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The United States of Surveillance

Updated on May 3, 2016
Bobby Shanahan profile image

Robert is a freelance writer/researcher in the Seattle, WA area. He covers current political, economic, and geopolitical news.

Microsoft v. NSA

Microsoft Leads the Charge

Microsoft’s recent suit against the government has shed a bright light on the debate between liberty and security. The tech giant based in Redmond, WA has a vested interest in suing the government, sure, but “secret government searches are eroding people’s trust in the cloud,” according to President Brad Smith. The cloud is a fast-growing and profitable business that is increasingly relied upon by businesses and individuals alike to store and protect important information.

This debate goes far beyond Microsoft’s quarrel with the U.S. government however, as the company’s dealings are just one example of a string of abuses perpetrated by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

The federal government has been misusing its police power, evidenced by its search warrant demands to companies like Microsoft. According to the complaint, Microsoft received 5,624 demands for customer information or data in the past 18 months. In addition, almost half of those came with orders holding Microsoft to secrecy about the investigatory actions.

Attorneys for Microsoft argue that “it violates both the Fourth Amendment, which affords people and businesses the right to know if the government searches or seizes their property, and the First Amendment, which enshrines Microsoft’s rights to talk to its customers and to discuss how the government conducts its investigations.”

Microsoft is far from alone in being hounded for information by the Feds. Over 60 companies now produce transparency reports since Google started in 2010. These reports are designed to “disclose threats to user privacy and free expression. Such reports educate the public about company policies and safeguards against government abuses.” The reports disclose a variety of statistics related to requests for user data, records, or content.

Companies like Google and Twitter have gone to court in order to release more information in their reports. Uber just published its first transparency report, revealing that it forked over data on 12 million drivers and riders to 33 regulatory agencies, including state and local law enforcement, in just the second half of 2015.

Technology companies have been on the frontlines of the fight against Big Brother, and they have been losing. The United States has been trending toward a police state over the years, especially after 9/11, as its citizens crave to live in a never ending state of 100% security. Our federal bureaucracy has grown into an untamable Leviathan and the police state has increased in lockstep with it.

Now that everything is computerized, technocrats in the government do not even have to manually monitor us anymore. Computers and other algorithms constantly monitor Americans’ presence via the internet, text messages, phone calls, and even by one’s very pinpoint position on the planet. The National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) claim to be keeping Americans safe while in reality they are stripping them of their dignity.

One of the scariest instances of the government’s expanding use of its police power is the way they direct it toward those the current ruling party disagrees with. For example, the IRS was used to target conservative groups in the runup to the 2012 election. Other instances that warrant targeting by the surveillance state include touting pro-gun, pro-freedom, or anti-government messages in any way. People who dare do things like this are branded domestic terrorists by our government overlords. In addition, if one dares share libertarian views, express Second Amendment rights, or show signs of being self-sufficient, the government may set its sights on you.

Even billboards like the ones in Times Square are spying on us now

The Constant Tracking of Americans

Even billboards are spying on us. Clear Channel Outdoor Americas, which has over 675,000 billboards in over 40 countries, confirmed that it is using mobile phone photo data to learn about people who are passing displays in order to cater ads to specific consumers. New York Senator Charles Schumer has taken the leadership in putting a stop to this in America, urging a federal investigation as to the legality of this practice.

These spying advertisements prove that our phones, cars, and anything else with a tracking device of some sort is being used by companies and now the government to constantly monitor the citizenry.

There’s virtually nowhere you can go without being tracked. Both Apple and Google track your phone’s movements with location-based services. Google scans your emails in order to serve you more relevant advertisements. Apple stores your iMessages. Dropbox reads your files. Though it is definitely not healthy to live in constant fear of being tracked, it is important to know that you are being watched. And fear is likely the end result when you citizens feel repressed.

In March, Apple and the FBI had an epic battle over the hacking of the dead San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. With the help of an undisclosed outside party, the Feds were able to gain access into the phone. Apple stood firmly and did not set a dangerous precedent in allowing the government to access someone else’s private property, even that of a terrorist’s.

The FBI has grown increasingly aggressive in pressuring technology companies to fork over confidential data to serve its own investigatory needs. Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute believes that security and privacy can be served simultaneously, “the FBI should to stop talking about ‘balancing’ data security against their investigative goals and shift their focus, and their resources, to an approach that serves both at once.” Yet, the end result is usually a deference to law enforcement while liberty is shoved under the rug. The government’s surveillance powers and access to information have been rising at alarming rates and no one seems to care about it.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates cared enough to wade into the discourse. He is behind Microsoft’s efforts to limit the government’s surveillance powers. “I don’t think there are any absolutists who think the government should be able to get everything or the government should be able to get nothing,” Gates said. There has to be a middle ground between the FBI and defenders of liberty in which law enforcement can access information when it needs to expeditiously, but only in extreme circumstances, not as common practice.

