Oscar-nominated actress Maggie Gyllenhaal's latest gig is narrating "Truth and Power," a new documentary series exploring how governments use technology in potentially invasive ways.
The next episode, which airs Feb. 5 at 10 p.m. ET on cable channel Pivot, looks at how a criminal case about tax fraud and identity theft helped expose StingRays. That secretive piece of technology helps law enforcement officials collect information about mobile phones by tricking the devices into thinking the StingRay is a local cell tower with the strongest signal. By doing that, it sucks up data on both suspects and other people nearby.
Gyllenhaal talked with The Post about the new series, online anonymity, and why she thinks StingRays are unconstitutional. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Andrea Peterson: You've long been politically outspoken, including on privacy issues. You were featured in a short film from Brian Knappenberger, who is also involved in this new docuseries, supporting a rally to reform NSA surveillance back in 2013. What first drew you to this particular issue? Why does it resonate with you?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well, I think it's very current — it's something that pretty recently was exposed as what I think is a big problem in this country and the world. There are a lot of things I think are broken about the country that we are living in now and the time we're living in now — this just one of them. And this happened to be something that they happened to ask me to participate in, and I felt curious about it.
Really, I didn't know all that much about some of these things until I started working on the series. In a lot of cases, what I know about them is the same thing you'll know after you finish watching it. That's because I think a lot of this stuff isn't really covered by mainstream media and there isn't a lot of information that's easy to get about some of these things. That's one of the things I think is valuable about the series — they're short, 20 minutes, pretty simple, easy to digest pieces about stories I think it's important people know about.
AP: A big focus of the show, at least the episodes I've seen so far (the government malware episode and the StingRay episode) focused on the state as a potential privacy invader. Where do you think consumer privacy and the surveillance from for-profit companies fits into that discussion? Is that something the show is going to cover — or will it stay focused on government privacy?
MG: I actually have three more episodes to narrate — and I don't know what they're on. I can look up the last three and see if they're going to talk about consumer privacy issues. I think mostly it's about government technology, but let's see. ... Nope, they're not going to talk about that.
I think in some ways, it's funny — I was thinking about how people were upset about the information that came out from Snowden about the NSA — many people were upset, including myself. But I was kind of surprised by how little we did about it — how little fighting we did. And I was wondering if maybe it was because we kind of all knew this was happening somewhere, unconsciously, whether we wanted to admit it to ourselves or not.
I think in a way that's how I am about the consumer privacy stuff. I sort of space it out — I don't even notice the advertisement that comes up on my screen. I'm a smart person and it's just something I've just blacked out because it doesn't seem right to me. It seems kind of freaky to have that kind of privacy invaded, but sort of disassociate it, and that's how I put up with it. I'm not proud of that, but I think that's how it works for me.
One of the things I think is important about this series is that it reminds you how far things have gone, how deep the lack of privacy is — how invasive. And in a lot of ways, how unconstitutional it is. So it's a reminder that I think is pretty valuable.
AP: Having the kind of career that you have where you're oftentimes in the public eye, do you think that makes you more sensitive to potential privacy invasions?
MG: I bet it makes me less sensitive, because people write things in newspapers about me that aren't true — or that are true. They take pictures of my kids on the way to school. I get a little bit inured to it in a way that I think most people probably aren't.
I think the part of me that feels this is unconstitutional is that this is an invasion of a basic right of mine as a human being. I think we all feel it. I loved that part of the StingRay episode where they talk about how we use our phones as our alarm clocks. We have our phones right by our beds, right next to us in our most exposed, vulnerable moments. And yet the government could have been collecting information from our phones at any moment. I think that basically as humans, we feel that's a violation.
AP: You mentioned a little bit before that people have taken pictures of your kids. How do you handle privacy as a parent especially living under that kind of microscope? What kind of things are you trying to teach your kids about the sort of protections they can take about themselves online. How do you plan on approaching that?
MG: My kids are pretty little. I don't know — one of my daughters is 3, so it's not really an issue yet. The other one is 9. She does have homework that involves doing research on the Internet and has this sort of special way of e-mailing for school that is protected, but I think it's something we're all sort of figuring out.
This is the wild west, in terms of this new digital age. It hasn't really been regulated and you have to think all the time about how you protect yourself and protect your kids.
One of the things I think is really problematic about something like [government] spyware is that it isn't transparent — because of that anonymity and that secrecy, there aren't laws to regulate it.
It's the same way with the anonymity of the Internet — I said to Ramona [my daughter] once ... you should never look yourself up on the Internet. It's something I've learned.
Don't do it because people go on the Internet anonymously and so they can say whatever mean things they want to say without there being any consequence, whereas if you say mean things to someone's face you see the pain that you've caused them — you see the hurt you've caused them. So you have to be very careful. So just blanket rule, never do it.
I'm sure she will do it at some point, just like I think everyone in the world has. But I think something about the anonymity of it can be very dangerous. But that's a different issue really, that's not a constitutional problem — it can just be cruel.
AP: You've brought up that term "unconstitutional" several times in this conversation — the idea that a lot of the technological issues that we've seen with government may be unconstitutional. ... If there was one particular issue that you feel like you learned more about as part of this series that you think needs more work done on a policy level, what is it? What was the thing that was most surprising to you or felt the most invasive?
MG: Let's talk about the StingRays for example — which have, at least by some people, been called unconstitutional.
You have to have a warrant for search and seizure, that's part of the Constitution — it was started so the British couldn't come in and just randomly search people's houses hundreds of years ago.
If you're using a StingRay, you can gather information from a suspect's cellphone, but to do that you have to also then be gathering information from anyone in proximity to that suspect without a warrant. And those people are totally innocent, so I certainly think something like that would violate my constitutional rights.
Look, I think that's unconstitutional. And I also think that if it weren't secret, if there were transparency about it, then we could all agree together as a culture and a country what we feel comfortable with in terms of terms of sacrificing our privacy — in terms of protecting our privacy. But we can't do that if we don't know what's going on. I think that's really the main issue.