Canadian human rights attorney and author Maureen Webb discusses the comprehensive scope of government surveillance, and finds that the use of sophisticated methods to search for terrorists is not identifying the right suspects. [includes rush transcript]
Love letters, bank transactions, library books, scuba diving lessons…can the government actually use your personal information to predict whether you might be a terrorist?
A new book reveals the comprehensive scope of government surveillance, and finds that the use of sophisticated methods to search for terrorists is not identifying the right suspects.
In "Illusions of Security, Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post 9/11 World," human rights lawyer Maureen Webb argues the new global security system is threatening both American and global security while also undermining democracy worldwide.
Maureen Webb joins me now here in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
- Maureen Webb, author of the new book "Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World" (City Lights). She is a human rights lawyer and activist. She has spoken extensively on post-September 11 security and human rights issues. She is co-chair of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and also the Coordinator for Security and Human Rights issues for Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: In Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World, human rights lawyer Maureen Webb argues the new global security system is threatening both American and global security, while undermining democracy worldwide. Maureen Webb joins us now in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
MAUREEN WEBB: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you focus on this as a human rights lawyer?
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, I think it’s one of the less-examined aspects of the war on terror, and I’m co-chair for a Canadian coalition of civil society groups called the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group. And in 2004, we brought some of the major NGOs working on these issues from around the world: ACLU in the United States, Statewatch in Europe, Focus on the Global South in Asia. And we wanted to look for common patterns that were happening in our countries and see if there was any way that we could collaborate.
And what we identified was that there were all of these surveillance initiatives that were being introduced, many of them through international forums like the G8, and that all of our governments seem to be working towards this common goal, but that these initiatives tended to be reported very disparately in the media, and nobody had really connected the dots. We thought it was important, because it’s really one of the more insidious aspects of the war on terror. It will have long-term effects on our democratic societies and democratic movements around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: You began your book with Maher Arar, with Monia’s story, actually —
MAUREEN WEBB: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — with his wife. How did you meet them? You’re a Canadian human rights lawyer, and how does that tie in with this global surveillance infrastructure?
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, I actually heard about their story on the radio, as a lot of other Canadians did, often when I was driving my kids to daycare in the mornings. And they became very involved in the story, as well. They asked some very pertinent questions. They asked, you know, who has taken these children’s papa?
AMY GOODMAN: You mean your kids were asking this.
MAUREEN WEBB: Yes. Who took him? Why did they take him? Why can’t they get him back? And at that time, I was working on border issues, on the Canadian-US border, in my job. So, you know, I understood that this was sort of a shocking new development, the disappearance of a Canadian citizen. But it was really my kids that engaged me in this story. And I heard Monia talk about her fear that her children would grow up fatherless, and this is what was driving her in her very dignified, very articulate quest to get her husband home.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you briefly explain what happened? Maher Arar, the victim of "extraordinary rendition," taken by US authorities from Kennedy Airport and sent off when he was headed home from a family vacation to Canada, instead sent off to Syria, where he was tortured, held for almost a year, then sent home. But how did they, in Canada, first start to look at him?
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, after 9/11, the US and Canada began cooperating very closely on national security, and joint teams were set up between agencies like the Mounties in Canada and the FBI and we think the CIA in America. These later became formalized as integrated national security teams. But they were working very closely, and there were really no sovereign checks and balances on the way that information was shared. And the Mounties, you know, in testimony before the Arar inquiry, they said that they had been given a mandate of prevention and that they were to take a zero tolerance approach to risk. And this led them to identify what they said was a potential al-Qaeda cell operating in Ottawa and Toronto. And Maher Arar happened to be a — you know, it’s a small Muslim community in Ottawa — he went for lunch with a fellow that was a target of the investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: This was what year? Like ’99?
MAUREEN WEBB: Yes — no, it was after 2001. They had started — they were looking at Abdullah al-Maliki before that, but they turned it into a big international terrorism investigation after 2001. And he went for lunch with the guy, stood outside in the rain, talking about where he could buy a good printer for his computer. And he was marked as a person of interest. They had no evidence that he was linked at all to terrorism. It turned out that they had no evidence, hard evidence, that Abdullah al-Maliki was linked to terrorism, either. But from there, they started sharing information with the FBI and the CIA, with no controls over how that information would be used. And in the end, it turned out that when Arar was identified on a passenger manifest list coming from Tunisia to JFK Airport, the Americans grabbed him, and they rendered him to Syria.
