Why Edward Snowden Matters to the Environmental Movement

When NSA analyst Edward Snowden left the United States and began to reveal the National Security Agency's secret program that monitors all communications of American citizens, it created a firestorm of outrage in a public who believed that our intelligence services were targeting external forces who threatened the nation with violence. Snowden revealed it seems that instead the clandestine system is being used to monitor not just potential foreign adversaries, but Americans as well. While all citizens of the world should be concerned about this expansive attack on civil liberties, social organizations and the environmental movement in particular should be especially worried about the direction these programs take us. The system created to stop terrorism is now being used by some to attack environmentalists, environmental activism, and social protest in general.
Before we press on to the environmental issues with the revealed programs, let's take a step back and briefly lay out what we know so far.  After the attacks on September 11th, 2001, Congress created the Patriot Act which authorized the use of surveillance as a means to prevent future terrorist attacks on the United States. An outgrowth of the strategy was to use intelligence agencies to stop new attacks by creating the now-revealed PRISM program, an electronic monitoring system which intercepts all electronic communications conducted in the United States. While domestic surveillance has always been conducted in the United States, there is a crucial misunderstanding that the PRISM program represents a change in direction in national surveillance of American citizens. Many in the press and public the fail to realize that the PRISM program represents not only a intensification of surveillance policy in the U.S., but an actual physical change in the way our intelligence gathering works.
Past surveillance programs (the FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King, the targets of COINTELPRO, the investigations during the Red Scare, etc) were policies: plans set in action by government through intelligence agencies at the behest of political leadership. Political entities decided that surveillance was the right move and committed government specialists to pursue that policy. What the Snowden disclosures reveals is that in addition to policy, the United States is now creating actual physical infrastructure and an economy to facilitate spying on all Americans as well.  Surveillance systems that are integrated into telecommunications companies are apparently feeding all American's communication information into databases stored until needed in a new enormous datacenter capable of retaining the billions of communications conducted every day.  The United States intelligence agencies are also relying more heavily on private firms and contractors to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to analyzing all this data, and the new private intelligence market is booming.  Secrets and Surveillance now mean big money and long term business opportunities.
So what is the significance of a change like this overall? In a word; longevity. Where a policy position and activities change depending on who is in office at the time these physical structures, surveillance tools and companies will remain no matter who is in office. It is the creation of both a permanent physical national surveillance system as well as a multi-state industry whose business depends on maintaining a constant heightened state of national security. We have seen this shift from a temporary, on-demand system to a more permanent one backed by industry before; President Eisenhower warned of the move toward a collaborative and self-supporting Military Industrial Complex where politics and money encouraged out of control military influence and expenditure. Today it is likely we are witnessing the birth of the what may become an Intelligence Industrial Complex; an emerging flow of money, politics, and new surveillance industry that may continue to grow to maintain itself as a new force on our domestic life.
To understand the how this surveillance complex is changing our domestic politics and specifically environmentalism, you must understand the fluid and ambiguous nature manner in which terrorism is being used as a justification for its use. The PRISM program itself, which apparently gives wholesale access to all forms of electronic communication (email, texts, cell calls, etc) was authorized under the auspices that it would be used to prevent attacks from the extremist Al Qaeda terrorist group and "affiliated organizations," not surveil American Citizens for domestic reasons. To bolster their claim of only foreign targets, defenders of the program boldly stated that nearly 50 international terrorist attacks were prevented by the surveillance system, though under Congressional questioning the NSA had to admit that only one case seemed to have been revealed by the PRISM program, and that they were unable to confirm that even this single case was a certainty. The program has been successful, however, at creating enormous databases of information about every American citizen who uses the internet, a cell phone, or land line phone. United States intelligence agencies, through their corporate contractors, can now access an incredible amount of private information on persons they deem to be of interest.
Now, some have argued that this vast trove of information gained by siphoning up all communication is less useful for analysis than using investigative work to narrow possible threats because collecting the massive amount of data merely "adds hay to the haystack you are trying to find a needle in." True, if it were up to professional analysts to monitor and sort the content of all the emails, all the calls, and all the web searches and sites visited by every single American every day, this would be an completely impossible task. This, however, is not the technique employed to analyze the information. The data is not sifted by people, the information is digitized and queried instead by computers which analyze the bulk of the data quickly looking for key bits of information that reveal a notable pattern. Metadata, which is basically Information about Information and is the focus of the Snowden revelation so far, is extremely searchable in this way by computers. The actual content of a cell phone conversation (the data) is useful, but so is where the call was made, to whom, where that person is, how long the call lasted, who was called before and afterward by both parties, etc (all of which make up some of the possible metadata.)
Given the parameters of the search (what the operator is looking for) computers can analyze all of this metadata information and return likely persons of interest, as well as creating a network "map" of who they and everyone they talk with are connected to. The ability to determine how people network together is highly sought after. The Federal Bureau of Investigation worked on a early model of this system which was code named Carnivore in the early 2000's, and then switched to a more powerful version called NarusInsight which allowed for the deep analysis of the content of electronic transmissions. By simply entering the terms of the search with a keyboard, these surveillance systems can run through large amounts of information and then display the most likely results. If the idea of computer search programs weeding through large amounts of data to find and return relevant information is starting to sound familiar, it should, it is the same basic technology that search engines like Google employ; acquire or tap into a vast collection of data, create a search program that will analyze that data, enter search terms to limit the results to only those highest matching possibilities, and then display those results to the surveillance analyst or user. Depending on how many sources the analyst can pull from, very detailed information can be revealed by these systems. Edward Snowden spoke of this directly in his first interview with the Guardian of London.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge, to even the president, if I had a personal email.

