Jennifer Granick
1,295,848 views • 14:25

We are all activists now.


Thank you.

I'll just stop here.


From the families who are fighting to maintain funding for public schools, the tens of thousands of people who joined Occupy Wall Street or marched with Black Lives Matter to protest police brutality against African Americans, families that join rallies, pro-life and pro-choice, those of us who are afraid that our friends and neighbors are going to be deported or that they'll be added to lists because they are Muslim, people who advocate for gun rights and for gun control and the millions of people who joined the women's marches all across the country this last January.


We are all activists now, and that means that we all have something to worry about from surveillance. Surveillance means government collection and use of private and sensitive data about us. And surveillance is essential to law enforcement and to national security. But the history of surveillance is one that includes surveillance abuses where this sensitive information has been used against people because of their race, their national origin, their sexual orientation, and in particular, because of their activism, their political beliefs.

About 53 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech on the Mall in Washington. And today the ideas behind this speech of racial equality and tolerance are so noncontroversial that my daughters study the speech in third grade. But at the time, Dr. King was extremely controversial. The legendary and notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed, or wanted to believe, that the Civil Rights Movement was a Soviet communist plot intended to destabilize the American government. And so Hoover had his agents put bugs in Dr. King's hotel rooms, and those bugs picked up conversations between civil rights leaders talking about the strategies and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. They also picked up sounds of Dr. King having sex with women who were not his wife, and J. Edgar Hoover saw the opportunity here to discredit and undermine the Civil Rights Movement. The FBI sent a package of these recordings along with a handwritten note to Dr. King, and a draft of this note was found in FBI archives years later, and the letter said, "You are no clergyman and you know it. King, like all frauds, your end is approaching." The letter even seemed to encourage Dr. King to commit suicide, saying, "King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation."

But the important thing is, Dr. King was not abnormal. Every one of us has something that we want to hide from somebody. And even more important, J. Edgar Hoover wasn't abnormal either. The history of surveillance abuses is not the history of one bad, megalomaniacal man. Throughout his decades at the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover enjoyed the support of the presidents that he served, Democratic and Republican alike. After all, it was John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy who knew about and approved the surveillance of Dr. King. Hoover ran a program called COINTELPRO for 15 years which was designed to spy on and undermine civic groups that were devoted to things like civil rights, the Women's Rights Movement, and peace groups and anti-war movements. And the surveillance didn't stop there. Lyndon Baines Johnson, during the election campaign, had the campaign airplane of his rival Barry Goldwater bugged as part of his effort to win that election. And then, of course, there was Watergate. Burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, the Nixon administration was involved in covering up the burglary, and eventually Nixon had to step down as president. COINTELPRO and Watergate were a wake-up call for Americans. Surveillance was out of control and it was being used to squelch political challengers. And so Americans rose to the occasion and what we did was we reformed surveillance law. And the primary tool we used to reform surveillance law was to require a search warrant for the government to be able to get access to our phone calls and our letters. Now, the reason why a search warrant is important is because it interposes a judge in the relationship between investigators and the citizens, and that judge's job is to make sure that there's good cause for the surveillance, that the surveillance is targeted at the right people, and that the information that's collected is going to be used for legitimate government purposes and not for discriminatory ones. This was our system, and what this means is that President Obama did not wiretap Trump Tower. The system is set up to prevent something like that from happening without a judge being involved.

But what happens when we're not talking about phone calls or letters anymore? Today, we have technology that makes it cheap and easy for the government to collect information on ordinary everyday people. Your phone call records can reveal whether you have an addiction, what your religion is, what charities you donate to, what political candidate you support. And yet, our government collected, dragnet-style, Americans' calling records for years. In 2012, the Republican National Convention highlighted a new technology it was planning to use, facial recognition, to identify people who were going to be in the crowd who might be activists or troublemakers and to stop them ahead of time. Today, over 50 percent of American adults have their faceprint in a government database. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concocted a plan to find out what Americans were going to gun shows by using license plate detectors to scan the license plates of cars that were in the parking lots of these events. Today, we believe that over 70 percent of police departments have automatic license plate detection technology that they're using to track people's cars as they drive through town. And all of this information, the license plates, the faceprints, the phone records, your address books, your buddy lists, the photos that you upload to Dropbox or Google Photos, and sometimes even your chats and your emails are not protected by a warrant requirement. So what that means is we have all of this information on regular people that's newly available at very low expense. It is the golden age for surveillance.

