To gauge the real impact of a historic development like “the Snowden revelations”, it’s sometimes useful to examine how wide it’s being felt. An illustration: Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” Samsung cellphone app. I’ve a feeling some may not know what I’m talking about because, up until this past Friday, neither did I. But my May First/People Link colleague and office buddy Hilary Goldstein (who has often been the source of ideas for my writings here) sent me an email with a link to a story about the controversy  and it got me thinking about how our society has succumbed to a massive crime and how this might be a kind of “critical mass”.
The story starts with a Tweet by a respected Hip Hop artist named Michael “Killer Mike” Render. The Atlanta, Georgia resident issued a tweet this week displaying a graphic of the registration screen for the Magna Carta Holy Grail App with the cryptic but powerful message: “Naw…I’m cool.” The app (a term used to describe small applications often used on hand-held devices) lets the user download a new album (called “Magna Carta Holy Grail”) by Hip Hop super-star Jay-Z.
The App and the Artist
The meaning of the message (a bit more dismissive than “Thanks but no thanks”) is significant because over a half million people had already said “yes” to that App and had downloaded it to their phones. In the process, they gave Samsung their names, specific GPS location, approximate network location and the phone’s precise id and status as well as permission to “modify or delete contents” from their USB storage, stop the phone from sleeping and get full access to their network communications.
In other words, you give them a treasure trove of information about you in exchange for downloading a “pre-release” version of this album.
Why give in to such an intrusion? The most obvious answer is to get an advanced copy of the already critically acclaimed album by one of the greatest musical artists of all time.
Shawn Corey Carter, known as Jay-Z, grew up on tough streets in Brooklyn, New York (where he led what he himself terms a “gangsta life-style”) and has risen to world-wide reknown as a musical genius. His evocative and innovative lyrics, run over brilliant instrumental mixes, touch on themes and topics touched on in “conceptual albums”: tracks that are hung together under one theme. His legendary discipline and the shere quantify of quality music he puts out make him singular in his industry. He’s also a successful businessman (already reportedly worth over a half billion dollars) with a diverse array of businesses. Because of what he’s done with his life and what he does with his music, it’s hard not to admire Jay-Z.
Carter is, above all, an innovator and so it’s probable that he saw the value in pre-releasing his album as a Samsung app to address a mostly young audience that uses that technology while departing from the competitive and even hostile attitude the recording industry has had towards the Internet. He probably hardly noticed that Samsung was gathering critical information on people for marketing and (given what we know) turning it over to the government. Not that he would necessarily care but Killer Mike does and so, apparently, do a striking number of other “fans”.
Killer Mike Render has 69,000 followers on his Twitter account and when he dropped this little diss it was noticed enough to be the subject of a long litany of tweet responses about surveillance and several trade articles noting the protest. The album also caught the attention of hacktivists  who took quick and brilliant action. As a result, some of the people trying to download the real app were actually downloading a hack app, a piece of “malware”, software that mimics real software but does “malicious” things. Of course, one person’s “malicious” is sometimes another’s act of protest.
“On the surface, the malware app functions identically to the legit app,” writes Irfan Asrar on MacAfee’s Blog Central . “But in in the background, the malware sends info about the infected device to an external server every time the phone restarts.” The malware then tries to install additional software and, on July 4, it replaced wallpaper on the infected device with an image of President Obama and commentary on the recent spying scandals. In short, a political message hack.
Asrar, a worthy commentator on things technological, issued his blog as a warning to all who download such apps — be careful what you download, it could be malware. But that admonition misses the point: the malware itself is a warning. It is reminding people that the information Samsung is demanding in exchange for this album is, effectively, surveillance and part of a gross violation by our government of the Constitution of the United States. Know it or not, Jay-Z is facilitating the criminal behavior of corporations and the government.
Those who think “criminal” might be too strong a word might start by looking at the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution because many people, perhaps most, don’t really know what it says. In fact, top Security officials like former NSA chief Michael Hayden (who’s been making the pundit rounds recently representing the Obama Administration) seem to have no idea .
Here then is the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, part of what is called The Bill of Rights, proposed by the Congress in 1789 and made law in 1791 after all State legislatures approved it.
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
This is the “privacy” amendment. In case after case for more than two centuries, it has been relied on to support the First Amendment’s clause establishing “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. It’s the legal basis for our rights as a movement for progressive change.
Virtually every word of the amendment completely contradicts the surveillance the U.S. government is routinely conducting. So the question is pertinent: Is our government engaging in criminal behavior?
Are the searches and seizures in these programs “reasonable”? Were there warrants issued for them based on “probable cause”? Did they specifically describe the search place and what was to be seized? Absolutely not. The aggressive and blanket seizure of information can’t be considered reasonable unless there is a “reasonable suspicion” that everyone in this country is violating the law. There is certainly no probable cause here; in fact, for much of the seized data (collected from storage devices in other countries), there are no warrants and when warrants are involved they are issued by a secret court which only hears one side of any argument: the government’s side. As for “particularly describing” the place to be searched and what’s to be seized, the answer “all phone records and the entire Internet” doesn’t qualify.