By "mining" these huge databases for information that fits patterns target people are identified, and given a specific person's information, nearly everything about their public life and contacts can be known, as well as much of their private dealings.
Those who are still thinking "So? Identifying terrorists at this level is just what we need" should note carefully these next points. First, it should be clear now that since all American's data is collected, all an analyst has to do is look through the data to identify a person of interest. This search is done mechanically without thought or rationale by the computer, based on whatever search terms/criteria you wish... you simply enter the search criteria and go. Thus, you could search for people linked with Al Qaeda, but you could just as easily search for people who spend a lot of time at Starbucks, go to the local library AND spend time on the New York Times website, simply by changing the search criteria. The system will find matches for anything a user is looking for so long as they can properly configure the search terms and have access to the base information or databases.  Fishing through essentially random people's history and personal data is hardly using the PRISM program to look only at terrorists, by its nature the program is "flexible" in its definition of who could be a person of interest.
So now we come finally to the impact of this emerging and powerful system on Environmental activism and social movements directly. Of importance now to those in the environmental community is that the surveillance infrastructure is increasingly targeting them for deep scrutiny and spying. Recent stories broken by ProPublica and others show that not only is law enforcement continuing to extend their definition of terrorism to include environmentalists and environmental activism, but that it may be at the behest of corporations that don't like the political opposition activists can bring to bear against their practices. Notable stories emerge regularly including everything from a leaked intelligence bulletin showing that the Pennsylvania branch of Homeland Security had been monitoring non-violent environmental activists (including people who happened to attend a screening of the anti-"Fracking" film "Gasland") to police officers caught on tape stopping animal rights activists at the request of a local rodeo.
The Pennsylvania incident is quite disturbing as it shows a willingness within law enforcement and national security agencies to consider mere environmental activism a terrorism threat and apparently sharing ideals and interests with heavy industry. Director of Pennsylvania Homeland Security James Powers was responsible for the bulletin warning law enforcement there that anti-natural gas activists are potential "extremists and that they constitute a threat to the energy sector, and also wrote an email to drilling companies stating:

“We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies.”

