Cullen Hoback has made several documentaries including Terms and Conditions May Apply, about the demise of peoples’ privacy online, and What Lies Upstream, which questions whether government is doing all it can to keep drinking water safe. Hoback tells host Robert Scheer that despite the damning information revealed by Edward Snowden about government spying, he was surprised at the lackluster response from the general public. He says private companies that monitor peoples’ data online, including one used by Donald Trump’s campaign during the election, now claim to have thousands of data points on people. And, he discusses why there have been so few whistle-blowers to come forward about government monitoring and to stand up for safe drinking water.
Cullen Hoback – filmmaker, film producer and director – @CullenHoback
Joshua Scheer, Rebecca Mooney
RS: Hi, it’s Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, and the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Cullen Hoback, a 35-year-old documentary filmmaker. One documentary you’ve made, “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” on the whole connection with the data we surrender voluntarily to private companies like Google and Apple and so forth, and the surveillance state, is one I’ve used in my classes; I think it’s one of the best works on the subject. And your new film, coming out soon, is “What Lies Upstream.” It’s not just about Flint, Michigan; it’s also about West Virginia, it’s about the country, it’s about why we have such difficulty maintaining a good water supply and all of the threats to pollute it. We’re going to try to deal with both of these subjects. But let me just begin with, why documentary films? And can you made a living at it, and does anybody watch them, and is this the brave new world of journalism?
CH: I mean, I think that documentaries have never been more popular. There’s never been a better time in my lifetime to be a documentary filmmaker. I think there’s a real opportunity right now, especially for people who, you know, either have worked in journalism in the past or feel really passionate about stories that they want to tell, political situations or environmental situations that aren’t getting enough coverage. You can take a camera these days and embed yourself and, you know, tell a story.
RS: OK, so then let’s cut to the chase here. Is anybody going to watch it, how are you going to get it out there, what about distribution? You’re not Amazon; you can’t guarantee an audience, you can’t even guarantee that film festivals will pay attention. And I want to take your movie, “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” as a case in point. I can’t think of a better film to explain why–and you did it once again the other night when you were at USC in my class, explaining to the students why this information that they give up willy-nilly, not knowing what’s going to happen to it and so forth, can define their lives, can be quite threatening, can be grabbed by governments everywhere all over the world. And yet that film did not have the impact that one would have expected, in terms of shaking up the industry and getting attention.
CH: I mean, I’m not sure that Edward Snowden’s release had the impact I expected. I mean, I think a lot of people who are working in this space, myself included, saw that release of the most kind of damning government surveillance we’ve ever seen, and the reaction was kind of middling. Like, it didn’t, it didn’t stir the public in the way that I had expected. We haven’t seen any meaningful legislation passed since then. And for me honestly, it was quite debilitating in a way; I just expected the public to really say, gosh, our Fourth Amendment rights just are not being protected online; our government has massively overstepped its bounds with domestic surveillance. And that just didn’t happen. So I guess I’m not surprised at this point that the film didn’t have this kind of profound impact, at least on the people who, you know, on the general public. But certainly a lot of people saw it; I mean, you saw it, and, ah–
RS: No, I use it, I show it, I’ve showed it, I don’t know, ten different times to classes. When people watch it, they get alarmed and they worry. But I don’t know how long that concern lasts. But I think your point about Snowden’s revelations, which came out just slightly after your film–
CH: Right, yeah.
RS: And yes, I looked at that, and I also wrote a book called “They Know Everything About You” in response to that, and I’ve been working on that subject. And it is interesting how casual people are about the fact that their information is mined all over the place. Now, I notice here at USC, students who come from China don’t feel that way. You know, we have a lot of exchange students, and they come from societies where they have the view their government is not necessarily benign, and it could use data to hurt you and so forth. We live in a society where people do expect the government to be benign. Maybe they don’t feel quite that way with Donald Trump being president; maybe this is a new awakening, because after all, now it’s Trump who has all your data.
CH: Oh yeah, I’ve heard a lot of liberals suddenly questioning a system that they were kind of OK with before. And it’s a strange phenomenon, where you know, under one regime you say: It’s OK for you to have all of our data, because we trust you to not misuse it against us. And then the second another administration takes over, you say: Oh gosh, maybe the fact that everything we’ve ever done online, all of our phone calls, all our search habits, all of this stuff has been recorded in a sort of time machine form–well, wow, in the wrong hands that’s an incredible superpower.
RS: So, let me cut to the essence of your film. And that was that we voluntarily give up all this information, there the title, “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” and we say “Agree” without reading the fine print. And I’ve never been before students who have said “Oh no, no, I read it all the time”–no one reads it.