"There probably are some cases where (the government) should be able to go in covertly and get information about a company’s email," Gates said. "But the position Microsoft is taking in this suit is that it should be extraordinary and it shouldn’t be a matter of course that there is a gag order automatically put in.”

Microsoft founder Bill Gates in 2013

People v. Government

Do you think the government should have the right to look at your personal correspondence and Internet traffic in order to ensure national security?

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FBI, NSA Gain Further Access

The Supreme Court made it easier for the FBI to hack into our computers, approving changes to federal rules at the end of April that will go into effect in December this year. Previously, under the federal rules on criminal procedures, a magistrate judge could not approve a warrant request to search a computer remotely if the investigator did not know where the computer was—because it might be outside his or her jurisdiction. Starting later this year, a magistrate judge will be able to issue a warrant to search or seize an electronic device regardless of where it is.

“Whatever euphemism the FBI uses to describe it—whether they call it a ‘remote access search’ or a ‘network investigative technique’—what we’re talking about is government hacking, and this obscure rule change would authorize a whole lot more of it,” said Kevin Bankston, director of the Open Technology Institute.

Ahmed Ghappour, a visiting professor at University of California Hastings Law School, has described it as “possibly the broadest expansion of extraterritorial surveillance power since the FBI’s inception.”

U.S. lawmakers are concerned by this ratcheting up of surveillance power as well. “These amendments will have significant consequences for Americans’ privacy and the scope of the government’s powers to conduct remote surveillance and searches of electronic devices,” Oregon Senator Ron Wyden wrote in a press release on April 28th. He continued, “I plan to introduce legislation to reverse these amendments shortly, and to request details on the opaque process for the authorization and use of hacking techniques by the government.”

The U.S. government has been spying on its citizens since at least 2001 it appears. News reports in 2005 first revealed that the NSA was intercepting Americans’ phone calls and Internet communications. Then in May 2006, a USA Today story further revealed that the NSA is receiving wholesale copies of Americans’ telephone records. The Snowden revelations in 2013 spilled the beans on everything and other articles published in The Intercept and WikiLeaks throughout the years have similarly emphasized surveillance abuses by our government.

These acts of surveillance are in direct contradiction to the Constitution. Yet, the government continues to collect mass amounts of phone records from U.S. customers, using the post-9/11 law, the Patriot Act, as its grounds for doing so. Both the Republican Bush Administration and the Democratic Obama Administration have continued to grow the national security state while continuing the constant surveillance of its own citizens.

Surveillance Leads to Servitude

Time and time again, Americans state they do not care if the government is snooping and spying on them. They feel that their privacy is worth sacrificing for the greater security of the country. We do not yet know the full effectiveness of these surveillance techniques. Intelligence experts believe that the fact that we have not had another 9/11-style attack over the Obama years proves that the dragnet surveillance policies by our watchdogs is working. What is somewhat quantifiable is the scary reality resulting from a surveillance state.

Oxford’s John Penney came out with a recent paper in which he delved into the fear that rises out of the citizens that are constantly being watched. “The mere existence of a surveillance state breeds fear and conformity and stifles free expression.” Living under a government obsessed over constantly tracking you, individuals will lose their originality and learn to conform to whatever norms of the time in order to blend into society.

Trends following the Snowden leaks proved this hypothesis. There was “a 20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al-Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.'” People were afraid to read articles about those topics because they feared doing so would bring them under a cloud of suspicion. Sadly these fears were likely warranted.

Penney continued: “If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.” There is already a real problem with our society in that we are already inundated by loads of information, so much so that the truth is often distorted. Couple that with people being too scared to find the truth about something for fear of getting in trouble with the law, then we have a real problem on our hands.

Artists and newsmakers alike seem to be taking proactive action in picking and choosing which words to publish and topics to cover. A study from PEN America writers found that 1 in 6 writers had curbed their content out of fear of surveillance and showed that writers are “not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.”

Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept clarifies the ills of ever increasing surveillance, “There is a reason governments and corporations crave surveillance. It’s precisely because the possibility of being monitored radically changes individual and collective behavior.” If surveillance continues unabated and Penney’s paper proves correct, we will become less of a liberal democracy over the years and more of an authoritarian police state. We can then no longer claim be the “land of the free.”

They say all good things come to an end. Let’s make sure privacy and liberty do not come to an end here in the land of the free and home of the brave.

Edward Snowden Interview on Apple vs. FBI, Privacy, the NSA, and More

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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 15 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

      The brightest minds are forever in the private sector. Government lags behind always, because government doesn't produce anything other than laws and controversies contrived so they can make more laws.

      Technology is created in the private sector, and its growth exceeds any government's ability to comprehend the half of it.