Now, every parent is going to understand what this means. When you have a little baby and the baby's young, that child is not able to climb out of its crib. But eventually your little girl gets older and she's able to climb out of the crib, but you tell her, "Don't climb out of the crib. OK?" And every parent knows what's going to happen. Some of those babies are going to climb out of the crib. Right? That's the difference between ability and permission. Well, the same thing is true with the government today. It used to be that our government didn't have the ability to do widespread, massive surveillance on hundreds of millions of Americans and then abuse that information. But now our government has grown up, and we have that technology today. The government has the ability, and that means the law is more important than ever before. The law is supposed to say when the government has permission to do it, and it's supposed to ensure that there's some kind of ramification. We notice when those laws are broken and there's some of kind of ramification or punishment. The law is more important than ever because we are now living in a world where only rules are stopping the government from abusing this information.

But the law has fallen down on the job. Particularly since September 11 the law has fallen down on the job, and we do not have the rules in place that we need. And we are seeing the ramifications of that. So fusion centers are these joint task forces between local, state and federal government that are meant to ferret out domestic terrorism. And what we've seen is fusion center reports that say that you might be dangerous if you voted for a third-party candidate, or you own a "Don't Tread On Me" flag, or you watched movies that are anti-tax. These same fusion centers have spied on Muslim community groups' reading lists and on Quakers who are resisting military recruiting in high schools. The Internal Revenue Service has disproportionately audited groups that have "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in their name. And now customs and border patrol is stopping people as they come into the country and demanding our social networking passwords which will allow them to see who our friends are, what we say and even to impersonate us online.

Now, civil libertarians like myself have been trying to draw people's attention to these things and fighting against them for years. This was a huge problem during the Obama administration, but now the problem is worse. When the New York Police Department spies on Muslims or a police department uses license plate detectors to find out where the officers' spouses are or those sorts of things, that is extremely dangerous. But when a president repurposes the power of federal surveillance and the federal government to retaliate against political opposition, that is a tyranny. And so we are all activists now, and we all have something to fear from surveillance. But just like in the time of Dr. Martin Luther King, we can reform the way things are.

First of all, use encryption. Encryption protects your information from being inexpensively and opportunistically collected. It rolls back the golden age for surveillance.

Second, support surveillance reform. Did you know that if you have a friend who works for the French or German governments or for an international human rights group or for a global oil company that your friend is a valid foreign intelligence target? And what that means is that when you have conversations with that friend, the US government may be collecting that information. And when that information is collected, even though it's conversations with Americans, it can then be funneled to the FBI where the FBI is allowed to search through it without getting a warrant, without probable cause, looking for information about Americans and whatever crimes we may have committed with no need to document any kind of suspicion. The law that allows some of this to happen is called Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, and we have a great opportunity this year, because Section 702 is going to expire at the end of 2017, which means that Congress's inertia is on our side if we want reform. And we can pressure our representatives to actually implement important reforms to this law and protect our data from this redirection and misuse.

And finally, one of the reasons why things have gotten so out of control is because so much of what happens with surveillance — the technology, the enabling rules and the policies that are either there or not there to protect us — are secret or classified. We need transparency, and we need to know as Americans what the government is doing in our name so that the surveillance that takes place and the use of that information is democratically accounted for.

We are all activists now, which means that we all have something to worry about from surveillance. But like in the time of Dr. Martin Luther King, there is stuff that we can do about it. So please join me, and let's get to work.

Thank you.