NYC Art, US Court Slap NSA Surveillance

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The arts and the law suddenly held a meeting of minds in New York last week through two events:

snowdenbustbe
Edward Snowden sculpture
  1. The opening of “Seven”, a collaborative exhibition at The Boiler in Brooklyn, including seven New York and London galleries with artists challenging massive surveillance in the United States and worldwide.
  1. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruling illegal the National Security Agency’s unprecedented collection of nearly every American’s landline calling records.

“Seven”

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This 2015 edition of “Seven” is entitled “Anonymity, no longer an option”. With each of the seven galleries presenting work by one artist, the exhibition opened May 8 at The Boiler and will run through May 17. Here’s how the seven galleries explain their rationale for the show, as stated on the gallery PIEROGI’s website:

With the prevailing ubiquity of surveillance, the notion of anonymity is becoming a distant dream. With the use of technology, people everywhere, including our own government, are able to obtain details on anyone anywhere. All are vulnerable to this intrusion: sometimes willingly divulging personal information, as with Facebook and other social media platforms, smart phones, and other location devices; and at other times unwittingly as with the NSA, where we unknowingly give up personal information and privacy, in premise for our personal and national security. Edward Snowden’s actions in divulging information about these programs revealed that we are more vulnerable than we had previously thought. In this exhibition, the notion of surveillance is examined in various ways by seven artists.

A surprise highlight of the exhibit is a four-foot-tall, 100-pound sculpted bust of Edward Snowden by two activist artists, Jeff Greenspan and Andrew Tider. The sculpture received international attention last month when it suddenly appeared Apr. 6 in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, atop the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, a homage to Revolutionary War soldiers. Police confiscated it, then later returned it to the artists, who provided it to The Boiler for the current exhibition.

The regularly scheduled artist for PIEROGI is Mark Lombardi. The other artists and the galleries they represent are: Katrarzyna Kozyra (Postmasters), Trevor Paglen (Metro Pictures), Suzanne Treister (P•P•O•W), Mark Tribe (Momenta Art), Addie Wagenknecht (bitforms gallery), and Sam van Aken(Ronald Feldman Fine Arts).

The “Seven” series was launched in 2010.

The Court Ruling

The federal court’s three-judge panel ruled that the NSA’s program for collecting millions of Americans’ phone data isn’t sanctioned by the Patriot Act, the Federal legislation that is supposed to allow sweeping records of suspected terrorists.

In its 97-page ruling, the court expressed concern with government’s ability to easily gain access to information about Americans’ private lives:

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That telephone metadata do not directly reveal the content of telephone calls, however, does not vitiate the privacy concerns arising out of the government’s bulk collection of such data. Appellants and amici take pains to emphasize the startling amount of detailed information metadata can reveal — “information that could traditionally only be obtained by examining the contents of communications” and that is therefore “often a proxy for content.” …For example, a call to a single‐purpose telephone number such as a “hotline” might reveal that an individual is: a victim of domestic violence or rape; a veteran; suffering from an addiction of one type or another; contemplating suicide; or reporting a crime. Metadata can reveal civil, political, or religious affiliations; they can also reveal an individual’s social status, or whether and when he or she is involved in intimate relationships…

 

…But the structured format of telephone and other technology‐related metadata, and the vast new technological capacity for large‐scale and automated review and analysis, distinguish the type of metadata at issue here from more traditional forms. The more metadata the government collects and analyzes, furthermore, the greater the capacity for such metadata to reveal ever more private and previously unascertainable information about individuals. Finally, as appellants and amici point out, in today’s technologically based world, it is virtually impossible for an ordinary citizen to avoid creating metadata about himself on a regular basis simply by conducting his ordinary affairs.

The federal judges decided the Patriot Act did not provide authority for the NSA to make such collections of data.

Three things remain in question:

  1. Is the Patriot Act itself constitutional? Some authorities argue it is not, but the three-judge panel did not rule on that.
  2. Congress must decide by June 1 if it will renew the Patriot Act. If it does, will it include language allowing collection of the type of metadata the three judges ruled were not permitted?
  3. The three-judge panel remanded the case back to the federal circuit court. What will happen then? Will a full five-judge panel eventually rule on the case? Could it end up with the U.S. Supreme Court for a final decision?

Stay tuned to see who determines your privacy’s future. Who knows. Maybe you’ll want to decide that.

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Roger Armbrust
Roger Armbrust's articles and columns have covered labor and management, Congressional legislation, and federal court cases, including appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. He formerly served as national news editor of Back Stage in New York City, where he also taught a professional writing course at New York University. His recent book of sonnets -- oh, touch me there: Love Sonnets -- is available from Amazon and other book sites. He is an Associate Curator of The Clyde Fitch Report.