Electronic Frontier Alliance member Digital Fourth—also known as Restore the Fourth Boston—has been instrumental in passing surveillance oversight ordinances in the greater Boston area since 2018. Digital Fourth advocates for Fourth Amendment rights in Massachusetts. The Fourth Amendment protects people in the U.S. from “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the government. (For some of EFF’s Fourth Amendment work, see our Deeplinks on the topic.)
We spoke with Alex Marthews, president of Digital Fourth, about the organization and their work.
What inspired you to start Digital Fourth?
After 9/11, I watched with horror as the Bush administration started expanding mass surveillance, and harming the rights of both citizens and noncitizens. I followed the scandals over warrantless wiretapping and the Military Commissions Act. I saw the rise of Anonymous, the hounding of Barrett Brown, Julian Assange and Private Manning, and the police repression of Occupy. I didn’t feel then like I could act on what I saw as a rapidly expanding surveillance state, because I was still a non-citizen, and felt vulnerable. So when I became a citizen in 2012, I wanted to start a group that would try to fix the damage done to the Fourth Amendment, and fight against mass surveillance and the threats to our privacy."
"There was so much I didn’t know at the beginning"
There was so much I didn’t know at the beginning, so much I had to learn. I started off thinking that the key problem was just out-of-control NSA; I didn’t know about all that was wrong with police culture and the practices of the FBI; about DHS and its inept “fusion centers”; or about firms like Palantir and Shotspotter, and how they all relate to and reinforce one another.
But what keeps me going is the utter intransigence of the forces we face. Even after all that’s been revealed, by Edward Snowden and through the Black Lives Matter movement, these folks inside the police and national security apparatus really think they’ve done nothing wrong. They think we’d all be better off if we went back as a society to a world where citizens reflexively deferred to them. But there’s no unringing that bell. We need new ways of looking at public safety and national security, that reduce the damage they’re doing to our privacy and our freedoms.
Can you tell us about some of your important projects?
We’re most proud of having been key in passing surveillance oversight ordinances in Cambridge (2018), Somerville (2019) and Boston (2022). These ordinances outlaw secret government surveillance in the Greater Boston Area, where over one million people live. They also create a review structure for surveillance tech that city agencies want to use in the future
"Through our advocacy, the Massachusetts Senate passed important reforms."
Another thing we’re proud of is our work on civil asset forfeiture. Police can just straight up seize your stuff pursuant to a police stop, and in Massachusetts, you have very little recourse to get it back. Police can then take the proceeds of those seizures and spend it on literally anything—surveillance gear, military surplus stuff, ice cream, whatever. Massachusetts has one of the weakest civil asset forfeiture laws in the nation. Through our advocacy, the Massachusetts Senate passed important reforms. 1 Next session, we’re working on getting those reforms passed into law, among a heap of other things.
Why do you think your work is important?
I think we can all see that as our lives become datafied, what happens to that data and who controls it gets more and more important. Governments across the world are terrified of losing narrative control; they’re white-knuckling it, cracking down on alternate sources of information, resisting accountability by all means up to and including violence.
"We don’t have to have a world where we’re ceaselessly tracked"
We don’t have to have a world where we’re ceaselessly tracked and digitally disciplined. The Fourth Amendment shows another way where, if the government doesn’t have evidence of your personal involvement in an actual crime, they leave you be to pursue your own dreams.
I want a world where people can rely on one another, work together, empower one another, without being relentlessly propagandized and surveilled. Today's governments only need mass surveillance and nobody will dare dissent. Nothing less than our future as free people is at stake.
What opportunities exist for people to get involved?
Boston’s surveillance ordinance came into force just a few weeks ago. We’d like to help Boston residents understand the surveillance they’re under, participate in public hearings, and press their City Councilors to say “no” to things like police use of stingrays and drones.
The real core of Digital Fourth is a group of volunteers who get together every Tuesday via video-call at 2:15pm Eastern time. Let me know if you’d like to sit in on one of them. Core members include Julie B., Joe C., Mickey M., Jamie O., Lauren P. and Vanessa C. The core members all live either in Boston or its suburbs. But you won’t find photos of most of us on the website, because we like our privacy!
"You can get secret surveillance outlawed in your community"
What we need more than anything else are people who can help form groups of volunteers in their cities and towns. You can get secret surveillance outlawed in your community, and help to push back on facial recognition, surveillance in schools, and other invasive practices. We need attorneys to help us draft and introduce bills; activists to protest and organize; experts to help us learn more about surveillance; and ordinary people who see where this is all going, who dislike it, and are willing to say so publicly. If your politics are peaceful, everybody is welcome. Just email email@example.com to get started!
[This interview has been edited for length.]