Terrorism evokes fear, especially when it happens close to home and not in some far-away place on the other side of the globe. Nobody likes to be afraid and we were eager to make the fear go away. So we demanded more security. Since September 11th, it’s become increasingly normal for civil liberties to be eroded and for government agencies to spy on citizens to collect and store their personal information. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of right or left wing policies, this affects every one of us. We have to take a look at the data and ask ourselves honestly: “Has all of this surveillance actually made us any safer?”
In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government concluded that the law had not kept pace with technology. It created the Terrorist Surveillance Program initially to intercept communications linked to al-Qaida. Officials confidently claimed that if the program had been in place before 9/11, we could have stopped the hijackers. Little did we know, we had just started the birth process of the new American Surveillance State.
In 1949, Eric Glendon under the pen name of George Orwell published the book 1984. In that book, he showed the predictive power manifested in the current state of society. Blair coined the term Big Brother for the symbolic figurehead of the totalitarian state Oceania in a dystopian society. As a constant reminder of the State’s omnipresence, every citizen is under constant surveillance with the government’s slogan “Big Brother is Watching You”. The United States government has taken a slightly different approach, but the end game is very much the same. The leaks by Edward Snowden bring to light what many of us already believed – that the United States is moving closer and closer to a society where its citizens have nearly all actions monitored.
License Plate Readers
Unbeknownst to many citizens, plate-reading cameras are now mounted on many police cruisers around the country. The device can check if a car is unregistered, uninsured, or stolen. In addition, police officers now have automatic license plate readers that are designed to track the movements of every vehicle that passes. According to the ACLU, the devices can capture and collect the license plate number and the date, time, and location of every scan. A huge database of information on drivers has been collected. With the improvements in this technology, analysts believe that authority figures will have greater knowledge of citizen movements.
One of the biggest points of contention from many civil liberties activists is the ability for third parties to gain access to said data. The connection of government and the private industry should worry any citizen that wants to protect their privacy.
While it might be a foregone conclusion in the United Kingdom that you’ll be monitored when you walk down the street, in the United States the demand for privacy and protection from the government is a bit higher. It may frighten some of you to know that in many cities in the U.S., there’s a very good chance that you’re being monitored as you walk to work and an ACLU report demonstrated that the city of Chicago has access to ten thousand publicly and privately owned cameras throughout the city, and in the downtown districts virtually every segment of the public is under video surveillance. Not only are cities spending money on surveillance cameras and software, but the Department of Homeland Security has spent millions on even more sophisticated high tech video cameras.
If you utilise public transportation, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen the slogan “If you see something, say something” while riding public transportation. It just so happens that you’re not the only one looking. The Department of Homeland Security has funded installation of public bus video and audio surveillance in numerous U.S. cities.
A Wired article outlines that buses around the country are quietly adding microphones that would give them the ability to record and also store private conversations. Cities that already have listen-in bus surveillance include San Francisco, Baltimore, Detroit, Hartford Connecticut, Concord New Hampshire’s Park-and-ride System and Boston. Under the protections against illegal search and seizure provided by the United States Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, it naturally questions the legality of such a measure, as the government would be eavesdropping without a warrant – particularly since recordings of passengers could be obtained and used by law enforcement agencies.
The National Security Agency
One of the biggest government agencies responsible for spying on its own citizens is the National Security Agency. Recently, AT&T admitted that domestic Internet traffic was being diverted through a splitter cable, which essentially allowed NSA technicians access to all their data. While Facebook and Microsoft have denied their collusion with the government in this capacity, the Washington Post and Guardian outlets have reported that the government has direct access to their servers. This intrusion on our privacy goes back to the Bush administration and has only continued. With the ever-present threat of terrorism, it’s unlikely that citizens will ever truly be able to have the sense of privacy that they desire.
In addition to the NSA’s daily collection of phone call metadata, the Agency is also collecting civilian internet traffic such as email content and contact lists, etc. So instead of focusing on criminals, the government is increasingly turning their attention to everyone. But if you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, adding more hay to the stack isn’t going to make it any easier to find the needle. Despite the government’s high hopes, the NSA surveillance program has not stopped any major terror attack to date.
One of the well-documented cases of espionage is the government spying on our phone use. What is less known is that our locations are also being collected. According to constitutional lawyers, while it’s illegal for the government to listen to the content of a private landline or cell phone conversation conducted entirely within the U.S., the National Security Agency is allowed to collect phone call metadata – time, dates, location, phone numbers of each party, etc.
