As I See It: MLK And The NSA
January 27, 2014 Victor Rozek
For those of us who lived through those terrible days, it would be impossible not to reflect on the life of Martin Luther King as the nation again commemorates his birthday. But there are now two-plus generations who were not yet born when King was assassinated. They know him in sound bites, as a civil rights leader who had a dream. They perhaps notice that every year, shortly after Christmas, he is prominently mentioned in the media. But what happened 50 years ago is shrouded in the haze of history. Over time, legacies are encapsulated by granting a day off to school kids and federal employees.
Although some of what we believe about King is historic distortion, at least the justness of his cause now seems self evident. But perhaps what is most instructive in our time, and what has become tertiary to the nobility of the man and the righteousness of his cause, is the way his government hunted him. J. Edgar Hoover, the miscreant head of the FBI, was obsessed with King and considered him a danger to national security–a familiar refrain. With the approval of the Kennedy White House, he had King shadowed 24/7, tapped his phones, and searched his offices. He once sent King an “anonymous” note along with a package of audio tapes of King’s philandering, calling him a fraud and urging him to commit suicide. King’s wife opened the package.
It is sobering to note that such data gathering and the resulting abuse of power occurred before computers became the preferred tools of surveillance. Hoover held over 1,500 files on the families and activities of senators and congressmen alone, which he used for the purposes of blackmail and control. Imagine the trajectory the country might have taken if Hoover had access to the technology available to the NSA.
Which brings us to another black man, one with equal eloquence but, at least to this point, a lesser legacy. He profited more than most from the work of MLK since he resides in the White House and, like Dr. King, he has his own issues with surveillance. President Obama recently went on television to reassure a skeptical public that the NSA is their friend. Procedural reviews and reforms were pledged but, if keeping campaign promises is any measure, such assurances mean very little.
Regardless, liberty is not built on good intention. Assurances notwithstanding, as recently as September of last year, the New York Times reported that the NSA appears to be wholly embracing Hoover’s strategy. Since 2010, the agency has been creating “social network diagrams. . . to unlock as many secrets about individuals as possible. . . and pick up sensitive information like regular calls to a psychiatrist’s office, or late-night messages to an extramarital partner.”
I feel safer already.
To those in the spy trade, the allure of being the planetary Peeping Tom must be irresistible, and computer technology is well-suited to that task. It is effective and comparatively affordable given that it offers global reach as opposed to the limited, manpower-dependent methods used in MLK’s day. Computers never sleep and, if used cleverly, leave no trace. And, with today’s technology, the process of monitoring the entire globe is relatively simple because the World Wide Web allows for one-stop shopping.
Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes that the system relies on three keystones. First, access to fiber optic cables and data hubs is necessary to siphon information. McCoy estimates the NSA has over 100 probes attached to the fiber optic system, and has penetrated the 190 major global data hubs. Next, massive data farms are required to store the resulting “digital harvest.” And finally, supercomputers are needed to crack encrypted files and sift through oceans of data.
However, cautions McCoy, surveillance is always flowed by scandal, because secrets provide tempting leverage that can be used to destroy enemies and control friends. That temptation was a concern to administrations dating back to Harry Truman. “We want no Gestapo or Secret Police,” Truman wrote in his diary. “FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail.”
Ironically, it was Truman who created the NSA.
Equally ironic is the fact that an advance in telephone technology, which has become a surveillance bonanza, was indirectly helpful to the cause of civil rights. WATS lines were introduced by Bell back in 1961, and Freedom Riders and other activists in the Deep South were inadvertently aided by the technology. It allowed them to make long distance calls bypassing local telephone operators who were frequently unsympathetic to their cause and either listened in on their conversations or refused to put calls through.
Notably, the Bill of Rights, introduced by Madison in 1789, in particular the 4th Amendment prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, was meant to constrain government, not Google. It was conceived in response to “general warrants” that allowed the king’s men to break down doors and search homes without specifying the house or the object of the search. But, like government, Google and AT&T can figuratively break down the door and capture some of our most private moments without legal restriction or consequence. The definition of “reasonable” has been stretched beyond anything the founders could have imagined. Jeffrey Rosen, writing for the New York Times, proposes that the time has come for an amendment to the Constitution that would limit the scope of data gathering–a suggestion which is bound to start a heated debate.
The dilemma facing privacy advocates is that humanity seems not to have an off switch. We are not a self-limiting species. We do things because we can, not necessarily because they are wise or just. Those who traffic in snooping and don’t have sufficient information to verify their suspicions (or pad their bottom line), will strive to collect more data. Conversely, if the data they collect supports their misgivings (or enriches them), they will feel validated in gathering even more information.
The tide of technology is rising so quickly that it has, in so many ways, already engulfed us all. No one is exempt, no one is immune. The prospect of living in a surveillance state seems preordained. Our preferences, associations, and movements can be tracked and algorithms running on a distant computer can decide whether we’re potential terrorists or possible customers. Martin Luther King must have felt equally daunted standing against the seemingly insurmountable tide of oppression and prejudice. But the wisdom of great men is applicable in many contexts.
“Change,” said King, “does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
Nor can men expropriate the right to dissect our lives unless we permit it.