This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
If I had to pick a single moment when I grasped that we were on a new surveillance planet, it would have been the release of the stunning revelations of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor now in exile in Vladimir Putin's Russia (and if there isn't irony in that, please tell me what your definition of irony is). Those revelations seemed to fit all too well with the then-developing picture of twenty-first-century America. You know, the country with those black sites spread around the planet; whose top government officials had "enhanced interrogation techniques" (aka torture) demonstrated to them in the White House (and then authorized their use on actual human beings across that same planet); a country running a series of global kidnapping operations, placing its trust in secret courts, and thoroughly committed not just to the large-scale surveillance of populations, its own included, but to pursuing any whistleblower like Snowden who might want to tell us what was going on.
Back in 2013, when it came to Snowden, I began a piece I called "How to Be a Rogue Superpower" this way: "It's hard even to know how to take it in. I mean, what's really happening? An employee of a private contractor working for the National Security Agency makes off with unknown numbers of files about America's developing global security state on a thumb drive and four laptop computers, and jumps the nearest plane to Hong Kong. His goal: to expose a vast surveillance structure built in the shadows in the post-9/11 years and significantly aimed at Americans. He leaks some of the documents to a columnist at the British Guardian and to the Washington Post. The response is unprecedented: an 'international manhunt' (or more politely but less accurately, 'a diplomatic full court press') conducted not by Interpol or the United Nations but by the planet's sole superpower, the very government whose practices the leaker was so intent on exposing."
In describing a government that was heading into "the shadows" in a way that would have left the founding fathers -- those ancient checks-and-balances guys -- horrified, I concluded: "It's eerie that some aspects of the totalitarian governments that went down for the count in the twentieth century are now being recreated in those shadows. There, an increasingly 'totalistic' if not yet totalitarian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Washington to be born, while those who cared to shine a little light on the birth process are in jail or being hounded across this planet."
And keep in mind that this was years before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office or any of us quite realized that what TomDispatch regular and private investigator Judith Coburn calls "surveillance capitalism," as well as a planet of hackers, would join that government in creating an unprecedented surveillance culture, one that leaves all of us exposed. Honestly, I'd like to see the novel that George Orwell would write 34 years after 1984. In the meantime, I'll settle for the vision of our world offered by one private investigator working in the San Francisco Bay area. Tom
Goodbye to All That
A Private Investigator on Living in a Surveillance Culture
By Judith Coburn
Now that we know we are surveilled 24/7 by the National Security Agency, the FBI, local police, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, hackers, the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, data brokers, private spyware groups like Black Cube, and companies from which we've ordered swag on the Internet, is there still any "right to be forgotten," as the Europeans call it? Is there any privacy left, let alone a right to privacy?- Advertisement -
In a world in which most people reveal their intimate secrets voluntarily, posting them on social media and ignoring the pleas of security experts to protect their data with strong passwords -- don't use your birth date, your telephone number, or your dog's name -- shouldn't a private investigator, or PI, like me be as happy as a pig in sh*t? Certainly, the totalitarian rulers of the twentieth century would have been, if such feckless openness had been theirs to abuse.
As it happens, tech -- or surveillance capitalism -- has disrupted the private investigation business as much as it's ripped through journalism, the taxi business, war making, and so many other private and public parts of our world. And it's not only celebrities and presidential candidates whose privacy hackers have burned through. Israeli spyware can steal the contacts off your phone just as LinkedIn did to market itself to your friends. Google, the Associated Press reported recently, archives your location even when you've turned off your phone. Huge online database brokers like Tracers, TLO, and IRBsearch that law enforcement and private eyes like me use can trace your address, phone numbers, email addresses, social media accounts, family members, neighbors, credit reports, the property you own, foreclosures or bankruptcies you've experienced, court judgments or liens against you, and criminal records you may have rolled up over the years.
Ten years ago, to subscribe to one of these databases, I had to show proof that I was indeed a licensed investigator and pass an on-site investigation to ensure that any data I downloaded would be protected. I was required to have a surveillance camera and burglar alarm on the building where my office was located, as well as a dead bolt on my office door, a locked filing cabinet, and double passwords to get into my computer. Now, most database brokers just require a PI or attorney license and you can sign right up online. Government records -- federal and state, civil and criminal -- are also increasingly online for anyone to access.
The authoritarian snoops of the last century would have drooled over the surveillance uses of the smartphones that most of us now carry. Smartphones have, in fact, become one of the primo law enforcement tools other than the Internet. "Find my iPhone" can even find a dead body -- if, that is, the victim left her iPhone on while being murdered. And don't get me started on the proliferation of surveillance cameras in our world.
Take me. I had a classic case that shows just how traceable we all now are. There was a dead body, a possible murder victim, but no direct evidence: no witnesses, no DNA, no fingerprints, and no murder weapon found. In San Francisco's East Bay, however, as in most big American cities, there are so many surveillance cameras mounted on mom-and-pop stores, people's houses, bars, cafes, hospitals, toll bridges, tunnels, even in parks, that the police can collect enough video, block by block, to effectively map a suspect driving around Oakland for hours before hitting the freeway and heading out to dump a body, just as the defendant in my case did.
Once upon a time, cops and dirty private eyes would have had to attach trackers to the undercarriages of cars to follow them electronically. No longer. The particular suspect I have in mind drove his victim's car across a bridge, where cameras videotaped the license plate but couldn't see inside the car; nor, he must have assumed, could anyone record him on the deserted road he finally reached where he was undoubtedly confident that he was safe. What he didn't notice was the CALFIRE video camera placed on that very road to monitor for brush fires. It caught a car's headlights matching his on its way to the site he had chosen to dump the body. There was no direct evidence of the murder he had committed, just circumstantial, tech-based evidence. A jury, however, convicted him in just a few hours.- Advertisement -
A World of Tech Junkies
In our world of the unforgotten, tech is seen as a wonder of wonders. Juries love tech. Many jurors think tech is simply science and so beyond disbelief. As a result, they tend to react badly when experts are called as defense witnesses to disabuse them of their belief in tech's magic powers: that, for instance, cellphone calls don't always pinpoint exactly where someone was when he or she made a call. If too many signals are coming in to the closest tower to a cell phone, a suspect's calls may be rerouted to a more distant tower. Similarly, the FBI's computerized fingerprint index often makes mistakes in its matches, as do police labs when it comes to DNA samples. And facial recognition systems, the hottest new tech thing around (and spreading like wildfire across China), may be the most unreliable of all, although that certainly hasn't stopped Amazon from marketing a surveillance camera with facial recognition abilities.
These days, it's hard to be a PI and not become a tech junkie. Some PIs use tech to probe tech, specializing, for example, in email investigations in big corporate cases in which they pore through thousands of emails. I recently asked a colleague what it was like. "It's great," he said. "You don't have to leave your office and for the first couple of weeks you entertain yourself finding out who's having affairs with whom and who's gunning for whom in the target's office, but after that it's unspeakably tedious and goes on for months, even years."