CH: [Laughs] They’re designed not to be read, right? So, I mean, it would take you 180 hours every year just to read all the things that you’re agreeing to. But I mean, they all have the same principles in common. Basically, they all say that they can change the terms at any time; they say that they will share information with the government in order to prevent crime from happening. So all of the details as to what we’re agreeing to are basically shared across all platforms. So you really only have to read one of these to understand what most companies that are in the business of selling your data–or aggregating your data so they can, you know, market to you better–are taking from you, and what the cost is.
RS: So what was the shock, or that should have been the shock, of the Snowden revelations? The extent of the surveillance, the intimacy of the cooperation of the government with the private sector, the ease of obtaining this data?
CH: For me, what was most shocking was the volume. Just how much they were able to collect. The fact that there was very little, if any, barrier from a contractor who is, like Edward Snowden, working in Hawaii, being able to look into anyone’s Gmail account, their Facebook, any–or Apple, who came on board with the prison program. It was the last one right after Steve Jobs’ death. So it was, for me, it was just the–how much was being collected and how easy it was for any of these contractors to go into our most personal thoughts and experiences and mine through it if they felt like it.
RS: And what happened with these companies is that until–and this I really do think Snowden deserves a great deal of credit, just because of the volume of what he released; it couldn’t be denied, the extent. Up to that point, the private companies involved were basically denying when they were confronted, and it wasn’t all that often, that they were giving this material over to the government. And that is important to deny, because as a business model, if you’re a multinational company, you have to assure people around the world that their data can be protected, not just from the U.S. government, but from their own government. You know, the example being, say, which has come up in your movie, the Arab Spring and the Egyptian government; at first it was a great celebration of social networking and the ease with, oh, we’re going to have a rally and we’re all going to be there in a whole generation of young people–well, a good number of those young people are in jail now because the Egyptian military government, once it reasserted its power, was able to get a great deal of detail on them, and the information on them. And they’re suffering as a result, and the Arab Spring really didn’t amount to very much as a result; it turned out repressive governments can use the Internet as effectively, or far more effectively, than people who want to cause trouble for repressive governments. And so for a multinational corporation like Google or Instagram or Apple, it seems to be there’s a very clear contradiction when it’s made known. It may not alarm the average American; we’ll see whether that continues to be the case. But it certainly will alarm a lot of people around the world who might buy their products.
CH: I mean, I think part of why people haven’t been as alarmed–and this is something I hear a lot, is well, what’s the harm? Like, until people start experiencing the harm themselves–and I think we’re starting to see that; I mean, there’s a reason why Homeland Security is now going to be asking for social networking passwords when people cross the border. We’re seeing the impact of this collection being used now in relationship to immigration, but that’s just the start. Passing this kind of information in the background between departments–the DEA, the IRS–right before Obama left office, he granted permission for that kind of back-end sharing. It was kind of a shocking last-minute move, considering that Trump was going to be taking office after that. Because it basically just breaks down the firewall between those agencies. So there’s lots of ways now that I think we’ll be experiencing the harm, but the problem is that good surveillance happens invisibly. Right? Like, you won’t know why you didn’t get a job; an employer just might not hire you. You won’t know why the DEA has shown up at your door, or local law enforcement has shown up at your door; they’re not going to tell you, oh, it’s because we’ve been monitoring all of your online chatter. They’re just going to be there and use that information to sting you and bring you in. And I think that we’re going to see more highly targeted efforts focused on journalists and protesters and any kind of opposition that we have in this country. It’s worked effectively in Russia. And this is the real danger of putting this power in the wrong hands, is if you have, you know, if you have someone in power who is sensitive to being criticized, and you want to silence that critique–well, gosh, there is no greater tool imaginable to figure out who the dissenters are and how to target them, than the spy system that has been built over the last 20 years.
RS: The scapegoating leads to, you target a group, whether you call them Communists in the McCarthy era, or you know, go after civil rights workers. Right now it’s immigrants. And we had a case where a father was arrested by ICE as he dropped off his 13-year-old and 8-year-old child[ren]. And the 13-year-old child took photos of it and it went kind of viral, but the guy still was incarcerated and wasn’t there to pick them up after. And it was based on a DUI conviction that was 20 years old. Twenty years old. Now you have a group like Palantir, the data mining group started by the CIA, basically; that was their client for, the CIA was Palantir’s client for the first three years, they invested money in it through In-Q-Tel and so forth. And now–and it’s now, of course, a big profit-making company–they are advising ICE, as they do the CIA, as they do the NSA, on how to do this data mining. So here you have this private government synergy, and the data they’re mining–that is one of the things that’s different about the new surveillance state, it doesn’t really require G-men, FBI guys to be outside your apartment or wiretapping. And that is really the point of–
CH: The war is fought from home now. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, but also, they can just get the data from you, that you have presumably given up because you wanted to buy a new pair of shoes or you wanted to have dinner with somebody, or you were chatting on your email.