That this issue of criminal behavior isn’t being publicly debated is the outcome of decades of social conditioning: an Orwellian soup that blends programmed ignorance about our real history with a groundless fear of people from other countries and spices the mix with exploitation of the human tendency to deny the unthinkable. Meanwhile, our government spins at top speed when it can’t hide information and frantically covers up and lies about that information that has not yet been revealed.
This is political bankruptcy at its worst and these past three weeks have been an ode to that bankruptcy.
It was revealed that our President has spied on us and lied to us, completely violating the letter and spirit of the Constitution written to protect us and put checks on his office. His Administration continues wars and attacks world-wide that are not legally sanctioned or popularly supported and that are, for the most part, based on lies and distortions. There’s little question that the Obama Administration was behind the shocking treatment of Bolivian President Juan Evo Morales whose plane was denied airspace access by several European allies under the suspicion that Snowden was aboard (he wasn’t, though if he had been, Morales would have had every right to be flying him home to Bolivia)
The Congress, with an approval rating of about 9 percent for over two years now, has stopped functioning productively. It makes no laws. It approves no programs. All it does is destroy what we have built and turn over much of its functional power to the Executive Branch or to the States in a retrenchment to pre-Civil War governance that should at a minimum lead to a wholesale ousting of the entire membership of both houses and would lead to a complete “government organization” in most democracies.
That’s not happening, though, because we have become a society of cynics. Nobody expects the Congress to do anything about a country that has unemployed its people, wasted most of their money on useless war and eroded the rights of all citizens. Nobody was surprised when Congressional leaders, rather than express the outrage at the government blanket surveillance Edward Snowden revealed, called for that hero’s head.
This fortnight of outrageous malfeasance saw the Supreme Court (the supposed “protector” of the Constitution) trash the rights of voters and spit at the entire history of the Civil Rights movement (and its achievements) by calling sections of the Voter Rights law unconstitutional, using the brazenly disdainful argument that racial discrimination is no longer a major factor in voter rights denial. As if on cue (because it probably was), several state legislatures moved on measures to make it harder for people of color to vote.
Finally, it was revealed that the Post Office (the one government agency everyone seemed to trust) was taking and storing a snapshot of the intended and return address of every single piece of mail it handles as part of the government’s surveillance program. Those who eschew email, claiming that “snail mail” is slower but more secure, can’t even make that argument anymore.
This three week spurt of repressive action is the destructive icing on a cake of years of neglect and sadistic myopia that has ignored the country’s joblessness, alienation of its youth, continuing erosion of women’s rights, escalating violence, increasingly blatant racism and demonization of its working people and their right to self-protection and the militarization of the police. The Congress, with the acquiesence of the Administration, refuses to launch a major public works program that might at least stem our social collapse if not reverse it and then actually attacks the rights of elders and seniors to retrieve the social security we have paid into. In a vicious version of a comedy skit, the Congress has tried 37 times to repeal the only health coverage program all citizens have ever had — before it comes into effect. They cite the need to cut spending while they continue waste 50 cents of every tax dollar on the military, a tax-funded “social works program” that lacks the social productivity and usefulness of most other works programs and actually makes killing easier and more alluring.
All the while, the government’s cozy relationship with the mainstream media means that we can’t expect any decent information from that institution.
Our government isn’t representing us. The Constitution is effectively being ignored. We are in big trouble and the criminal behavior of our “leaders” isn’t going to save us.
All of this has gone on with very little popular resistance. So when Jay-Z “dropped” his album using a phone App that actually enhanced the intrusiveness cell phone companies have become infamous for, it’s not surprising that many didn’t care. But it’s noteworthy that many did. Polls are showing that, contrary to what pols and pundits protest, citizens in this country are very concerned about this surveillance. It may be that these latest surveillance revelations, painting a picture of a society that makes “Big Brother” look like a younger sibling, have brought us to some kind of critical mass.
One indicator of popular consciousness is the progressive movement that is usually “out in front” of the majority of people on most issues — that is, after all, its function. For years now, some Internet activists have been screaming about the movement’s ignoring of surveillance as an issue and its blind-faith use of the kind of software (including Google’s nefarious Gmail) that facilitate that surveillance. In the past two weeks, I’ve participated in general issue (not technology-specific) movement conferences that have suddenly and dramatically put the surveillance and privacy issue at the top of the agenda. I have three more conferences on my agenda this Summer and all have given the surveillance issue the same treatment.
The subject of those conference discussions is “what do we do?”. That’s a sign that people are going to start organizing around the issue. When they do, they will be faced with a question: can we really “petition” our government on this grievance as the Constitution allows us to? Can we seriously expect that government to do a damned thing about it? And what do we do with a government that refuses to listen or serve us or protect us? Can we seriously protection of people and respect for the law from a criminal enterprise?
Those questions, as they say, are now open for discussion. For starters, maybe we can all make a pledge to search out software that doesn’t spy on us from organizations that don’t conspire with a government that is breaking the laws designed to protect us.