AMY GOODMAN: And now, the Canadian government has awarded him $10 million and demanded that the US take him off a terrorist no-fly list, but the US has refused to comply.
MAUREEN WEBB: Yes. And, in fact, the ambassador has told the Canadian government that they have no business to tell the United States who should be on their terrorist list.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to ask you about all sorts of issues, like Echelon, the global surveillance system, biometrics, how they’re being used. But we have to take a break. We’ll be back with Maureen Webb, human rights attorney and author of Illusions of Security. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Maureen Webb, human rights attorney and author, is our guest. Her book, Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World. "Global Surveillance of Electronic Communications Records and Financial Transactions" is the name of one of your chapters, and you start with this George Orwell quote, and he says, "It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time, but at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from the habit that became instinct and the assumption that every sound you made was overheard." That’s from the book 1984. Explain how it is working now.
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, you know, today in modern societies, each of us pretty much have our wires plugged in all the time. There’s very little you can do without it being recorded some way in an electronic transaction. So after 9/11, governments, the US pushing them, started to look at the communications of people, the financial transactions of people. The NSA program in the United States is a prime example of this. It was a secret program authorized by the President.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the National Security Agency wiretapping.
MAUREEN WEBB: That’s right. The domestic wiretapping. And it’s really a large data-mining program, which vacuums up almost all of the emails and telephone calls that are made in the United States and sifts through them for specified criteria that state agents believe show terrorist activity is occurring.
AMY GOODMAN: How does it do it?
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, you know, this is very sophisticated technology. The NSA and its counterparts in the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have been searching the cyberspace since 1948. They began looking at telephone calls and, as technology advanced, they kept up with it. But their gazes have always been directed outside their own countries. They have never been allowed to spy inside their own borders. And since it’s a secret program, very little is known about it, except that it’s a data-mining program where they sift through traffic patterns, looking for key words and traffic patterns. And in the normal exercise of their mandates, they are looking for economic and technical and security intelligence from other countries.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the Echelon system?
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, that’s the Echelon system that was set up after World War II, and it’s this cooperation of the Anglo-American countries. But as I said, it always looked outwards. I never looked inwards. And so, this was unheard of. And in Canada, we seem to have a similar program that’s been authorized by our Anti-Terrorism Act. So it seems that other countries also are turning their very powerful foreign security establishments on the loose.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the global registration system?
MAUREEN WEBB: Yes. In the book, I describe the main characteristics of this new kind of surveillance, and I think the aim of this new surveillance regime is first to register populations with biometric identity documents. And the idea is that when you have a biometric identifier for everybody, you have a kind of gold standard for making sure you’ve got the person that you want. And then you can start to, with greater confidence, link information to that biometric identifier.
Biometrics is the use of biological characteristics that people have, like fingerprints, iris scans, the dimensions of our faces, which the technology records and then stores either in a database or in a microchip, which can be inserted into identity documents.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does it work — for example, a retina scan — and are we going to see these be increasingly mandatory?
MAUREEN WEBB: They are increasingly mandatory. After 9/11, they began to biometrically register the more marginal populations. So, for example, under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, the United States registered all males between the ages of sixteen and forty-five coming from Muslim countries, who were visiting or traveling through the country. And 80,000 men were biometrically registered in this way.
Then biometric registration was expanded to all visitors to the US, then to all people carrying passports, and then recently a de facto national identity card has been introduced in the United States, which is a country, a common law country, which has always resisted the imposition of a national identity card. And now, you have a biometric national identity card.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Maureen Webb. Interesting last name for this kind of investigation. You talk about UK e-Borders initiative, German trawling, flawed facts, dirty information and guilt by Google. Start with the last.
MAUREEN WEBB: Guilt by Google, that’s not copyrighted. You know, these data-mining programs, what you have to understand is that they’re not sifting through masses of information to find known terrorists or people who are suspected of terrorism on reasonable grounds. What they’re doing is they’re sifting through all this information they’re collecting about us all to predict who might be a terrorist. This is predictive technology. And it’s interesting. It comes from the private sector.
I was in Chicago recently speaking, and the person who chaired the event was a CEO of a business intelligence company. And he told the audience just how far businesses have gone down this road of collecting every piece of information they can get about their customers and then data mining it and handling it through different technologies. And he spoke about an article that was published in the Harvard Business Review recently, which basically says that you’re nowhere as a business unless you’re doing this stuff. And this has been imported by the government into the war on terror. It’s predictive analysis.
