The United States government is like a crazy girlfriend who can’t stop breaking into our phones. In a nation obsessed with surveillance and secrecy, filmmaker Brian Kanppenberger is laying down the facts — or more sonorously, Maggie Gyllenhaal is, as narrator of the new docu-series Truth and Power airing Fridays at 10 p.m. on Pivot TV.
The 10-part show investigates what happens when governments and institutions break the public trust and introduces us to some of the “people fighting back against abuses of power,” says Knappenberger. This is not the kind of trust broken by a presidential blow job; from stingray phone routers to drones, the series shows just how dysfunctional the relationship between we humans and our systems has become.
When Cassidy Wolf, aka Miss Teen USA, was the victim of BlackShades malware, a hack that provided live feed from her computer’s video camera of her most intimate moments, the perpetrator, 19-year-old Jared James Abrahams, was sent to prison. Around the same time, #BlackLivesMatter organizer and Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay McKesson became aware that the cyber-security firm ZeroFOX was actively collecting his information and feeding it to the Baltimore police department, but no legal hearings have ensued.
If we can agree that one person spying on another is a crime, then what does it mean when governments and large institutions spy on everyone?
Truth and Power investigates how digital technologies are used to violate basic rights. The first episode focuses on government surveillance of the #BlackLivesMatter movement through social media — a situation that echoes CoIntelPro’s governmental harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King.
“We live in a stalker economy,” says Knappenberger, “where personal information is the trading currency. It’s the lucrative business of our time.”
The third episode, airing tonight, takes on StingRay. Another episode consists of an exposé of a multimillion-dollar cyber intelligence company Hacking Team — slogan: "The hacking suite for governmental interception.” “One person’s terrorists is another’s journalist or freedom fighter” says Hacking Team marketing head Eric Rabe. Knappenberger’s series makes the case that our mechanisms for catching criminals should not erode the freedoms of citizens — especially now, when code moves faster than law and services that people enjoy online are almost entirely privately owned.
“We have to be aware of how constitutional protections, the right to protest, freedom of speech, the right not to be searched by our government without a warrant, make their way into the digital world. Don’t throw those things out just because we’re in the digital age” says Knappenberger.
“There’s a reason why the Post Office is in the Constitution,“ he continues. "It’s protecting the way that we communicate. What happens when all of these new ways that people are communicating are privately owned? Is there free speech on Facebook? Probably not. There are no protections there; they can take down whatever they want.”
Much of Knappenberger’s previous work has shown the power of activists to wield new technologies for good. His 2012 documentary We Are Legion tells the story of Anonymous and their mass-action digital "sit-ins” that trailblazed a new form of protest.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014) follows the innovative technological and political actions of Aaron Swartz, who contributed to RSS, Creative Commons and Reddit and founded the nonprofit Demand Progress. From 2011 to 2013 Swartz was prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse act for downloading articles from the digital library JSTOR en masse, carrying a penalty of $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison for a crime that did no harm. Swartz took his own life on January 11, 2013. The question of why the full weight of the FBI was directed at a 25-year-old activist serves as a sobering reminder of the need to check governmental power in the digital age.
“Aaron believed tax-funded research should be available to taxpayers,” says Knappenberger. “It’s a vision from the early internet of communicating in a free way — sharing ideas, sharing knowledge. What we’ve seen recently is the dark side of the technology. A lot of the promise and hope of the early internet has been countered by governmental and corporate surveillance.”
In other episodes, Truth and Power looks beyond the internet and into the changing landscape of big agriculture, the private prison complex, drones and commercial profiling. It’s a vast terrain of subject matter, but Knappenberger sees a clear throughline.
“The answer is transparency: knowing more about what’s going on inside our government and corporations,” he says. “Presumably we live in a participatory democracy where we can effect change, but we can’t do that unless we know what’s happening.”
Want to know more? Check out ACLU’s “Know your Rights” partnership with Truth and Power.