Tom Ridge, the former Head of Homeland Security and former Pennsylvania Governor has worked as a lobbyist for the Natural Gas industry and has been accused of using his former position to influence anti-environmental investigations within his former Department. The director of the film Gasland, Josh Fox, conducted his own investigation after the revelation that his audience was being monitored:

Well, Tom Ridge had a $900,000 contract to be the chief spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition. At around the same time, we noticed that the Department of Homeland Security, which—of course, Tom Ridge was the first Department of Homeland Security chair—the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security started circulating bulletins to law enforcement that listed anti-fracking organizations as possible ecoterrorists, which had no basis in reality. There had never been anything at all violent. These were people doing democratic organizing and organization. But then it was discovered that the Department of Homeland Security was actually circulating those bulletins directly to the Marcellus Shale Coalition and to other gas industry lobbyists and stakeholders. This was a scandal in Pennsylvania, which ended up with the DHS head resigning. But Tom Ridge and a lot of—three Pennsylvania governors in a row—Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell and now Tom Corbett—have heavy ties to the gas industry and go on to advocate for fracking and drilling without disclosing those ties in the media. It’s a situation where, in a report by the Public Accountability Initiative called "Fracking and the Revolving Door in Pennsylvania," they describe as having the regulatory agencies and the democracy itself being taken away from the citizens.

Labeling environmental activism as potential terrorism by law enforcement isn't a new phenomena. In 2010, New Jersey's Homeland Security head Charles McKenna was quoted as saying :

"Jihad, Crips, extreme animal-rights activists, it’s all the same: people trying damage the system…”

McKenna was the lead prosecutor in what is called the SHAC-7 case, where the operators of a website where discussions of both legal (protest) and illegal (stealing lab animals) types of animal rights activism occurred were prosecuted as conducting "animal enterprise terrorism" even though they were never involved in any of the activities discussed on the site. Not only an attack on free speech, it shows that the blurring of what is considered terrorism was becoming more pervasive. Ideological and even monetary motives are creeping into how terrorism is defined, and the apparent decentralization and independence of those who can act on what they consider a threat is troubling to say the least.
Finally, while having actors within law enforcement trying to push back against environmentalism is bad, even more disturbing is the collusion between the private intelligence firms, private corporations, and law enforcement. Private entities are now using these firms that work with the government surveillance programs to gain access to intelligence tools, apparently simply to target opponents. At the upper end of the the spectrum the hacked Stratfor emails revealed that the private security company had been approached by Coca-Cola and Stratfor offered Coca Cola access to classified security files the FBI possessed on the animal rights activist group PETA. In addition to demonstrating at that at least some individuals are willing to turn to law enforcement and intelligence agencies for their particular interests, it also appears as though these surveillance firms act in their own economic self-interest and are willing and able to provide the power of the national surveillance state to private firms or individuals capable of paying or have similar interests. This is in no way trying to suggest that there is a conspiracy by corporations to create a surveillance system of their enemies. It isn't necessary to have a mass conspiracy, you just need a few individuals who see weak points and are willing to exploit them for their own gain.  At this point, we even have stories of operators using the system to stalk their love interests, so clearly the system isn't as tight and focused as it must be.
People inside the Obama Administration paint Snowden as a traitor instead of a whistleblower for revealing these abuses and weaknesses in the system, but even if you agree with the Administration's strange logic on his revelations, Snowden showed that a single operator could bestow unprecedented power to the highest bidder, and a corrupt force could likely find a willing participant if they wished to target their economic or political foes.
Environmental activists and advocates go up against some of the most powerful, wealthy and connected opponents in the economic world, and there appears to be a willingness to use these new surveillance abilities by the opponents as a tool for suppressing them despite a lack of evidence of any threatening behavior. There just doesn't seem to be a real mechanism in place to keep the intelligence gatherers from deviating from focusing on external targets that are outside of the scope of what the authors of the legislation intended to mean by monitoring terrorists. People working in the environmental field should stand up and take notice of the changing face of national security, realize that they too are in the crosshairs as targets for surveillance, and put the necessary pressure on these intelligence agencies to insure that abuse doesn't occur.

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