Our government watches and listens to most everything we do: at least, to most every email, text, and electronic communication, and to every conversation we have by telephone or computer, and it knows where we are most of the time. If the idea of freedom contemplates privacy, then freedom is gone, and the idea that we are a free people is mere illusion.
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On December 1, 2011, WikiLeaks released 287 files which it has dubbed "The Spy Files" (click here) detailing some incredible investigative work done by the website Privacy International over the last year involving the manufacture and sale by about 160 companies of services and software to primarily national intelligence agencies with the capacity to render individual privacy and nearly all communications subject to government eavesdropping, censorship, manipulation, editing, tracking and targeting. The commercial software, security, and surveillance companies are incorporated in 25 different countries and most will sell to any regime or private corporation willing to meet their price. According to Julian Assange, the Spy Files were released for the purpose of "documenting the relationships among intelligence agencies and monitoring software developers whose products have been deployed surreptitiously but very, very widely in smart phones and computers." click here
Assange is widely being credited with the revelations in the Spy Files due to the fact he led a panel discussion on espionage and digital security on December 1 in London in which he basically stated that virtually all governments "spy on their own citizens and on foreigners using surreptitious spyware on computers, cell phones, GPS devices and other modern electronic devices." click here Steven Murdoch, University of Cambridge, added that intelligence agencies spy on all individual citizens not because of their involvement in crime or terrorism, but because the intelligence agencies believe the information gathered may prove useful sometime in the future. The implication is, of course, that the information might someday be used for blackmail, although Murdoch does not go so far in his allegations.
It probably comes as no surprise to most progressives that the Spy Files reveal the American NSA and CIA at the front of the line to purchase the most sophisticated surveillance available. Even now, the NSA is building a 1.5 billion dollar facility in Utah just for the purpose of storing such data forever.
Although Assange is getting most of the credit for these revelations, the real hero here is the website Privacy International (click here) and the investigative reporter, Eric King, and his sponsor, the human rights group, Reprieve International, that successfully posed as legitimate international buyers of this sophisticated software for a year in developing their report, "Big Brother Incorporated." According to the panel discussion, the reporters were very surprised how easy it was to gain access to private briefings, confidential reports, technical specifications, and information on other buyers.
The services offered and the capabilities of the software involved are truly mind-blowing. Vendors have websites and offer international meet and greets. The Hacking Team and Gamma Group are examples. One service offered is tapping into high capacity optical fiber networks at submarine cable landing stations. The same service is offered for tapping into land based Internet gateways. In both of these situations, the software used can isolate a single information flow, send it to a land based decryption center for further analysis, and then store it for later use. Additionally, other programs take control of cell phones, even when they are in standby mode, eavesdrop on conversations, take photos of the user and his or her surroundings through the cell phone's camera, record every keystroke of the key pad, monitor email used on the phone, read all text messages, change text messages so the recipient receives a different message from the one the sender sent, use voice recognition to identify the parties to a conversation, and use GPS to locate and, possibly, target a particular phone. In this latter case, when the software developer, Rich Zimmerman, for the GPS locater learned that individuals were targeted by their phone's GPS signal for a missile strike, he is said to have reacted in amazement that the CIA was killing people with his software "that doesn't work." WikiLeaks
Finally, but not least, some of these companies now, according to The Register, "offer to target and break specific international commercial communications satellites, including Thuraya (covering the Middle East), (click here) (take a moment just to watch this website, then consider the power to buy the tools to hack the satellite) Iridium satellite phones, and Marlink's VSAT. Commercial satellite intercept was previously the almost exclusive turf of GCHQ and NSA's Echelon satellite interception network." click here
Whatever can be said about cell phones can be equally said about computers. Moreover, the spyware sold to governments or corporations for intrusion into computers cannot be discovered by commercial security software like Norton Utilities, McAfee, or similar products, and it successfully defeats system restores. Whatever can be accomplished on a cell phone can also be accomplished on a computer, except that normally a computer holds much more sensitive files than a cell phone. If you are connected to the Internet, just presume you are infected because, if Assange and his panel are correct, you almost certainly are.
Evidence found in Egypt, Libya, and certain other countries, indicates that these regimes were using some of the software at issue, if not the highest levels obtainable nor the most sophisticated. According to the work of Privacy International, the Western democracies are the governments which seek the most and best surveillance equipment and software on the international market.
