John Whitehead's Commentary
The American Surveillance State Is Here. Can It Be Evaded?
“If, as it seems, we are in the process of becoming a totalitarian society in which the state apparatus is all-powerful, the ethics most important for the survival of the true, free, human individual would be: cheat, lie, evade, fake it, be elsewhere, forge documents, build improved electronic gadgets in your garage that’ll outwit the gadgets used by the authorities.” – Philip K. Dick, author of Minority Report
On any given day, the average American going about his daily business will be monitored, surveilled, spied on and tracked in more than 20 different ways, by both government and corporate eyes and ears.
A byproduct of this new age in which we live, whether you’re walking through a store, driving your car, checking email, or talking to friends and family on the phone, you can be sure that some government agency, whether the NSA or some other entity, is listening in and tracking your behavior. As I point out in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the corporate trackers that monitor your purchases, web browsing, Facebook posts and other activities taking place in the cyber sphere.
The revelations by Edward Snowden only scrape the surface in revealing the lengths to which government agencies and their corporate allies will go to conduct mass surveillance on all communications and transactions within the United States.
Erected in secret, without any public input, these surveillance programs amount to an electronic concentration camp which houses every single person in the United States today. Indeed, government whistleblower Russ Tice, who exposed the NSA’s warrantless surveillance of American phone calls as far back as 2005, insists that despite Obama administration claims that the NSA is simply collecting metadata, the NSA is in fact retrieving “the contents of emails, text messages, Skype communications, and phone calls, as well as financial information, health records, legal documents, and travel documents.”
These communications are being stored in the NSA’s Utah Data Center, a massive $2 billion facility that will be handling yottabytes of data (equivalent to one septillion bytes—imagine a one followed by 24 zeroes) on American communications. This Utah facility is opening amidst a backlash against NSA surveillance. Most recently, the Obama administration and the NSA went into overdrive to quash an amendment sponsored by Justin Amash (R-Mich.) that would have cut off funds to the NSA if it collects surveillance data on American citizens who are not under criminal investigation. It was a bold move, especially when one considers that the NSA operates off a budget of approximately $10 billion. After all, when the government no longer listens to the citizenry—when it no longer abides by the Constitution, which is our rule of law—and when it views the citizenry as a source of funding and little else, we have no choice but to speak to the government in a language it understands—money.
Unfortunately, lobbyists and the Washington elite succeeded in defeating the amendment 217-205. Not surprisingly, many of those who voted down the bill were also recipients of campaign funds from the lucrative security/surveillance sector.
In the face of such powerful lobbyists working in tandem with our so-called representatives, any hope of holding onto even a shred of privacy is rapidly dwindling. Indeed, the life of the average American is an open book for government agents. As Senator Ron Wyden, a longtime critic of the American surveillance state, points out, government agencies operate based upon a secret interpretation of the Patriot Act which allows them to extract massive amounts of data from third party agencies, enabling them to collect information on “bulk medical, financial, credit card and gun-ownership records or lists of ‘readers of books and magazines deemed subversive.’”
Cell phones are equally vulnerable, serving as a “combination phone bug, listening device, location tracker and hidden camera.” Indeed, it’s incredibly easy to activate a cell phone’s GPS and microphone capabilities remotely. For example, the FBI uses the “roving bug” technique, which allows agents to remotely activate the microphone on a cellphone and use it as a listening device. A federal judge actually ruled in 2006 that this was a constitutional technique when it was used to listen to two alleged mobsters, despite the fact that no phone call was taking place at the time.
With private corporations also taking advantage of this technology, the outlook is decidedly grim. In an attempt to mimic the tracking capabilities of online retailers, brick-and-mortar stores now utilize WIFI-enabled devices to track the movements of their customers by tracking their phones as they move throughout the store. The data gathered by these devices include “‘capture rate’ (how successful window displays are at pulling people into the store); number of customers inside the store; customer visit duration and frequency; customer location within the store; people who walk by the store without coming in; and the amount of foot traffic around the store.”
Combined with facial recognition technology, our cell phones have become a tell-all about our personal lives. For example, one Russian marking company, Synqera, “uses facial recognition technology to tailor marketing messages to customers according to their gender, age, and mood.” As one company representative noted, “if you are an angry man of 30, and it is Friday evening, [the Synqera software] may offer you a bottle of whiskey.”
Americans cannot even drive their cars without being enmeshed in this web of surveillance. As confirmed by an ACLU report entitled, “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Record Americans’ Movements,” the latest developments in license plate readers enable law enforcement and private agencies to track the whereabouts of vehicles, and their occupants, all across the country.
License plate readers work by recognizing a passing license plate, photographing it, and running the information against a pre-determined database that lets police know if they’ve got a “hit,” a person of interest, though not necessarily a suspected criminal. There are reportedly tens of thousands of these license plate readers now affixed to police cars and underpasses in operation throughout the country. The data collected from these devices is also being shared between police agencies, as well as with fusion centers and private companies.
Indeed, while all drivers’ data is being collected, only a fraction of the data collected constitutes a “hit.” An even smaller fraction of those “hits” actually result in an arrest. Overall, the hit rate for criminal activity gleaned from the license pictures is usually between .01% and .3%, meaning that over 99% of the people being unnecessarily surveilled are entirely innocent.
The implications for privacy are dire. All of the data points collected by license plate readers can be traced and mapped so that a picture of a vehicle’s past movements can be re-constructed. Furthermore, the photographs produced by license plate readers “sometimes include a substantial part of a vehicle, its occupants, and its immediate vicinity.”
In addition to tracking tens of thousands of innocent people, the data collected by license plate readers is often kept far beyond any reasonable period of time. Data retention policies vary widely, from the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which deletes non-hits immediately, versus some localities which hold on to data for weeks, months, or years. Some localities hold on to the information indefinitely.
To cap it off, private companies are also getting into the data collection game, as data collected on innocent drivers is being shared between both government agencies and corporations. One such business, Final Notice, offers the information they gather to police agencies and intends to start selling the information to other groups soon, including bail bondsmen, private investigators, and insurers.
Another company, MVTrac, claims to have data on “a large majority” of vehicles in the US, and the Digital Recognition Network (DRN) claims to have a network of affiliates of more than 550. These affiliates feed over 50 million plate reads into a national database containing “over 700 million data points on where American drivers have been.”
This is the United States of America today, where liberty and privacy are the currency for any and all essential services. Short of living in a cave, cut off from all communications and commerce, anyone living in the concentration camp that is America today must cede his privacy and liberty to a government agency, a corporation, or both, in order to access information via the internet, communicate with friends and family, shop for food and clothing, or travel to work.
We have just about reached the point of no return. “If we do not seize this unique moment in our constitutional history to reform our surveillance laws and practices, we are all going to live to regret it,” warned Senator Wyden. “The combination of increasingly advanced technology with a breakdown in the checks and balances that limit government action could lead us to a surveillance state that cannot be reversed.”