The catch, in regards to phone calls, is the location on the other end of the line. Documents reveal that the NSA can legally listen in on your conversation if you’re talking with someone who’s outside the country. As mentioned earlier, it’s the monitoring of all locations via cell phones that shocks everybody.
Police departments around the country have been using cell phone trackers illegally to track the locations of individuals. Finally, in late 2017, a United States Appeals Court finally ruled that these agencies must have a warrant before the device is turned on.
Although it may come as no surprise that your credit card data is collected, the depths of their use and the profile that is formed around your shopping habits is alarming. Most credit card companies not only collect your data, but also sell it to third parties. The conditions your cardholder agreements allow for companies to perform data analysis that has given them the right to create profiles on their consumers and sell the information to the highest bidder.
The NSA is one of the third parties that obtain data from the credit card companies. According to Time Magazine, the credit card issuers provide the NSA details such as an account and card number, where and when the purchases were made, and for how much. In conjunction with the growing amount of surveillance, it is not difficult for the NSA to track down the specific individual or individuals who make the respective purchase.
A writer for a major news outlet was recently paid to write an article on North Korea. After the article was written and an email sent to the publisher requesting payment and including the subject line “Payment for the article on North Korea”. Somehow, this message alerted some system of surveillance and the payments was held from going through. Staff members were made to fill out government forms just to get the payment approved and even then, it took more than a week before it became apparent that the payment still would not go through.
This is startling because if such an innocent incident is being investigated, how would the government or the NSA have the ability to find the truly dangerous ones?
Some of the specific groups that have access to this information include the NSA, state and local police and the private sector – specifically advertising companies. With the information they gain from your website traffic, third parties can come up with a great picture of who you are as a consumer and the person.
One of the least known ways that Americans are being spied on by their government is through a tool called GUMFISH. Reports state that the NSA has developed mass surveillance operations via malware implants used to infect computers worldwide. As a result, government agencies can access one’s webcam in a remote fashion then turn it when so desired. According to a recent Wired article, the spy tool called GUMFISH can commandeer cameras on infected computers to take photos and record conversations of unsuspecting private citizens, all done without a warrant.
In homage to Orwell’s 1984, StoneMoss Group thought that we should end this article with a reference to his iconic novel. The final thing that shows the US is truly a Big Brother Society is the perpetual state of war the country has been in. Just like in 1984, where the nation was at war with enemies that would change constantly, the U.S. has experienced more than a decade of war in the Middle East with terrorism being declared the enemy. Before that, the Soviet Union was made out to be the biggest threat towards freedom and the US fought proxy wars around the world. If history serves, it won’t be long until the U.S. is engaged in another war. Just like Orwell predicted.
Concerns about these invasions of privacy are often met with the argument “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. This reasoning only creates a climate of oppression. Wanting to keep certain parts of one’s life private doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. Right now, we live in a democracy, but imagine the damage the wrong person could do with all our data and such easy access to our devices.
Anti-terrorism laws allow the authorities to investigate and punish non-terrorism related crimes more aggressively. If you give law enforcement powerful tools, they will use them. That’s why democratic oversight is so important. Even if those tools and laws aren’t used against you today, they might be tomorrow. For example, following the November 2015 Paris attacks France expanded its already extensive anti-terrorism laws by giving law enforcement greater powers to conduct interrogations, detain a person up to four hours without access to an attorney, and place people under house arrest.
Within weeks, evidence emerged that these powers were being used for unintended purposes such as quashing climate change protests. The governments of Spain Hungary and Poland have introduced more restrictive laws on the freedom of assembly and speech. Freedom of expression of the press in Turkey has been seriously undermining in the last few years with people sentenced to prison for criticising the government.
None of this is effectively helping us fight terrorism. The motivation behind this might be good – even noble, but if we let our elected governments limit our personal freedom, the terrorists are winning. What’s worse, if we’re not careful, we might continue to become more of a surveillance state. The data is pretty clear. The erosion of rights along with mass surveillance hasn’t led to significant successes so far, but it has changed the nature of our society.
No security apparatus can prevent a few guys from building a bomb in their basement. We should keep the principle of proportionality in mind – creating master keys to enter millions of phones is not the same as searching a single house. In most countries, the law already permits a wide range of actions including targeted surveillance. To take full advantage of this existing potential, we need better international cooperation and more effective security and foreign policies. Better application of our present laws instead of new and stricter ones that undermine our freedom.
Let us not out of fear destroy what we are most proud of – democracy and that of our fundamental rights and liberties.