Anyone who paid close attention to the rapid lose of our civil rights since the 911 attack should remember an early DARPA project termed Total Information Awareness. The TIA program embodied an initial attempt by the US government to do openly what we discuss here it does surreptitiously. TIA was created in the Homeland Security Act in early 2003 to be managed by DARPA, but when details of its massive collection of information on innocent American citizens came to light, Congress was forced to kill the project officially in late 2003. The acronyms TIA and DARPA did not go well together in the American mind. The problem, however, was that while in existence TIA had already purchased the hardware and software for its mandate. The project was therefore merely shifted from DARPA to the NSA where it continued to grow and expand with the ever increasing sophistication of new surveillance software. (click here and Truthout has an ongoing article starting at click here)
For many, then, the news that our government is spying on us very closely may not come as a great revelation. We knew it from the Total Information Awareness program, from the Sibel Edmonds case, and almost instinctively. What is new is that instead of collecting terabytes of information and sifting that data for key words or information, the software exists now to keep track of each one of us. Now we are each a target, each located, each heard, each known intimately if they care to look, each subject to blackmail be there a single skeleton in our closet: perhaps a porn site once visited, a Marxist website once read, an intemperate email, a poem over lost love, so many things we have put on our computers. Even if we did not do it, they can do it for us, entering keystrokes when we are not even home, or not even using our Blackberry, turning us into pedophiles, terrorists, tax cheats, or whatever monster they need to disappear without much question or care from our family and friends.
One might reasonably question why governments of democracies would feel the need to keep such a close watch on their citizens. I am sure many different opinions abound. Most likely, though, the democratic state has learned through history that democratic peoples are quickest to rise up when their system fails them, so that the state, knowing that crises will come, prepares in advance as much as it can. It hardly took a fortune teller to predict the collapse of 2008, and the inevitable rise of both a reactionary right and a radical left. Anyone with a basic understanding of macro-economics, or political economy, and history, knew that another great depression was coming and that the state was preparing for it. Clinton knew it when he entered into NAFTA, just as Ross Perot had told us he would, and just as Ross Perot had predicted, we gained nothing but empty manufacturing sites. Bush knew it when he entered further trade agreements, and when he ran up unsustainable debt through two unfunded wars, the largest social program ever passed unfunded, and tax breaks that were also unfunded. The government had good reason to perfect its surveillance techniques knowing the likely outcome of all of these policies. The same policies led to WWI and WWII and the economic disorder that preceded them.
Knowing we are under surveillance, the most important questions arise when we consider the changing nature of surveillance technology in light of the Arab Spring and the OWS movements. A number of factors must now be considered. First, can the government effectively take over a mass movement by controlling the social media that serves as its medium? Second, can the government effectively shut down a mass movement dependent upon the social media as its primary medium for the exchange of information? Third, can the movement manipulate the government since the movement knows the government is listening in to its every electronic communication? Finally, how closely must we watch what we say and what we text or email considering that almost undoubtedly a record of our conservations is being kept for at least our entire lives?
As to the first question, can the government effectively take over a mass movement by controlling the social media that serves as its medium, the answer is probably no. Although the state may be able to change what an individual texts, no evidence exists the state holds the power to change thousands of individual text messages at once. Moreover, the social media is so broad, ranging from Facebook to Twitter to Linked In, etc., and so fast in its changing comments on live stream, that it is hard to imagine sufficient state power to sway the masses from the general direction of their discussions.
What we actually discuss here is whether the state can co-opt the direction of a popular uprising into the existing institutions which ultimately lead to maintenance of the status quo. An excellent example of this type of possible re-direction occurred on November 17, the second anniversary of the OWS movement, after it had been evicted from Zuccotti Park a few days earlier and planned a nationwide day of action for the 17th when the New York OWS planned to actually occupy Wall Street directly. This plan grew into a worldwide day of action with Americans taking the lead. A march of thousands descended upon Wall Street in the morning, encountering fairly stiff resistance from New York police. Then word suddenly came that the unions were under way to join the occupation of Wall Street, and victory seemed assured. The police guarding Zuccotti Park surprisingly then opened the barriers that had prevented the Occupy Movement from retaking their usual ground earlier, and abruptly from somewhere the call went out that Zuccotti Park was open and OWS could and should return there rather than complete their plan of day long protests directly in front of the villains that profit from inside knowledge of the Bulls and the Bears. In the Twitter information stream, people were desperately pleading for the movement to forget about Zuccotti Park and push forward, but somehow the voices heard were those demanding a retreat to the familiar park. Someone attempted to co-opted the OWS that day, but it probably was not the government and it was not the result of surveillance technologies. Somehow the day of occupying Wall Street ended in re-occupying Zuccotti Park, the path of least resistance, at least for a large segment of OWS. But there is a lesson in the events of that day.