American Spies: Modern Surveillance, Why You Should Care, and What To Do About It

Jennifer Stisa Granick, the Director of Civil Liberties at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, is an expert in computer crime and security, electronic surveillance, security vulnerability disclosure, encryption policy, and the Fourth Amendment. In the interview that follows, she discusses her forthcoming book, American Spies: Modern Surveillance, Why You Should Care, and What To Do About It (Cambridge University Press, 2017), which will be published on Friday, January 13.

You entered the profession in the 1990s working as a criminal defense attorney, and developed an expertise in Internet law and surveillance law—witnessing the evolution (and continued evolution) of law in the digital age. Can you give us an overview of how government surveillance of ordinary citizens is happening today? Most of us do not know that applications such as Skype are tools for government surveillance.

The most important thing is to understand that technology has totally changed what’s possible with surveillance. New technologies have profoundly transformed government capabilities to spy on people. More of what we do creates a centralized record, whether it is email or Skype calls or mapping apps on our phones. Governments can monitor the Internet, take advantage of data collection by private companies like social networks, or deploy their own advanced tools such as cameras and sophisticated software for license plate detection or facial recognition. These new technological capabilities raise serious questions about how to protect civil rights and political freedoms.

You note that prior to the public Internet, the government lacked the capacity for mass surveillance and the widespread abuse of it. As capacity has increased exponentially with technological advances, so has abuse of the information gathered and kept/stored by the government. And uncovering these surveillance activities is hard—much of what we know is the result of Edward Snowden’s revelations. What are the abuses? If we haven’t committed any crimes, why should we care that the government holds key information about us?

Some like to think that inappropriate surveillance ended with the death of notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. But that is not the case. Department of Homeland Security fusion centers have improperly targeted First Amendment protected activity, such as spying on Muslim-Americans and antiwar activists. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) is famous for having conducted a secret surveillance program monitoring American Muslims in New York City. The Obama Administration has broadly spied on journalists it suspected of having talked to government sources. People need to know that even if we are odd or unconventional we will not be isolated, judged, or imprisoned.

Read the full interview at the Legal Aggregate