I started Digital Fourth with two friends a little over a year ago. We wanted to document the abuses of the surveillance state, and identify state-level strategies to undermine it. As the experienced nonprofit manager, I handled the day-to-day setup, so that as of this summer, we became a properly designated 501(c)(4) nonprofit.
Then all hell broke loose, and it’s still breaking.
On June 6, Edward Snowden went public with the first of a still-ongoing series of revelations about the vast extent of US government intrusion into our digital data. Though civil liberties activists like myself had suspected a lot of what he disclosed, he provided inarguable proof of serious Constitutional abuses.
We now know that we have in this country an intelligence community that views the Fourth Amendment as a dead letter, and that barely even bothers to structure any of its systems around the notions the Fourth Amendment embodies. We now know that we are all spied on relentlessly and without ceasing, irrespective of whether there is probable cause – or even reasonable suspicion – to suspect us of any crime.
The police departments of large cities are increasingly complicit in this system, and rapidly advancing technologies make it easier and easier for them to track us. Prosecutors, lacking any meaningful accountability, see hackers, technologists, journalists and dissidents as especially frightening, and use vague laws to criminalize ordinary and Constitutionally protected behavior. The leadership of both political parties is bound up in this system, both as its creators and also its victims. The prospects for meaningful federal reform of actual surveillance practices are remote, though less remote than they were before June.
What, then, can we do?
We cannot stop data being collected. We may or may not be able to prevent data on you from being systematized across government to discern patterns of suspicious behavior. But we do believe that we can stop that data from being used to deprive people arbitrarily of their freedom.
Starting here in Massachusetts, we are pursuing meaningful reforms of government data collection and retention, criminal justice, and intelligence work, so that each of us can breathe a little easier as we go about our daily lives.
This is an agenda that is both new and old. We want to preserve the timeless protections of the US Constitution; but by doing so, we will also preserve the freedom to experiment, to innovate, to create, and to agitate. We cannot remain at the forefront of technological and social advances if our brightest minds are constantly under the closest watch.
If you agree, join us. It’s going to be a wild ride.