Green activists navigate life in the post-privacy era
November 2, 2013

We now know that the U.S. government can obtain virtually any email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, Skype messages, file transfers, and social networking details it wants. We know that it can monitor the location, duration, and telephone numbers involved in any phone call on an ongoing, daily basis.  We know that it monitored the foreign officials who traveled to the G20 summit in 2009. We know that it has deliberately weakened the encryption software meant to protect financial transactions. We know that it has tapped into the fiber-optic cables connecting international servers so that it can copy, basically, any information that moves through them.

What does this mean for environmental activists, who, like the rest of us, increasingly organize their lives over the internet? “I remember in the past we used to tell each other to wipe our phone’s contacts before protests,”  says Joshua Kahn Russell, who once organized protests with the Ruckus Society and now is a global community manager with “I can’t imagine activists doing that now, since the government and private companies have infinitely more access to our personal information that we freely provide through Facebook and other social networking sites.”

The ’90s and early ’00s were, arguably, the peak of government paranoia about the environmental movement. In 2005, John Lewis, the top FBI official in charge of domestic terrorism, declared that radical environmentalists were the No. 1 domestic terrorist threat. State, local, and federal officials dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort to tracking down the disbanded members of The Family, an offshoot of the Earth Liberation Front that set fire to a car dealership, a ski resort, a horse slaughterhouse, and other sites in the Pacific Northwest. The FBI also spent three years monitoring Greenpeace [PDF] and put several members on the terrorism watch list, in an investigation that the Justice Department’s inspector general later ruled was improper.

If electronic surveillance is being used on environmental activists, there is not much sign of it yet. “We use everything from two-way radios to cellphones to internet to chat to Facebook to organize,” says Ramsey Sprague, a Texan who has worked with the Tar Sands Blockade. “We follow Basic Security Culture, which is just about being aware of what you are talking about, and who you are talking about it with.”

The most visible manifestation of surveillance in the environmental movement has been a rash of undercover agents. At times they have engaged in activities that blurred the lines between police work and entrapment; but for the most part, they’re a consistent enough presence that every experienced environmental group has a policy for dealing with them.

“It goes against the core values of inclusion to look at someone and say ‘That looks like a cop,’” says Sprague. “Although young officers do look very … sculpted. So you have them do outreach. Send them out to go talk to people who are really being affected by what oil companies are doing in their community.”

Both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy were visited by undercover informants, as were groups like the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance. That organization figured out it was being monitored this March, after its plan to block the gates to TransCanada’s oil reserves in Cushing, Okla., was derailed by the sudden appearance of police officers, who began to pull over cars full of demonstrators before they even reached Cushing.

Photo: Tar Sands Blockade in Nacogdoches, Texas November 2012