooperate with the feds if they knew their customers might sue them. Courts have cited the law when dismissing lawsuits brought on behalf of customers against Sprint, Verizon, Cingular Wireless and AT&T. From 2000 to 2010, Department of Defense spending on contractors—much of which was supposed to be short term—more than doubled, to over $150 billion. Homeland Security’s counterterrorism grants to local governments have led to exaggerated and manufactured risk assessments. One such investment was Project Shield in Chicago, a surveillance network that failed after $45 million was spent. The DHS inspector general cited numerous glitches, including missing records, faulty equipment and inexperienced first responders.
Our leaders are in the dark about intelligence outsourcing. Regulation of corporate contractors is nonexistent; in 2010 President Obama threatened to veto legislation calling for congressional oversight of intelligence operations. That same year, the Government Accountability Office reported how information was inadequately safeguarded from contractors. When government provides no checks on executive orders, the business of domestic intelligence is further normalized.
Our culture of individual freedom is fast becoming a relic. In its place are credit, consumerism and national security—the rise of corporate-government domination over civic power. Allowing the surveillance infrastructure to grow unfettered permits a small group of individuals to influence how we exercise freedom.
Heidi Boghosian is author of Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance.
It’s not just the feds spying on you. Private data brokers collect and sell plenty of information.
Let’s assume you’re a 41-year-old man living in South Carolina. You smoke three packs of cigarettes a day and drink a couple of liters of vodka a week. You’re overweight and have a regimen of prescriptions given to you by your doctor. Data brokers know all this about you and sell the information to marketers. You—along with 500 million others in the case of Acxiom Corporation, one of the largest data brokers—are segmented into one of 70 “identity profiles” based on lifestyle and income. You have been pegged and profiled, and your personal details are for sale at an extremely low price.
Last December the Federal Trade Commission opened its first inquiry into private spying. “There is no global legislation governing this industry’s practices,” says Tiffany George, a privacy attorney for the FTC. “We’re trying to figure out what protections there should be for the accuracy of your information, what access, correction and opt-out rights consumers should have and what limitations should exist on its use.” The feds are asking questions that beg to be asked of an industry that, until now, has been left to regulate itself.
Do you deserve to be placed on a health insurance watch list if you search online for “heart pain” or purchase blood thinners? If an insurer or credit agency confuses you with someone with a similar name based on a data broker’s information, who’s to blame? One data report obtained from Acxiom—what it calls a U.S. Reference Information Report—contained inaccurate information about an individual’s street address, phone number, e-mail address and college attended. The report listed six different versions of the individual’s name, some of which had never been used before.
Seven of the top eight credit card companies, four of the top five retail banks and a multitude of other corporations use data brokers’ research. The ways in which your information is now obtained without your knowledge are beyond anything in history. You deserve not to have your privacy, identity and consumer behavior co-opted without your knowledge, and we all deserve to know what happens behind data-center doors. Don’t assume the war against big data is over; it’s clear the war has just begun.—Tyler Trykowski