AMY GOODMAN: And what’s the problem with this?
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, it’s very frightening, because, of course, when you’re looking at prediction, at preemption, you’re not really concerned with accuracy, so that all of the normal protections that we have about our virtual identities, about our personal information, are thrown out of the window. If you’re flagged by a data-mining program, you’ll never know what information has been used against you, you’ll never be able to correct or contextualize it, you won’t even know the criteria by which you’re being judged, because they are also secret.
So, for example, there’s a program that was just revealed about a month ago called the Automated Targeting System Program. And nobody knew that it was operating. In fact, two other programs that were similar to it had been killed by Congress. And this program collects information about people crossing the border, all modes of transportation. It stores it for forty years, and it assigns risk scores to individuals. And a risk score is a statistical rating of how closely your personal information matches the criteria, the secret criteria, that are supposed to protect terrorist activity. And there’s no way you can change your risk score, apparently. You can appeal and say, "Well, I’m not the Jane Doe that you’re thinking of," and if they believe you, they can note it down, but apparently because you can never change the information, you can never change your risk score.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at your section on shutting down independent media, where you write, "The current risk assessment climate has led to international cooperation in shutting down independent media outlets. In October 2004, two computer servers were seized by the FBI from the England office of the Texas-based internet company Rackspace. The servers were hosting the websites of independent media centers. The seizure was reportedly made under a UK-US mutual assistance treaty of 1996, but on the request of Swiss and Italian police."
MAUREEN WEBB: Yes, yes. And that’s just one illustration of how closely security agencies are cooperating around the world today. And, for instance, the United States has signed an agreement whereby it has access to all of Europol’s information about EU citizens. So some very sensitive information about EU citizens —
AMY GOODMAN: Europol?
MAUREEN WEBB: Europol, the European police.
AMY GOODMAN: Interpol?
MAUREEN WEBB: Interpol is bigger. Europol is for Europe. And so, dozens of American agencies now have direct access to this information, which was previously kept in European hands with European checks and balances. The INSET, the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams, that I spoke about in the context of the Arar affair, under ordinary mutual assistance agreements, formal requests have to be made between the countries to obtain information, and there’s all kinds of checks and balances that go with that. They make sure that the information is reliable before they pass it on. They make sure that they know what the other country is going to do with the information. But with these integrated teams, the information just flows informally between the agencies that are working together.
AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about it being open season on individuals and groups challenging repressive regimes. How so?
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, you know, this whole new paradigm of terrorism is being embraced by countries around the world and used in repressive regimes to rebrand opponents as terrorists. And these people are often put on international lists. There are sort of new brutal tactics that can be used against them, because it’s become an accepted paradigm, this idea of terrorism. But it really — you know, I’m not saying that there’s not a thing popularly known as terrorism, but it’s being used politically to really paint as black-and-white complex historical and civil conflicts.
AMY GOODMAN: You write about how in Tunisia the lawyers of people charged with terrorism are being charged with terrorism themselves.
MAUREEN WEBB: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, how do people protect themselves, as we travel either abroad or just at home, as you go on the internet, as you buy things at stores with credit cards? And how does credit cards fit into this?
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, credit cards, the records are handled by companies, and the companies are subject to the USA PATRIOT Act, and the USA PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to issue administrative subpoenas, known as national security letters, without any judicial oversight.
AMY GOODMAN: Can companies resist?
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, they can, I suppose, but they’re gagged from telling anybody about the very existence of the order against them. And most companies aren’t resisting. In fact, many companies are just handing over the information when they’re asked. I think, you know, about 175 universities in the United States handed over information about their students without any request for a subpoena. As you mentioned, scuba diving associations handed over disks with information on two million members. And we know that companies, airlines were handing over information to the Transportation Security Administration.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, telephone companies.
MAUREEN WEBB: And telephone companies. Four out of five of the major telephone companies in the US handed over their records to the NSA for this domestic spy program. And they did it for money.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, for money?
MAUREEN WEBB: Well, it was a contract under which they were paid to hand over this material.
AMY GOODMAN: We have thirty seconds. What do you think is the most important thing to leave listeners and viewers with?
MAUREEN WEBB: I want listeners to understand that they have some control over what happens in the future. Our democratic societies are at risk of being turned into surveillance societies over time, and we’ve got to inform ourselves about what’s happening and tell our democratic representatives that we don’t want them to pass these laws and these measures.
AMY GOODMAN: Maureen Webb, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Maureen Webb is the author of Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World.