An increasingly unchecked surveillance state

The US government extensively monitors its citizens’ internet activities, with dangerous effects on personal liberties.

Google Data Center
Companies could face fines if they refuse to share client data requested by government agencies [EPA]

The most egregious rights violations tend to happen against the voiceless; those who have neither the platform nor resources to articulate their grievances to the broader world.

Last week, however, the US Department of Justice was caught in a very public transgression against the freedom of an influential and empowered private organisation when it was revealed that it had engaged in a spying campaign against the Associated Press (AP) – one of the country’s largest news agencies.

In what has been described as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion“, AP revealed that Obama’s Department of Justice had engaged in a surveillance campaign targeting its reporters and editors. This campaign included the covert acquisition of phone records from AP staff; including from their home and personal cell numbers.

In a public letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP President Gary Pruitt said the surveillance would:

Reveal communications with confidential sources and disclose information… that the government has no conceivable right to know.

It would seem, however, that soliciting such confidential knowledge was just what the government was after, as it sought to obtain information regarding AP’s reporting on CIA operations in Yemen. Indeed, far beyond this incident of spying on the press, it has been demonstrated over the past several years that the US government under Obama has developed a seemingly insatiable appetite for its citizens’ private information. Furthermore – and to the detriment of the American right to privacy – they have shown few qualms about the means they are willing to employ to acquire such data.

Digital documentation 

In 2010, the Washington Post‘s landmark report “Top Secret America” – an investigative effort to document the rapidly expanding and unaccountable security apparatus developing in the country – uncovered a stunning fact about the depth of surveillance Americans today find themselves under.

According to the report: 

Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.

In a world where such media have become the primary means of communication for millions of citizens, this level of undisclosed documentation is incredibly significant. Government spying on citizens’ internet activities is not simply an intrusion into their external communications, but in many ways it represents surveillance of a significant chunk of their mental lives as well. 

Obama wants US cyber firewall against hackers

Never before has such an immense repository of information been available to a state – but without so much as public disclosure, this huge trove of knowledge is being created by the US government for purposes that have never been properly articulated. 

A particularly insidious example of how Americans have been robbed of their right to privacy can be seen in government monitoring of social media and email platforms. When services such as Twitter, Facebook and Gmail first launched and millions of Americans rushed to take part in what seemed to be another opportunity for benign internet socialising, they could not have been expected to know that they were sharing intimate private thoughts and information not just with friends and family, but with the state as well. 

In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security quietly began a programme to monitor social media in conjunction with the military contractor General Dynamics. This programme – disclosed only after privacy organisations filed lawsuits that revealed its existence – casts its surveillance net broadly enough that any internet user who uses certain keywords (some apparently as innocuous as “wave”, “pork” and “Mexico”) would be considered suspicious and subject to more intensive investigation. Of course, the rationale for these designations continues to remain as opaque as the programme itself.

Earlier this year, Google released its semi-annual report on online transparency and specifically cited the US government as among the worst culprits for its requests to view the private data of internet users. While theoretically law enforcement and other government agencies should require warrants to search through sensitive private information such as emails, recent investigations by the ACLU suggest that the FBI has been circumventing these requirements and reading individuals’ email accounts without specific legal authorisation.

Furthermore, companies such as Facebook and Google may now face monetary fines if they refuse to share client data and consent to wiretaps requested by government agencies. In a world where people increasingly use the ample cloud-memory space afforded by services such as Gmail as a storage locker for information, the apparent belief on the part of government that individuals’ email accounts do not qualify as “private” is deeply troubling.

Big data, big brother

A glimpse into what the future of domestic surveillance may entail can be seen in a new type of software developed by the defence firm Raytheon. Better known in the public imagination for its production of cruise missiles and air warfare simulators, Raytheon has begun to branch out into the creation of surveillance products as well with the development of its new “Riot” software.

The programme – demonstrated in a report by The Guardian‘s Ryan Gallagher – mines individuals’ social media usage in order to track their movement and even predict their future behaviour. In a video with Raytheon’s “principal investigator” Brian Urch, he demonstrates in amazing detail how the programme can be used to track and predict the future location of one of the company’s own employees.

As Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre told Gallagher regarding the implications of the programme:

Users may be posting information that they believe will be viewed only by their friends, but instead, it is being viewed by government officials or pulled in by data collection services like the Riot search.

It is unlikely that any individual operating a Twitter and Facebook account to connect with loved ones would imagine their posts could one day be used by the employees of a government defence contractor to predict their future behaviour; but incredibly enough, such a scenario is becoming increasingly possible.

Another sign of increasing government commitment to the use of “Big Data” to keep tabs on online and telephone communication is the creation of a massive $2bn data centre in Utah under the aegis of the National Security Agency (NSA). The sprawling complex built in the remote Utah desert is intended to capture and store all types of online data, including private emails, mobile phone calls, Google searches, travel itineraries and purchases, towards the goal of achieving “total information awareness“.

What this will mean in the long-term for the average citizen – whose personal privacy has already been hopelessly compromised by technological monitoring, and who will now be subject to a massive and open-ended programme of Big Data analytics – is as yet unclear. What is clear, however, is that the post-9/11 environment of fear has allowed huge amounts of resources to be committed to projects such as this, which will empower the US government with a level of information about its citizens unprecedented in human history.

The human impact of surveillance

When considering the implications of the massive digital Panopticon being developed today, it is important to reflect upon the impact upon individual liberty which even crude, old-fashioned surveillance causes. With the revelation that the New York Police Department had been conducting blanket-spying on Muslims living in New York City and its environs – using methods such as paid informants, wiretapping, detailed cataloguing of Muslim neighbourhoods, documentation of Muslim-owned businesses, infiltration of houses of worship, and many other invasive tactics, it can be observed what effects intensive monitoring can have on ordinary individuals. 

Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.

Top Secret America report

Throughout six years of spying on entire communities for no other reason than their religion, not a single lead or terrorism investigation was generated by the programme. Nonetheless, the damage done to the psyches of individuals who knew their community was deeply infiltrated was palpable. Communities and personal relationships were torn apart by government-induced suspicion and paranoia, as people became too afraid to speak or even associate with one another. As documented in AP’s report on the programme:

Interviewees stress that the ever-present surveillance chills – or completely silences – their speech.”

“Every other store on this street could be an informant. You start wondering about each one: how did this person get his liquor license so quickly?”

“‘Nobody will trust you with things that they did trust you with before… Trust is gone. My own neighbor – he doesn’t say it, obviously no one says it. But I feel like it’s on their faces.”

Given what relatively crude means of surveillance can do to a community, what long-term effect will a pervasive, technologically-advanced, multi-billion dollar national spying programme have on the fabric of society? One means of combatting seditious and unwanted speech is to simply make ordinary people too afraid to speak and commiserate with each other whatsoever, and the surveillance state being built today may ultimately accomplish this goal.

As much as is still possible, citizens should seek to jealously guard their personal information and to be judicious with what they share on seemingly-innocuous social media outlets. One thing that can be assured is that the infrastructure exists to document – allegedly in the minutest detail – an increasing amount of private data, and until citizens begin to lobby government for safeguards upon their privacy the surveillance state will only continue to grow.

The potential consequences for individual liberty cannot be overstated, and it is incumbent upon those who wish to protect Constitutionally enshrined personal freedoms to make sure that government surveillance becomes an issue of urgent public scrutiny and oversight.

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @MazMHussain

You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets

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