CH: Yeah, they’re taking advantage of our desire to connect. If you look at a dating website, I mean, those are some of the most personal questions you can imagine; it’s things like what types of drugs have you tried, how sexually adventurous are you in bed, how do you want to be buried or cremated when you die, what do you want to do with your remains. These are incredibly personal questions, and these are the kinds of things that make up the thousands of data points that companies claim to have on us. You know, just when I made the film, Axiom claimed to have 1600 data points on the average American; and now the company that Trump had worked with, Cambridge Analytica, in this last election–they claim to have 5,000 data points. And these are the kind of data points. And also, the things like “likes” on Facebook, where you say, you know, I like the Rolling Stones, or I like American made cars–when you add enough of these things together, as we’ve learned, you can create a psychoanalytic profile on people. And you can manipulate them without their knowledge. And it’s, I think, more insidious and more devious than what we saw with commercials back in the fifties and sixties, before people really caught on to how they were being lied to through these campaigns. Except now, instead of commercials, it’s feeding us what we perceive as facts and news online when in reality we’re being targeted specifically with that information to manipulate us–in this case it was politically, towards voting for someone or towards not voting at all. And so this is just one of the tent poles of the new information war that we find ourselves in. And so when you say private industry is working in the background with the CIA, and they’ve got this nice marriage, I just think it’s the next step of the military-industrial complex. Where now, information is the most valuable asset in figuring out how to analyze that and then weaponize it. That’s, I mean, that’s the future of war, and we’ve already lost the first battle, if not, you could say, war, just depending on how everything plays out with Trump and this election and his relationship with Russia.
RS: I want to get back to the gadgetry, in a way. What I found, I did find alarming about this dark matter program–and I thought I knew quite a bit about all this–is that people, and I heard you say it in one of your talks to our students: You should do encryption, and you should protect your data, and you should, you know, use different sites that are more sensitive. And Apple has made a big push about, you know, trying to protect its customers. And there’s a good business reason to do that; I mean, if you want to win allegiance in other countries, you’ve got to show that you’re not just a puppet of one government, and so forth. But this latest dump from WikiLeaks makes it seem like that’s all a waste of time. I mean, they get to your phone before you ever even got your hand on it. They implant code, they chance chips, they do all this stuff; they even get your original mail order, you know. They get the phone designed to trap whole categories of–
CH: I mean, this is the most dangerous part, is if you build an exploit into a system, anybody can use that exploit. So that’s why we’re vulnerable to attacks from, you know, any foreign entity who wants to exploit our iPhones. I mean, sure, the CIA can do it; but anybody who knows the exploit can do it. And so that’s the danger of putting holes in encryption.
RS: Well, let me ask you a question, then, about whistleblowers, you know. And presumably we’re learning about what Russia does through whistleblowers; there are people who tell other people and reveal in every society. And I was thinking in reading this story about the CIA and the latest WikiLeaks dump, why didn’t well-intentioned people in these agencies tell us? Why weren’t there more Edward Snowdens? You know, there’s a very large number of people–how many people knew what Snowden knew?
CH: Oh, over 300,000.
RS: Three hundred thousand people knew what Snowden revealed about what our government was doing with our data and invading our privacy, in clearly a violation of the Fourth Amendment. But only one stepped forward and said, you know, this is wrong and here it is, the proof. Right?
RS: So, out of 300,000 people–
CH: Who had that same level of security clearance, yeah.
RS: –yeah. Living in a presumably free society, where you’re not going to be tortured or have your fingernails torn out or so forth, the way you might in other societies–I think. People still assume we live in a relatively free society. Why weren’t there others among the 300,000 who felt, wait a minute, is this right? Is this the way America should be? Is this a good thing?
CH: I’m sure there were lots of others who felt that way, but taking that leap from feeling that way to doing what Edward Snowden did, or what any other whistleblower does–you get punished. I mean, your life is ostensibly over once you make that kind of a leak. You’ll be attacked personally. I mean, we’ve seen this with every whistleblower in history, and the Obama administration prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. So the culture has changed in such a way that now, if you are a whistleblower, you are an enemy of the state; it’s treason. You’re giving away state secrets. Even though what you’re doing, in Edward Snowden’s case, by and large, is revealing a spy system that many would argue is unconstitutional.
RS: [omission] I’m back right now with Cullen Hoback, and continuing the discussion, he’s a very interesting, young, 35-year-old young documentary filmmaker. Let’s turn to your new movie, because everybody knows about Flint, but they don’t realize Flint was not an exception. And your movie centers on that, that this was a case of good, well-trained scientists turning away; bureaucracies that are organized to protect us, like the EPA, turning away. It’s really a tale of corruption on a high level, and of the best and the brightest, again, to use David Halberstam’s phrase about Vietnam: of well-trained, educated, smart people screwing us over.
CH: Yeah, I–I mean, this is obviously something I’ve thought about a lot. Why do these brilliant scientists, in many cases, and people who get into the, you know, business of scientific administration, do horrible things? You know, harm children. And getting to the bottom of that, I think that a lot of people there believe that what they’re doing is servicing this greater good, or perhaps fighting the greater evil might even be a better way to put it. Where they say, well look, there’s lead in water, it’s a problem that’s happening all over the country; in fact, there’s three thousand cities we now know that have lead levels that are far worse than in Flint. But I could imagine these regulatory agencies and the scientists who work there, you know, kind of sitting back and saying, well gosh, we, we’re already struggling for funding, we’re being attacked from all sides, so we don’t want people to know that this problem is happening because we’re going to get blamed for it, and then we’re going to perhaps lose even more of our funding. So in order to look like they’re doing their jobs, they don’t do their jobs, so we can feel safe.
RS: Oh yeah, but this is a biggie, right? [Laughter] I mean, come on, it’s not like OK, I’ll look the other way and what, somebody will eat a little more sugar in their diet than they need, or you know, so forth–
CH: No, we’re talking about many, many people dying from their activities or lack of action. We’re talking about a mass contamination that’s happening in our soil that’s getting into our water that no one’s talking about because of bad EPA policy.
RS: Well, talk about it.
CH: Well, this is one of the big revelations in the film. I talk with Dr. David Lewis, who’s a professor in Georgia. And he worked for the EPA for years; he was a top-level scientist there. He rose, basically, he was working with the White House back during the Clinton administration in those early days. And there was a policy that was put in place that enabled chemical companies to just dump their chemicals down the drain. And so our rivers suddenly became much cleaner, and our soil became much dirtier. Why? Because all of those chemicals that were going down the drain were ending up in our sewage plants. Our sewage is turned into fertilizer, and that fertilizer is spread everywhere. So–
RS: But is it inert? Is it not dangerous?
CH: Well, this is the argument. So the EPA came out saying, we’ve done our studies, there’s no problem, don’t worry about it. And Dr. David Lewis had done his own studies, and he kept documenting all of these cases of illnesses and deaths around the country, and he was able to link them to this EPA policy. Well, the EPA didn’t like that. He came forward, he stepped out, said there were these fake studies that had been conducted. He had examples, even where scientists in court ended up having to say, yeah, they had fabricated studies. And yet the EPA wouldn’t pull those studies from the record, and in fact, they continued to aggressively attack his character and come up with other ways, working with other agencies, to smear him. And so nothing has changed, and we just have his one voice against all of these studies that the EPA has manufactured. And they end up in this position; I think you have someone like Gina McCarthy, who perhaps would like to do something about the soil issue, but isn’t going to do anything because she doesn’t want to be blamed for this problem. Because these agencies inherit the bad policies of their predecessors and previous administrations; that they are political appointees. So when you have a political appointee who is very industry-friendly, makes policies that benefit industry, suddenly that becomes codified in regulation and the EPA is left answering for it for years. And the same thing happens at the CDC.
RS: How do these people sleep at night? You know? And yet they turn around and they condemn the whistleblowers. I mean, you’ve met some of these people, like Bill Binney and [Thomas] Drake and–right? I mean, these are boy scouts.
CH: Every single one of them. They are [laughs], they are the most principled–
RS: I should say Thomas Drake, who revealed so much about the NSA, or John Kiriakou–
CH: They’re people you wouldn’t expect, and they’re so principled.
RS: –a CIA guy of 12 years–yeah.
CH: And the same is true when it came to whistleblowers coming out of the EPA. I mean, these are people who became so fed up with the corruption and the deceit and the lies–what one of the whistleblowers who came out of Flint described as “a cesspool” within the EPA–that they felt they had no other choice than to blow the whistle. They felt a responsibility to their fellow men that somehow gets lost when people get sucked up into these bureaucracies. As you mentioned before, you have, you know, 300,000 people who could have done what Snowden did; well, why was it one? People get into these cultures and they get convinced that these, you know–they convince themselves why what they’re doing is OK; they justify evil. It’s how evil always works. You know, people–I’m sure if you talked to–if you listen to McNamara, he’ll explain why he did what he did. And you see, OK, all evil can be justified. So I mean, and that was what I was trying to get at before: what their theories might be for why they just overlook lead contaminations happening around this country, why they overlook chemicals in our soil that are killing children and elderly people, and getting back into our water. Why is all of this stuff being overlooked? And the answer is, they justify it. They have politicians to answer to, who don’t want, you know, politically unsavory stories coming out while they’re sitting in office, because they don’t want to lose that office. You have careerists, as you said, who don’t want to lose their jobs. Once people end up in these bureaucracies, it’s pretty cozy. And at the same time, they understand–I mean, they’re told, they’re proactively told at the EPA, for instance: Don’t find anything bad. That is [laughs] if you don’t look for something you’re not going to find it, and that’s the great fallacy here, is that you have these scientists who probably, who came into it wanting to do the right thing. And then they’re told, literally, they can’t. And if you try, we will fire you. And that’s the culture that they’re coming from when they blow the whistle. And then you get punished incredibly. You know, they will end your career, they will make it so you can no longer work as a scientists if they have the ability to do it. So that intimidation tactic is so strong, who–who is strong enough in character and principled enough to stand out against that. And who is willing to take the incredible amount of heat and bad press and slander that’s going to be thrown their way? This happens to every whistleblower. Who wants to be in court for years for the rest of their life, especially if they have a family?
RS: The rubric for this series that I’m doing here is “American originals.” And the whole idea is, yes, you know, we’re a confusing society; there’s this crazy patchwork of ethnic groupings and religions and, you know, people who were born here and people who come here, and all this sort of thing. And out of it, there’s a saving grace of people who go against the grain; you know, these profiles in courage, in a way. And they come, you know, as a Ralph Nader, for example; adored at one point, scorned at another. Or we mentioned [Daniel] Ellsberg, but go down the whole list. And I think of someone like yourself, 35 years old, and what’s going to happen to you now? Are you going to burn out? Is somebody going to offer you a lot more money to make them a more commercial movie? You obviously have great talent. And what I’m trying to get at is, how do we bottle this alternative? [Laughs] How do we inspire more people to do this? I mean, come on, yes–they’re following policies that are destroying our privacy–one film you made. Or, they’re destroying kids’ lives and people’s life expectancy, et cetera, et cetera. And where is truth in all this, and why doesn’t our media, which after all is supposed to save us from this, play a more vigorous role. And in your own case, you’re like this one human being, right? And then you’re making, you have to sell these films, and you have to get people to watch them. For instance, and let’s conclude on this, your film’s coming out when?
CH: “What Lies Upstream,” it’ll come out in theaters in limited release this summer, and then it’ll be on TV in the fall.
RS: It will be on TV. You’ve got the contract, you’ve got a deal–
CH: Ah, we have two offers right now. So I can’t say officially which station it will be on, but it will be on.
RS: OK. So let’s accomplish one thing here now. We got this great crusading–I don’t want to say muckraking, because that’s got a bad name; it should have a great name, it’s a great history–
CH: Yeah, there’s a lot of sort of conflict journalism, especially in “What Lies Upstream,” you know, where I bust in on lobbyists rewriting legislation that will determine the fate of the safety of water, or confront state senators, things like that. So there’s a little muckraking, I guess.
RS: And the good news is that some of these things have broken through. I mean, “Inside Job,” which is a very good film, a documentary on the banking meltdown, did find an audience, get an Academy award; “Citizenfour” on the Snowden case, did, again, win an Academy award, find an audience. And hopefully–give us the title again?
CH: It’s “What Lies Upstream.”
RS: Yeah. Which is very powerful, a very powerful film. And look for it, it should be out soon after we broadcast, within a couple of months anyway. And people can make that a reality. They can say they want to see this. They’ll go to the theater to see it, you know? Support young filmmakers who are trying to do an interesting job. So, thanks for coming in for this discussion, and I wish you success with it. Thankfully, USC has provided a studio where we can have this conversation. And Sebastian Grubaugh, another young, technically competent person, makes the sound sound good. This is all done in cooperation with KCRW. I want to thank Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney, our producers back at the station. I want to thank our engineers, Kat Yore and Mario Diaz, for doing this. And see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.