A few days ago, the Guardian interviewed former NSA chief Bobby Inman. I’ve always thought Inman was a sharp guy. I remember listening to tapes of Inman that I got from the Commonwealth Club back in the 1980s. I still recall his prediction that the “pace of change” would become a more and more significant factor in intelligence and technology. At the time I thought it was profound, and I think it still rings true today.

In his interview with the Guardian, Inman urged that people interested in revisiting laws on government surveillance should also look at private industry. According to Inman we need to:

look at privacy issues in the private sector, not just the government. I personally find it offensive that it’s fine for X corporation to have everything on you but not the government to know. That’s a basic don’t-trust-your-government argument, which I think erodes democracy

This is an interesting statement.

First, it ignores the important fact that it is the government that has a monopoly on the legal use of force. The reason why people should put government surveillance in a different category than private corporate surveillance, is that the government has different goals than private corporations. Private corporations exist to make a profit, governments have a variety of agendas, including launching wars, suppressing internal dissent, putting people in prison, etc. This was the reason the Fourth Amendment applies to government, not private corporations. I think Inman is intelligent enough to know he is being very misleading here and turning the traditional notion of “democracy” on its head.

Second, today’s disclosure by the New York Times that in a project called Hemisphere, the DEA pays ATT to retain all call records forever and share them with the government. This shows that the limits established on government snooping by the Fourth Amendment are clearly violated and undermined by this government-corporate partnership. Do prohibitions on government searches and snooping have any meaning if they are enabled and executed in secret partnership with private companies? If private companies keep vast databases of private data on American citizens, and the government accesses that in secret, where does the government end and the “private” corporation begin? Obviously, this collaboration is set up in a way to avoid both public scrutiny and constitutional restrictions. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this come out – where the government faces legal restrictions against certain actions, they just get a private company to do it for them, and then collaborate in secret.

I think Inman is right. To only look at the activities of the government, we miss what its important partners might also be up to. There is a collusion of interests here – government and private companies collaborating to keep tabs on all citizens at all times.

We used to call this fascism, now, we just sigh and hope it produces some well-paying jobs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *