The American Panopticon: Why A Free Society Can’t Have Mass Surveillance


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If you knew you were being watched, would you behave differently? Would you not second guess your natural inclinations or tendencies? Perhaps you would act like a totally different person – more subdued, more “average”, and less likely to rock the boat.

A situation in which everyone felt as though they were being watched all the time may be terrifying to many, but there are situations where one might feel this is a feature and not a bug. For instance, a prison. Take Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon:

“The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly.”

In a prison, being able to have everyone feel as though they are constantly under surveillance will lead to self-regulation of behavior among the inmates, making them far easier to control. When dealing with violent criminals, there are some obvious advantages to this.

The Panopticon was designed to be a physical structure, but it would be appropriate to treat it as a metaphor for modern disciplinary society, or the inclination to observe everyone as much as possible and to “normalize” their behavior. Some readers may think it a stretch to make this comparison, but modern day America is becoming a Panopticon of sorts with nearly unlimited warrantless surveillance, big data, and the coming Internet of Things.

Mass surveillance has always been an issue – and in fact, is one of the common things that Americans loathe about other totalitarian countries. If you ask any American about the Soviet Union, they will invariably know about the KGB, people being “disappeared” to the gulag, and so on. We tend to juxtapose our society with theirs, and claim that America is “a free country.”

I intend to argue in this post that a society with persistent, mass surveillance cannot be considered “free”. In addition, I plan to show that the United States government either has already created a Panopticon-like country, or is frighteningly close to it.

After the Edward Snowden revelations, it is hard to believe there are people who don’t already understand this. William Binney, the highest ranking NSA whistleblower of all time (Technical Leader) has said that the goal of the NSA is “total population control.”

Warning: This is going to be a very lengthy post. I have left no stone untouched, and wanted to create a full picture of the totalitarian Panopticon that is forming around us all. So grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and get ready.

“The man who is compelled to live every minute of his life among others and whose every need, thought, desire, fancy, or gratification is subject to public scrutiny, has been deprived of his individuality and human dignity. Such an individual merges with the mass. His opinions, being public, tend always to be conventionally accepted ones; his feelings, being openly exhibited, tend to lose their quality of unique personal warmth and to become the feelings of every man. Such a being, although sentient, in fungible; he is not an individual.” – Edward Bloustein, former Rutgers University President


But I Have Nothing To Hide

“If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.”

This is the single most common response of most people who are not as terribly afraid of the American Panopticon as they ought to be. Most are likely to be blissfully unaware that this quote was in fact attributed to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist.

How might this argument go in practice? Daniel Solove, in his brilliant refutation of this common argument, frames it like this:

“The NSA surveillance, data mining, or other government information-gathering programs will result in the disclosure of particular pieces of information to a few government officials, or perhaps only to government computers. This very limited disclosure of the particular information involved is not likely to be threatening to the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Only those who are engaged in illegal activities have a reason to hide this information. Although there may be some cases in which the information might be sensitive or embarrassing to law-abiding citizens, the limited disclosure lessens the threat to privacy. Moreover, the security interest in detecting, investigating, and preventing terrorist attacks is very high and outweighs whatever minimal or moderate privacy interests law-abiding citizens may have in these particular pieces of information.”

The underlying assumption of this argument is that privacy is about hiding “bad” things. Those who say they “have nothing to hide” are arguing from the faulty premise that privacy is only about hiding negative or embarrassing things.

Many issues result from this faulty premise. Surveillance and privacy violations are a serious problem, even if there is no information gathered that people wouldn’t want uncovered. It can lead to Kafkaesque scenarios where the citizen is completely powerless and vulnerable because the oppressor has vast amounts of data on him, and he has no influence on the process. As Solove said:

“The harms consist of those created by bureaucracies – indifference, errors, abuses, frustration, and lack of transparency and accountability.”

Because there is so little transparency in the data mining going on, it would be impossible to say that NSA surveillance won’t uncover information that people may want to hide. Furthermore, one of the major purposes of all this data is to make predictions about future behavior. All sorts of information is being gathered about you, without you knowing precisely what, and then that information is used to create a profile on you and your likely future actions. It’s easy to imagine how this could be used improperly – and all with it being information that you were willing to give away.

Nothing To Hide

Ultimately, this creates are very clear power imbalance between you and the government. Why should the NSA and those who control it, largely unaccountable to the public and shielded from scrutiny, have such a large advantage over citizens? A government that possesses so much information could wield immense power over the public. If you have any appreciation for the history of totalitarianism in the 20th century, then this thought should make you cringe.

Perhaps you believe that even if there is all this information gathered, it will only be used in strictly lawful ways. You can’t imagine the information being used against you if, say, it could only be accessed for the sake of “national security.” Not so, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). According to them, government powers that were legally only supposed to be used to prevent terrorism have been used for more routine law enforcement purposes.

“Law enforcement made 47 sneak-and-peek searches nationwide from September 2001 to April 2003. The 2010 report reveals 3,970 total requests were processed. Within three years that number jumped to 11,129. That’s an increase of over 7,000 requests. Exactly what privacy advocates argued in 2001 is happening: sneak and peak warrants are not just being used in exceptional circumstances—which was their original intent—but as an everyday investigative tool.”

“Out of the 3,970 total requests from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, 3,034 were for narcotics cases and only 37 for terrorism cases (about .9%). Since then, the numbers get worse. The 2011 report reveals a total of 6,775 requests. 5,093 were used for drugs, while only 31 (or .5%) were used for terrorism cases. The 2012 report follows a similar pattern: Only .6%, or 58 requests, dealt with terrorism cases. The 2013 report confirms the incredibly low numbers. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.”

In addition, both the DEA and IRS are given data that the NSA has gathered, which is then used as evidence in drug or tax crimes. These agencies then use “parallel reconstruction” and pretend that they gathered the evidence via other methods, a clearly unconstitutional practice. In other words, these organizations act completely above the law, and not to stop terrorism.

Perhaps you are still not concerned; after all, you don’t use drugs! But the specific use isn’t the point. The data that is gathered could theoretically be used for anything that is illegal. Considering how some reputable estimates suggest that the average American commits three felonies per day, this should be a concern to everyone. In addition, you do not know how long this data will be stored; in some programs, this is legally specified, and in others it is not. Often times, data is required to be stored for many years. And as the cost of data storage continues getting cheaper, it is quite feasible to think that it will be stored and searchable for many, many years. There are quite a few examples of people who may have believed they had “nothing to hide”, but have suffered serious consequences regardless, often due to something as mundane as a bureaucratic error (mistaken drug tests, misidentification, and my favorite, being convicted for violating a law that didn’t exist).

All sorts of bad things could happen to you due to the kinds of mass surveillance happening nowadays. On the more “mundane” side, there are numerous documented and confirmed instances where NSA employees used their access in order to spy on lovers, ex-girlfriends, and the like, which is jokingly referred to as LOVEINT, a play off of SIGINT, or signals intelligence. While those cases are disturbing, they pale in comparison to these other situations, as mentioned by Solove:

“Most privacy problems and harms lack dead bodies. Of course, there are exceptional cases such as the murders of Rebecca Shaeffer and Amy Boyer. Rebecca Shaeffer was an actress killed when a stalker obtained her address from a Department of Motor Vehicles record. This incident prompted Congress to pass the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994. Likewise, Amy Boyer was murdered by a stalker who obtained her personal information, including her work address and Social Security Number, from a database company.”

You may have done nothing wrong in your life, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be afraid of mass data collection.


Why Privacy Matters

There are many more reasons why you ought to be concerned about privacy and the negative effects of mass surveillance, some more subtle, and some with terrifying and dangerous implications. I will begin with the more subtle before moving on to the most direct reasons why privacy is critical.

Bathroom surveillance

Privacy Is Important To Our Relationships

In an interesting paper by James Rachels (“Why Privacy is Important”, 1975), an often overlooked aspect of privacy was mentioned. A key part of privacy is in how we manage our social relationships. Different relationships have different characters; we put on “masks”, so to speak, depending on who we are around. Losing privacy causes us to lose this separation between different kinds of relationships: business, marriage, kids, friendships, acquaintances, etc. This point requires some elaboration. Consider this example:

“First, consider what happens when two close friends are joined by a casual acquaintance. The character of the group changes; and one of the changes is that conversation about intimate matters is now out of order. Then suppose these friends could never be alone; suppose there were always third parties (let us say casual acquaintances or strangers) intruding. Then they could do either of two things. They could carry on as close friends do, sharing confidences, freely ex-pressing their feelings about things, and so on. But this would mean violating their sense of how it is appropriate to behave around casual acquaintances or strangers. Or they could avoid doing or saying anything which they think inappropriate to do or say around a third party. But this would mean that they could no longer behave with one another in the way that friends do and further that, eventually, they would no longer be close friends.”

Obama Spying

This implies that our associations with others need to be separate or compartmentalized to some degree. In order to have control over our relationships with others, we must have control over the access that other people have to us (and our information).

“We now have an explanation of the value of privacy in ordinary situations in which we have nothing to hide. The explanation is that, even in the most common and unremarkable circumstances, we regulate our behavior according to the kinds of relationships we have with the people around us. If we cannot control who has access to us, sometimes including and sometimes excluding various people, then we cannot control the patterns of behavior we need to adopt (this is one reason why privacy is an aspect of liberty) or the kinds of relations with other people that we will have.”

Personal Growth And Maturity Become Stunted

Losing control of your relationships with others is one thing. But when your privacy is consistently violated, you end up losing something even more important – your sense of self.

Forgot Password

When people consistently have their privacy violated, they are kept in a more childish state. Constant surveillance trains us to behave more “normally”, and acting in an unconventional way becomes more challenging and less common. As people consistently act conventionally, they begin to think and feel conventionally as well; the inner “spark” that makes us each unique in some way shines less and less brightly. People lose their capacity for self-discovery and creativity. Over time, the more rebellious, different, and unconventional ideas that are perfectly normal for people to have will never come to exist. There will be no need for a despotic government to even try to suppress these inclinations – a “Brave New World” scenario becomes more and more like reality.

How does this happen? For one thing, people become less spontaneous when they know that whatever they do is being tracked or recorded. I’m not just driving from place X to place Y at time T; I’m driving from place X to place Y at time T and creating a record of it. The difference may seem trivial at first, but when everything is being recorded, your life must become more measured and thought out. What if you knew that every time you were having sex, you were being recorded?

When thought of that way, it is clear that invasions of privacy are insults, because they deny an individual’s ownership of himself. Mass surveillance is like having a permanent, ever-present Peeping Tom in everyone’s lives; if you have a problem with voyeurism directed at yourself, why would you not have a proportionately greater objection to mass surveillance?

Growing up in the American Panopticon will make it more difficult for people to develop a strong conception of “self” or self-ownership. You no longer have personal sovereignty if all of your data is collected and visible from some single point outside of you. You become mere data to the Leviathan. You no longer have the authority to withdraw yourself from public view and scrutiny, and in that way, you are symbolically losing your “self” to some centralized institution. As Jeffrey Reiman wrote (“Driving to the Panopticon”, 1995):

“But, of course, what is symbolic is almost never merely symbolic. By such symbols do we come to acquire our self-conceptions. They shape the way we identify ourselves to ourselves and to one another, and thus they shape our identities themselves. Growing up in the informational panopticon, people will be less likely to acquire selves that think of themselves as owning themselves. They will say mine with less authority, and yours with less respect. And I think that selves that think of themselves as owning themselves are precisely what we understand as “moral selves”. They are selves that naturally accept ownership of their actions and thus responsibility for them. They naturally insist on ownership of their destinies and thus on the right to choose their own way. Here the loss of privacy threatens an incalculable loss. What will it be worth if a man should gain the world but lose his soul?”

In other words, the loss of identity that comes with mass surveillance will also reduce peoples’ feelings of moral responsibility. If you think this is farfetched, consider an analogy to the way people tend to look at reducing poverty these days. To many, it is the responsibility of the state to alleviate poverty. It would be easy enough for most individuals to give a dollar to the homeless man that they pass on the street, but instead, they view that as the responsibility of the collective, the state. Most millennials feel zero guilt ignoring the homeless person and continuing to stare at one of their many screens. They need not help out their fellow man, an individual; after all, that’s the government’s job! If anything, they consider their time better spent lobbying the government to take more money from other people in order to aid the homeless.

Suppression Of Free Speech And Chilling Effects

Now we begin to get into the less abstract and more scary things that a loss of privacy entails. The most obvious effect is the loss of free speech.

You're Being Watched

It’s not hard to imagine how mass surveillance curtails peoples’ freedom of speech. Most Americans will somewhat regularly juxtapose America with banana republics like North Korea which have very overt controls on speech and association. It is commonly assumed that “it could never happen here.” And perhaps it never will become quite that bad – but even without the direct control of speech (say the wrong thing and go to jail), surveillance still creates a strong form of social control and self-censorship (say the wrong thing and get blacklisted from jobs, sued, marginalized, etc.).

It is quite clear that at the very least, there is already a chilling effect going on in America. Surveys have shown that, in our post-Snowden world, people are becoming more unwilling to discuss surveillance issues online due to fears of the NSA. But we don’t even need surveys or research to know that this is an effect. I’m sure almost every one of us has at one point or other censored ourselves while discussing something online. I have been told by family members that I should stop writing this blog because of the potential ramifications of my unorthodox thought. The suggestions are well-meaning and appreciated (and perhaps even the right decision from a personal/selfish standpoint), but they just further prove my point.

The chilling effect is not merely on speech; it also affects what you read or purchase, and who you associate with. If you know that the books you take out from the library are being recorded, perhaps you are less likely to take out, say, the Qur’an, or a history of revolutionary thought. You may try to avoid being affiliated with certain organizations; if the country grew more tyrannical, you may not want to be receiving a newsletter from the ACLU.

Other kinds of behavior become chilled as well. People who live unorthodox lifestyles or who do unconventional things may feel the need to repress those things. People often try to oppress those who live unconventional lifestyles. The best example I can think of here would be homosexuality; many governments throughout the world have very dangerous policies with regards to homosexuals, and being outed could be a death sentence in some countries. Other examples could include pornography use, gambling, possession of certain taboo plants or chemicals, and so on.

Some of you may not consider this a big deal, because you yourself believe those activities to be immoral. But as I’ve stated before, anything could become illegal, and you could become the victim of this yourself. What about the children who are suffering from awful diseases because they don’t have access to medical marijuana? Some parents will go to the trouble of moving to a new state for ease of access, but others may not. They have had their behavior chilled, and their child is the unfortunate victim.

As our world becomes increasingly politicized, more and more behaviors begin to fall into this category. For instance, the more socialized medicine becomes, the more people will feel justified intruding into your health decisions. What if every time you swiped your credit card at a fast food restaurant, this information went out to a database somewhere and bureaucrats (or even nosy neighbors) started to hound you for making medical costs higher for everyone?

Now, not everyone will be intimidated or really experience the chilling affect personally. That being said, it is still dangerous. Here is what Solove has to say about the subject:

“Even surveillance of legal activities can inhibit people from engaging in them. It might be that particular people may not be chilled by surveillance – indeed, probably most people will not be except those engaging in particularly unpopular speech or associating with disfavored groups. The value of protecting against such chilling is not measured simply in terms of the value to those particular individuals. Chilling effects harm society because, among other things, they reduce the range of viewpoints being expressed and the degree of freedom with which to engage in political activity.”

Regardless of how you personally respond to mass surveillance, there are negative effects to society on the whole because there will be less intellectual diversity. Almost every brilliant thought was at one point radical, but it is the more radical or outlandish thoughts that people will avoid expressing.

Finally, even if you think that outright suppression of speech “couldn’t happen here” (let’s ignore the fact that it already does happen here; for instance, the French government just took down several websites they claimed promote or advocate terrorism, Holocaust denial is illegal in much of Europe, etc.), one of the Snowden revelations was that the GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, is specifically targeting journalists. And let’s not forget about COINTELPRO, the FBI’s 1956-1971 (perhaps it has continued for longer under a different name) program which monitored, infiltrated, and subverted domestic political organizations. And it is becoming increasingly frequent that people in the US and UK are being charged for crimes based entirely off social media postings (generally when they are anti-war or anti-police), rather than actually committing a real crime against other people. In other words, people are going to jail for expressing their views.

Manipulation And Social Control

The most terrifying part of the growth in the unchecked surveillance state is the way that it can be used to manipulate the political process on behalf of powerful actors, and to manipulate the public to go along with it.

As stated above, the purpose of NSA mass surveillance is “total population control.” Relatively new technologies, primarily social media, provide the NSA with unprecedented abilities to achieve this goal.

DARPA is spending millions of dollars on research regarding social media and how messages are spread and adopted. As The Guardian reports (far more detail at that link):

“The project list includes a study of how activists with the Occupy movement used Twitter as well as a range of research on tracking internet memes and some about understanding how influence behaviour (liking, following, retweeting) happens on a range of popular social media platforms like Pinterest, Twitter, Kickstarter, Digg and Reddit.”

One such study was performed by Facebook on over 600,000 users without their knowledge. Facebook changed the content of these users’ news feeds by giving people more negative emotional content to see how moods can be manipulated en masse. This research was connected to the Minerva Initiative, a Department of Defense project which funds research on modeling the “dynamics, risks, and tipping points for large-scale civil unrest across the world.”

Additional research is being done on “informational cascades,” or how social network behavior is shaped by each other’s decisions resulting in a “cascade” of behavior that people may not have otherwise taken. For instance, “liking” something on Facebook because other people have already liked it. The research being done is deliberately focusing on how to maximize the number of “favorable” decisions. The information is being specifically used to better understand “the formation of opinions” and “the evolution of new cultural norms.” I don’t think I need to elaborate on how this type of knowledge could be used for evil purposes (or even to attempt to topple foreign governments, like Cuba’s).

…okay, fine, I’ll elaborate just a little bit. Documents released by Edward Snowden have revealed that the government is encouraging the use of a technique they call the “Counter Reset” in order to disrupt the momentum that unfavorable articles may generate online. For instance, if The Powers That Be dislike a story, they can do a Counter Reset, and suddenly the article will have zero upvotes, likes, or retweets. This will help decrease the number of eyeballs that see an unfavorable story. In fact, this was done on Reddit, somewhat ironically, to decrease the momentum of the story where these techniques were revealed by Snowden – a story I will go into in just a moment.

The Snowden revelations, outlined by Glenn Greenwald in this article, are primarily about the GCHQ and its JTRIG group, but likely apply to the NSA as well. Here is a quick summary:

“Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums.”

GCHQ descredit target

GCHQ discredit company

It’s easy to see why people would want this story suppressed, right? These techniques aren’t just being used against hostile governments, terrorists, and the like; they are being used against people who are merely suspected of being involved in ordinary crimes. The key word is “suspected”; targets need not be actually charged or convicted of any crimes. Surveillance agencies have given themselves the power to ruin innocent peoples’ reputations and to disrupt political activity online without cause. As Greenwald concludes:

“Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?”

Excellent question. But the manipulation of the public is only one part of the problem. What if surveillance was being used against more powerful people or politicians in order to control them? Many readers may be inclined to dismiss this as a paranoid “conspiracy theory,” but it is simply a documented fact that this is going on. We know that the NSA has monitored the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders (likely as a means to keep the empire’s vassal states in line), but it is far harder for many to accept that this is done domestically as well.

But please, accept it. This is not just a theoretical problem. For instance, the CIA was caught spying on members of Congress in the lead up to the release of the famous torture report. The NSA has indirectly admitted that it spies on Congress. Russell Tice, a former NSA employee turned whistleblower, has revealed many people that the NSA has spied on:

  • Members of Congress, both House and Senate, and particularly those who are on the Intelligence, Armed Services, and Judiciary committees.
  • A current Supreme Court judge
  • Two former FISA judges (these are the people who rubber stamp intelligence gathering operations)
  • State Department officials
  • Barack Obama, while he was in the Senate
  • White House spokesman Scott McClellan
  • General David Petraeus (who was also formerly the head of the CIA) and other Generals

There is plenty of precedent for this. The NSA previously had spied on Senators Frank Church and Howard Baker, who were investigating the intelligence community and Watergate, respectively. And J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI compiled dossiers on everyone in politics, specifically for the purpose of blackmail. With the NSA currently spying on peoples’ porn habits, is it so hard to believe that this information could be used to blackmail and control politicians and other highly placed people?

It is clear that this information could be used to the benefit of secretive, powerful interests within the National Security State. This surveillance helps concentrate power into fewer and fewer hands, to those who control the information flow. It is also quite clear that this could very easily subvert constitutional checks and balances. As this process continues, the US government becomes more and more like the tyrannical governments that are considered a joke in modern American discourse. And whether you have “something to hide” or not, the government gets closer and closer to being the kind of regime that will go after you regardless. Excusing mass surveillance in what was once a relatively free country leads to that country becoming despotic, which ought to raise the hair on the back of everyone’s necks.


Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Turning Every American Into A Threat

It is a common saying and a major precept of our justice system that people are “innocent until proven guilty.” Unfortunately, mass surveillance has turned this on its head.

Big Data

By definition, mass surveillance is not targeted to those who have committed crimes. There is a tendency to regard the entire citizenry as the enemy; who knows what kind of undesirables could be hiding in plain sight?! To distill this into a simple mathematical formula: mass surveillance = mass suspicion.

This can easily be seen with the proliferation of government watchlists that have exploded in use and size since 9/11. These lists are gigantic and growing – and once on the list, it is very difficult to get off. An important and fascinating report by Hina Shamsi and Matthew Harwood of the ACLU delves deeply into this subject, and we will borrow much of their research for this analysis.

When police encounter someone who they believe may in some way be connected to terrorism, they fill out a “suspicious activity report,” or SAR. Similarly, the government is instilling fear in Americans and encouraging them to snitch on their fellow citizens with the slogan “if you see something, say something.”

“FBI Director James Comey asked the public to report any suspicions they have to authorities. “When the hair on the back of your neck stands, listen to that instinct and just tell somebody,” said Comey.”

This is one of the most Orwellian slogans imaginable, and there are some deep, fundamental problems with it. Sometimes if I hear a noise at night, the hair on the back of my neck will stand – I really don’t think this is a reasonable standard for suspicion. Despite their clear attempts at creating a “Minority Report“-esque system, it is not easy to predict who is going to be a threat before people have actually committed any crime, particularly when based on such a flimsy standard.

Of course, determining who ought to be added to the SAR database requires some clear definition of what a “suspicious activity” actually looks like. The government has a list of 16 behaviors that qualify; nine of these behaviors have nothing whatsoever to do with criminal activity. Do you really think someone ought to be added to a terrorism watchlist because they are taking photographs, asking questions “beyond mere curiosity,” taking notes, or looking at stuff through binoculars?

(As an aside, while not directly related to the SAR program, it is very easy to be considered an “extremist” or a “suspicious” person by the US government. For instance, the FBI considers people who care about online privacy to be potentially suspicious of terrorist activity, and even likened pro-privacy supporters of Edward Snowden to a “digital al-Qaeda.” And here is a list of 72 ways the government can consider you an “extremist” in America, including talking about individual liberties, wanting to make the world a better place, being a returning veteran, and believing in a right to bear arms. They all really make the hair on the back of my neck stand!)

As you can imagine, the SAR database, based as it is on these ridiculous standards of (constitutionally protected) behavior, is likely not particularly effective. In fact, a Government Accountability Office report says that the FBI doesn’t even track whether the SARs that are uploaded to their database actually help thwart terrorism or lead to arrests or convictions. And for your viewing pleasure, the ACLU has collected a bunch of these SARs and revealed their contents:

“A number of reports were concerned with “ME” — Middle Eastern — males. One headline proclaimed, “Suspicious ME Males Buy Several Large Pallets of Water at REDACTED.” Another read, “Suspicious Activities by a ME Male in Lodi, CA.” And just what was so suspicious about this male? Read into the document and you discover that a sergeant at the Elk Grove Police Department had long been “concerned about a residence in his neighborhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly.” And it’s not just “Middle Eastern males” who provoke such suspicion. Get involved in a civil rights protest against the police and California law enforcement might report you, too. A June 2012 SAR was headlined “Demonstration Against Law Enforcement Use of Excessive Force” and reported that “a scheduled protest” by demonstrators “concerned about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” was about to occur.”

So, if you are of Middle Eastern descent, are “unfriendly,” or are concerned about police brutality, you are probably a terrorist.

And then there is the dreaded no-fly list. On 9/11, the no-fly list had only 16 names, but by 2013, this had gone up by 293,650% to 47,000 people, including 800 U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. These people are considered “known or suspected terrorists,” and cannot fly to, from, or over the United States. These kinds of restrictions, as you can imagine, could be very disruptive to any innocent people who get added to the list. But surely it is easy to get removed, right? Wrong.

“In 2007, the Department of Homeland Security established the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program through which those who believe they are wrongly blacklisted can theoretically attempt to correct the government’s error. But banned flyers quickly find themselves frustrated because they have to guess what evidence they must produce to refute the government’s unrevealed basis for watchlisting them in the first place. Redress then becomes a grim bureaucratic wonderland. In response to queries, blacklisted people receive a letter from the DHS that gives no explanation for why they were not allowed to board a plane, no confirmation of whether they are actually on the no-fly list, and no certainty about whether they can fly in the future. In the end, the only recourse for such victims is to roll the dice by buying a ticket, going to the airport, and hoping for the best.”

Lists, lists, and more lists! In addition to the SAR database and the no-fly list, there is also a secret “master watchlist”:

“According to documents recently leaked to the Intercept, as of August 2013 that master watchlist contained 680,000 people, including 5,000 U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. The government can add people’s names to it according to a shaky “reasonable suspicion” standard. There is, however, growing evidence that what’s “reasonable” to the government may only remotely resemble what that word means in everyday usage. Information from a single source, even an uncorroborated Facebook post, can allow a government agent to watchlist an individual with virtually no outside scrutiny. Perhaps that’s why 40% of those on the master watchlist have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation,” according to the government’s own records.”

If your name is on this list, you will get treated with extreme scrutiny when traveling, or when interacting with the police in any way.

And finally, the most terrifying list of them all:

“Inside the United States, no watchlist may be as consequential as the one that goes by the moniker of the Known or Appropriately Suspected Terrorist File. The names on this blacklist are shared with more than 17,000 state, local, and tribal police departments nationwide through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Unlike any other information disseminated through the NCIC, the KST File reflects mere suspicion of involvement with criminal activity, so law enforcement personnel across the country are given access to a database of people who have secretly been labeled terrorism suspects with little or no actual evidence, based on virtually meaningless criteria.”

“And once someone is on this watchlist, good luck getting off it. According to the government’s watchlist rulebook, even a jury can’t help you. “An individual who is acquitted or against whom charges are dismissed for a crime related to terrorism,” it reads, “may nevertheless meet the reasonable standard and appropriately remain on, or be nominated to, the Terrorist Watchlist.””

Privacy ID Man

Picture this: you make a comment on Facebook about the 2nd Amendment. The police/surveillance apparatus picks this up and throws you onto one of their lists. One day, you get pulled over because of a broken tail light. When the police officer runs your plate, he sees that you are an “extremist” and potentially a terrorist, and are likely armed. Do you think the police officer might be a little on edge? And remember, you have no idea what the officer knows about you. How much more likely do you think it is that this interaction will turn out poorly?

Oh, that’s right. The police are trolling through social media in order to assign “threat ratings” to people. I kid you not. Here is a brief description of the software being used:

“…scanning the residents’ online comments, social media and recent purchases for warning signs. Commercial, criminal and social media information, including, as Intrado vice president Steve Reed said in an interview with, “any comments that could be construed as offensive,” all contribute to the threat score.”

Combine this with new technology developed by Raytheon which predicts your behavior based on your social media activity, and we start getting into the realm of the really creepy. The software “can be used to closely track a person’s life, down to their daily gym schedule,” and then predict what their next move will be (and then there is the US government questionnaire, which social workers and educators are supposed to use to determine which families are most likely to become terrorists). Is it farfetched to think that one day soon, people who have not committed any crimes at all will be monitored due to comments made online, picked up discretely when they go somewhere such that the police know they are alone, and then “disappeared” to a Homan Square-like black site? All in the name of “fighting terrorism” of course.

This is the world you invite when you advocate for mass surveillance.


The Architecture Of Mass Surveillance

“Unless social, legal, or technical forces intervene, it is conceivable that there will be no place on earth where an ordinary person will be able to avoid surveillance. In this possible future, public places will be watched by terrestrial cameras and even by satellites. Facial and voice recognition software, cell phone position monitoring, smart transport, and other science-fiction-like developments will together provide full and perhaps real time information on everyone’s location. Homes and bodies will be subject to sense-enhanced viewing. All communications, save perhaps some encrypted messages, will be scannable and sortable. Copyright protection “snitchware” and Internet-based user tracking will generate full dossiers of reading and shopping habits. The move to web-based commerce, combined with the fight against money laundering and tax evasion, will make it possible to assemble a complete economic profile of every consumer. All documents, whether electronic, photocopied, or (perhaps) even privately printed, will have invisible markings making it possible to trace the author. Workplaces will not only be observed by camera, but also anything involving computer use will be subject to detailed monitoring, analyzed for both efficiency and inappropriate use. As the cost of storage continues to drop, enormous databases will be created, or disparate distributed databases linked, allowing data to be cross-referenced in increasingly sophisticated ways. In this very possible future, indeed perhaps in our present, there may be nowhere to hide and little that can stay hidden.” – Froomkin (2000)

Thus far, we’ve seen how mass surveillance and violations of privacy can have catastrophic, dystopian consequences. In this section, I’d like to go into more detail on what kind of surveillance is going on right now, as we speak.

But before detailing the many ways that you are being surveilled (see here and here for lists of known NSA activities, though both lists are old and not comprehensive), I’d like to briefly address a very important subject.

NSA Spying

Does Mass Surveillance Stop Terrorism?

Many people in America are terrified. In their minds, terrorists lurk around every corner, just waiting to blow up them and their families. Even if they don’t like the idea of mass surveillance, they are willing to trade some of their liberty for what they believe will be enhanced security.

For starters, the actual risk to a US person that terrorism poses is trivially small. Just about everything you can imagine is more dangerous to you than terrorism:

  • You are 5,882 times more likely to die from medical error than terrorism.
  • You’re 4,706 times more likely to drink yourself to death than die from terrorism.
  • You are 1,904 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack.
  • You are 271 times more likely to die from a workplace accident than terrorism.
  • You are 26 times more likely to die from falling out of bed than be killed by terrorists.
  • You are more likely to be killed by a toddler than by a terrorist.
  • You are equally likely to die from being crushed to death by your TV or furniture as you are to die from terrorism.
  • You are 4 times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.

And best of all, you are 55 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than to be killed by a terrorist. So put your fear in perspective; perhaps your real fear ought to be directed towards the police (or toddlers 😉 ) rather than terrorists.

Now, even if you want to ignore all this and focus undue attention on terrorists (which, of course, is their goal…), one must still show that mass surveillance plays a role in preventing terrorist attacks in order to have any chance of justifying it. Either way, the extreme risks of mass surveillance outlined above more than outweigh any potential benefit that this surveillance could have. But a key point here is that mass surveillance has been proven to be totally ineffective anyways.

For Your Safety

Now I know, you’ve probably heard something about how the NSA has stopped 54 terror plots using mass surveillance. This is indeed what they claimed at one point. But when pressed further, only one case, where someone was caught sending $8500 (chump change) to the Al Shabaab organization in Somalia, has been confirmed. What this means is that we have no knowledge of a single life being saved due to surveillance. Certainly, there could be instances that have not been made public, but we’ll just have to take the NSA’s word for it – the same NSA known for its repeated lies.

Additionally, research done by the European Union has shown that low-tech surveillance methods are more effective than the high tech methods in use today, such as internet monitoring. Best of all, members of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Obama’s own commission, a US federal court, and an independent privacy board have all found that there is no convincing evidence that mass surveillance stops terror attacks.

But what about all the terrorist attacks that the FBI has thwarted on US soil? Surely quite a few of those are legitimate (though not necessarily the result of surveillance). However, many of these attacks are ones that were created, planned, and funded by the FBI itself! Usually the FBI finds a Muslim who publicly expresses somewhat radical political views, but is a poor, unemployed loner in his early 20s. Then the FBI creates a terror plot and recruits an informant to convince the target to partake in this government-supplied plot. Usually, there is resistance, but after plying them with large amounts of cash, they will agree. And then the FBI valiantly makes an arrest and trumpets to the media how great of a job they are doing keeping Americans safe. As Glenn Greenwald asks:

“But how serious of a threat can all of this be, at least domestically, if the FBI continually has to resort to manufacturing its own plots by trolling the Internet in search of young drifters and/or the mentally ill whom they target, recruit and then manipulate into joining? Does that not, by itself, demonstrate how over-hyped and insubstantial this “threat” actually is? Shouldn’t there be actual plots, ones that are created and fueled without the help of the FBI, that the agency should devote its massive resources to stopping?

This FBI tactic would be akin to having the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) constantly warn of the severe threat posed by drug addiction while it simultaneously uses pushers on its payroll to deliberately get people hooked on drugs so that they can arrest the addicts they’ve created and thus justify their own warnings and budgets (and that kind of threat-creation, just by the way, is not all that far off from what the other federal law enforcement agencies, like the FBI, are actually doing). As we noted the last time we wrote about this, the Justice Department is aggressively pressuring U.S. allies to employ these same entrapment tactics in order to create their own terrorists, who can then be paraded around as proof of the grave threat.”

To sum up: you shouldn’t be so deathly afraid of terrorism. It is clearly a negligible threat to you. And in any case, mass surveillance will do nothing to reduce your risk of being a victim.

Where Are You Going? Surveillance That Tracks Your Movements

One of the biggest “growth industries” in terms of mass surveillance is in tracking your physical movements from place to place. This includes all forms of transportation, from flying to driving to walking down the street. The government would like to know where you are at all times and be able to retrace your steps.

As far as street surveillance goes, Britain is most definitely the world leader. They have one CCTV (closed-circuit television) camera for every 11 people, or 5.9 million total. This includes 750,000 in schools, hospitals, and other “sensitive locations.” Just recently, the Scotland Yard chief has suggested that all British citizens install CCTV cameras in their homes. While I don’t doubt that these can be useful for catching criminals after the fact, there are clear Orwellian implications as well. The police were able to reconstruct a three mile route around York while investigating a woman’s disappearance, ruling out that she walked to work. Trying to find a missing person is good, but what about trailing, say, a political activist?

America doesn’t have quite as sophisticated a network as Britain, but there are plenty of cameras here too. The extent of video surveillance used by government is generally not made public in the US, so it is more difficult to gauge the extent of their use. But thanks to a 2011 ACLU report, we know that the Chicago Police Department has access to at least 10,000 public and private cameras, and can see virtually every public segment of the downtown area. These cameras “have the power to automatically identify and track particular persons, and the capacity to magnify and make visible small details and objects at great distances.” This, despite the fact that this type of surveillance has not been proven effective and is ripe for abuse. Having ever-present video surveillance of public places will have a serious chilling effect:

“As syndicated columnist Jacob Sullum has pointed out, “knowing that you are being watched by armed government agents tends to put a damper on things. You don’t want to offend them or otherwise call attention to yourself.” Eventually, he warns, “people may learn to be careful about the books and periodicals they read in public, avoiding titles that might alarm unseen observers. They may also put more thought into how they dress, lest they look like terrorists, gang members, druggies or hookers.” Indeed, the studies of cameras in Britain found that people deemed to be “out of time and place” with the surroundings were subjected to prolonged surveillance.”

And do you really want the government to know when you are walking into the psychiatrist’s office or a reproductive health clinic? Or, for that matter, a political gathering?

As technology gets more and more advanced, this becomes more and more scary. There are new cameras being deployed that are flown above small cities, and can track the movements of every person and vehicle for several hours at a time. What if these were flown above, say, an Occupy protest, a Tea Party gathering, or the recent protests over police killings?

And then there are other surveillance cameras that can monitor the streets for “pre-crimes” or “suspicious” behavior, and then alert the authorities. These cameras have been installed at “tourist attractions, government buildings, and military bases in the US.” But they are also about to be installed in San Francisco subways. These things tend to proliferate quickly, so don’t be surprised to see them used widely across the US over the next few years.

Perhaps most disturbing is the recent revelation that police departments across the US are using radar devices that let them see through walls and into your home. And they’ve been secretly using these devices for years.

There is also extensive surveillance of cars and where you are driving. The street cameras mentioned above are relevant here, but there are also masses of license plate readers being deployed across the US. According to John Whitehead:

“License plate readers, yet another law enforcement spying device made possible through funding by the Department of Homeland Security, can record up to 1800 license plates per minute. However, it seems these surveillance cameras can also photograph those inside a moving car. Recent reports indicate that the Drug Enforcement Administration has been using the cameras in conjunction with facial recognition software to build a “vehicle surveillance database” of the nation’s cars, drivers and passengers.”

What’s more disturbing is that the primary goal of this massive database is to help the DEA seize cars and cash associated with the drug trade via civil asset forfeiture. In other words, this whole, massive surveillance apparatus is specifically being used in order to steal from people who have not even been arrested, let alone convicted, of any crimes!

But let’s just say, hypothetically, these license plate scanners were being used to stop crimes. How effective are they? Vermont has an extensive program, which captured 7.9 million plates in an 18 month period. The program helped solve five crimes. Five.

But things start getting really Orwellian when we consider things like the tax-per-mile scheme that is going to be tested out in Oregon. You see, after mandating that cars become more fuel efficient, the government ended up losing out on too much revenue from their gasoline taxes. So instead, they are making sure all cars are fitted with a tracker that monitors how many miles you drive and sends that info back to the state.

“It plugs into the Onboard Diagnostics (OBD) port that all cars manufactured since the mid-1990s have. Then ties into your car’s computer, where the data about your mileage and (cue Darth Sideous voice) many other things are stored. Including your speed, rate of acceleration, whether you’re wearing a seatbelt.”

We can add to that list things like emissions data, parking locations, and GPS data regarding your location. Better yet, these little doohickeys can both send AND receive information. So if you haven’t paid your speeding ticket, you might just have your car automatically shut down. Combined with the knowledge that the FBI can remotely activate the microphones in cars (such as OnStar systems) and then listen in on what’s happening inside the car without passengers being able to tell, we have the makings of some truly scary stuff (technically, that is illegal, but when has that ever stopped them?). Perhaps the government will track someone who was important in a political protest, listen in on what’s going on in their car, and then remotely stop them from even making it there. That’s right, those who monitor your car can gain remote access to your vehicle (and this includes hackers/criminals, as well). Here’s a creepy example of what might start happening in the next few years:

“Picture this: You’re riding with the flow of traffic, say 40 MPH and the speed limit, like most speed limits, is under posted at 30 MPH. Suddenly an on-coming car whips a left in front of you and you center-punch the drivers door, doing considerable damage to you and the driver. His insurance company refuses to pay your claims on the basis that you were exceeding the speed limit and that there is evidence that you are a dangerous maniacal rider that shouldn’t even have a license.

At the trial the opposition pulls out the black box data. Sure enough, you were going 10 MPH over the speed limit, but traffic records show that everyone travels that road at 10 MPH over the speed limit. Then they show that on 47 occasions over the past six months you hit speeds in excess of 90 MPH! You’re portrayed as a loose cannon looking for a place to have an accident. In fact, not five minutes before the accident you were traveling 87 MPH! It doesn’t matter that you were executing a clean, safe pass, you were exceeding the speed limit by 27 miles per hour, “reckless driving” according to state statutes.”

Anyone who is using E-ZPass is also liable to have their location and movements monitored and documented, even when they aren’t driving through toll booths.

Covert Surveillance

And as anyone who has flown at all in the last dozen or so years knows, you are being thoroughly tracked when you fly. I’m only going to gloss over the TSA here, because their abuses are obvious and they really deserve a separate article. But according to a former TSA employee, many of his coworkers would laugh at the nude images from the Rapiscan (you can’t make this stuff up) X-ray machines from another room – and would sometimes be having sex in there rather than trying to keep airline passengers safe. That doesn’t really matter anyways, because even the manufacturer admitted that they don’t work, and it is easy to sneak explosives or guns through them. Oh, and these machines have the capacity to store and send these naked images.

The expanded security at airports sure makes traveling a lot more stressful. But now there are cameras being deployed in airports that can detect “emotional strain” and analyze voice-prints to detect stress. Based on these indicators, your “behavioral intent” can be scrutinized as a part of the security process. These could be a great technology and save people a lot of time going through security, but what happens with false positives?

Oh, and you probably suspected as much, but the NSA knows where you are flying and when by reading through peoples’ airline reservations and passenger manifests. And this information is being used to associate you with other people on the same flight. So if you happen to be on a flight with a criminal, even if you have no relation to them whatsoever, this will be a small strike against you.

And while they are still a relatively new technology, let’s not forget about the government’s use of drones for domestic surveillance. In the coming years, drone surveillance is likely to expand exponentially, but the Air Force is already flying drones over the US, and they are spying on us. The FBI even admits this! Worse, there are no rules in place concerning domestic surveillance using drones, so the government has a completely free hand in this area. Of course, stronger privacy laws likely won’t stop this from happening, but they would be a start. Not only that, but (and perhaps you can see a pattern here) the military is developing drones with facial recognition software which can “remember” peoples’ faces and read “malintent.” The net is tightening.

Eavesdropping On Your Calls – Phone Surveillance

It is the NSA’s cell phone surveillance that is probably the most well-known by Americans since the Snowden revelations began. Much has been made of these mass surveillance programs, but most Americans are not familiar with the incredible extent of modern cell phone surveillance. Let’s take a look.

For a while, the NSA had insisted that their bulk collection programs only collect the metadata of your calls, and that therefore the American people need not worry about the intrusiveness of these programs. The metadata (the phone numbers involved in the call, duration of call, etc.) is totally different from the content of your calls, and so you shouldn’t be concerned, according to their side of the story.

This is pure BS, for numerous reasons. Metadata can be used to reveal far more about you than Obama and the NSA would have you believe. Two Stanford graduate students were able to gather the following information just from phone metadata:

“Using phone metadata, the researchers inferred sensitive information about people’s lives, including: neurological and heart conditions, gun ownership, marijuana cultivation, abortion, and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous.”

This is just from a small experiment done by two grad students; I’m sure the NSA’s capabilities are significantly more advanced.

“They warn that the metadata they had access to is dwarfed by what the amount the NSA has access to. “The dataset that we analyzed in this report spanned hundreds of users over several months. Phone records held by the NSA and telecoms span millions of Americans over multiple years.””

For more disturbing details, see this. In addition, the NSA is using this metadata (in addition to data from emails, social media, passenger manifests, GPS tracking, etc.) in order to map the social networks of Americans, so they can know who you may be associating with. And in 2014, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden remarked: “We kill people based on metadata.”

Regardless, it is somewhat of a moot point, because the NSA is in fact listening in on the content of your phone calls. In fact, low ranking analysts can listen to the content of phone calls, and read the content of emails, text messages, and instant messages without any kind of authorization! Note that this isn’t just in real time; the content of your calls (and everything else) is being stored, and can be sifted through by thousands of low ranking analysts at their discretion.

In other words, you have no privacy whatsoever.

But there is a lot more stuff we know about the government’s surveillance of phone data. This list is hardly comprehensive, but hopefully will provide you with some idea of the scope of the mass surveillance going on:

  • It was recently revealed that the DEA has been collecting data on all calls made between the US and certain foreign countries. This surveillance is related to drug crimes, not terrorism.
  • Law enforcement officers have had access to a massive database of call records dating back to 1987, which has been used for routine law enforcement (again, not terrorism). Four billion call records are added to the database every day (although one call can correspond to more than one record).
  • The NSA is collecting up to five billion phone records per day from around the world, provided by US telecom providers. This doesn’t specifically target Americans, but a lot of American call records are scooped up “incidentally.”
  • The NSA, in it’s Dishfire program, collects 200 million text messages every day globally. These records can be queried for location data, contacts, credit card info, missed call alerts, roaming alerts (indicating potential border crossings), payment notifications, travel itinerary alerts, meeting information, electronic business cards, and so on. This is an untargeted operation and includes information on people who are not suspected of any crimes.
  • The NSA and GCHQ stole the encryption keys from various SIM card makers, most notably Gemalto. Gemalto produces two billion SIM cards per year, sold all over the world. Any phone with one of these SIM cards is completely vulnerable, and all the data on it is available to these spy agencies.
  • The NSA is secretly introducing flaws into communication systems so that they can easily be tapped into. This makes networks less secure and makes it easier for hackers or foreign governments to steal data as well, not just the NSA. The scope of this project (codename: AURORAGOLD) is such that “virtually every cellphone network in the world is NSA accessible.”
  • The CIA has a coordinated campaign to hack Apple’s iPhones and iPads. Read more about this interesting story here.
  • Dozens of governments around the world have bought surveillance technology that allows them to monitor the location of cell phones simply by typing in a phone number. The NSA and GCHQ have been doing this for years, but it is also accessible to dictators in banana republics.
  • The FBI remotely activates the microphones in cell phones to listen in on conversations in real time. They are able to do this even if the phone is turned off.
  • The Feds are flying small planes equipped with fake cell tower technology over the US, which collects phone data by forcing your phone to connect with it. These machines are supposed to be used to aid in routine law enforcement, but the machines are incapable of discriminating and end up picking up the data of everyone within range. The range of these planes cover “most of the US population.”
  • Police departments across the country are using Stingray devices, which also operate as fake cell towers. The government has been absurdly secretive about their use. Apparently, these devices disrupt cell service of any phones in their vicinity – a potential danger if there are emergencies happening nearby.

The government has almost unqualified access to your phone data. Again, it is not at all difficult to see how this kind of power could be abused.

“Gentlemen Don’t Read Each Other’s Mail” – Snail Mail Surveillance

Even your very low-tech snail mail isn’t safe from the mass surveillance machine.

For starters, all mail sent in the US has its envelope scanned and is loaded into a database. This contributes to the massive amounts of metadata out there, helping to create the government’s dossier on you.

On top of that, the US Postal Service approved nearly 50,000 requests from law enforcement to monitor your mail in 2013. These requests were approved despite often having no reason provided or even the proper written authorization that is supposedly required. Unsurprisingly, this program was abused by those trusted to administer it. For instance, it was used at least once by a politician to spy on a political opponent, and was also used to spy on communications between attorneys and their clients.

And just recently, mysterious secret cameras were discovered set up outside the post office to monitor peoples’ faces and their license plates as they drive to and from the post office. Within an hour of the story breaking, the surveillance cameras were removed…

Becoming Omniscient – Internet Surveillance

Government Liking Status

The internet is effectively broken. Unless you take active measures and use strong encryption online, the government knows about whatever you do and is watching you. To give you a feel for just how serious this is, consider these words from security expert Bruce Schneier:

“Web search data is another source of intimate information that can be used for surveillance. (You can argue whether this is data or metadata. The NSA claims it’s metadata because your search terms are embedded in the URLs.) We don’t lie to our search engine. We’re more intimate with it than with our friends, lovers, or family members. We always tell it exactly what we’re thinking about, in as clear words as possible.

Google knows what kind of porn each of us searches for, which old lovers we still think about, our shames, our concerns, and our secrets. If Google decided to, it could figure out which of us is worried about our mental health, thinking about tax evasion, or planning to protest a particular government policy. I used to say that Google knows more about what I’m thinking of than my wife does. But that doesn’t go far enough. Google knows more about what I’m thinking of than I do, because Google remembers all of it perfectly and forever.

I did a quick experiment with Google’s autocomplete feature. This is the feature that offers to complete typing your search queries in real time, based on what other people have typed. When I typed “should I tell my w,” Google suggested “should i tell my wife i had an affair” and “should i tell my work about dui” as the most popular completions. Google knows who clicked on those completions, and everything else they ever searched for. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt admitted as much in 2010: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.””

The NSA has easy access to all of this data. Through their PRISM surveillance program, the NSA can perform “extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information,” including on email, video and voice chat, photos, voice-over-IP chats (such as Skype), file transfers, and social networking details. Thousands of low-level analysts can access this data without any need for supervisor approval, a warrant, or anything like that. They want to eavesdrop on your Skype calls? No problem. From Wikipedia:

“…the NSA databank, with its years of collected communications, allows analysts to search that database and listen “to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you’ve entered, and it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address or that IP address do in the future.””

The NSA is able to do this because they have direct access to the servers of major internet giants, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. And while many of these tech giants are willing to cooperate closely with the intelligence community, it is clear that the government valued this program heavily and were willing to fight for it. In fact, they threatened to fine Yahoo $250,000 per day if they would not comply.

Another NSA program harvests “hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans.”

Obama Civil Libertarians

And their internet surveillance isn’t politically agnostic, either; in fact, internet surveillance plays a critical role in the government’s war against WikiLeaks. In fact:

“By exploiting its ability to tap into the fiber-optic cables that make up the backbone of the Internet, the agency confided to allies in 2012, it was able to collect the IP addresses of visitors in real time, as well as the search terms that visitors used to reach the site from search engines like Google.”

But perhaps most disturbing of all is the NSA’s war against internet security, which is covered in a fascinating article on Der Spiegel. The NSA has a program deliberately designed to crack anything and everything on the internet, and to weaken the encryption standards of numerous internet protocols. Keep in mind that doing so creates vulnerabilities that anyone can exploit, including malicious hackers or foreign governments.

The NSA has completely cracked Skype and VPNs, which are not secure against their prying eyes. Even more scarily, https connections also aren’t secure, and these are the types of connections people use for financial services, e-commerce, webmail, etc. They’ve cracked the Secure Shell protocol (SSH), which is used by system administrators to log into employees’ computers remotely. Basically, they’ve cracked almost everything.

Regarding VPNs:

“According to an NSA document dating from late 2009, the agency was processing 1,000 requests an hour to decrypt VPN connections. This number was expected to increase to 100,000 per hour by the end of 2011. The aim was for the system to be able to completely process “at least 20 percent” of these requests, meaning the data traffic would have to be decrypted and reinjected. In other words, by the end of 2011, the NSA’s plans called for simultaneously surveilling 20,000 supposedly secure VPN communications per hour.”

Regarding https:

“The NSA and its allies routinely intercept such connections — by the millions. According to an NSA document, the agency intended to crack 10 million intercepted https connections a day by late 2012. The intelligence services are particularly interested in the moment when a user types his or her password. By the end of 2012, the system was supposed to be able to “detect the presence of at least 100 password based encryption applications” in each instance some 20,000 times a month.”

The silver lining of the report is that there are still some pieces of software that it appears the NSA has trouble cracking, including Tor, Truecrypt, and OTR instant messaging. Of course, this was from years ago, and it is quite possible they have discovered vulnerabilities since then.

Building An Economic Profile – Financial Surveillance

As in other areas, surveillance of financial records by the US government is total. As an American, you can no longer have any expectation of financial privacy. This means that any purchases you make, any money you transfer, or any investments you have, are known to the NSA.

As usual, most of what we know regarding this surveillance comes from documents released by Edward Snowden. Some of these documents were made public via Der Spiegel, and this is how ZeroHedge frames their revelations:

“They also know how much anyone in the world has spent on credit card-based purchases, what the source of that money is, and what the purchase was. In other words: absolute monetary and financial surveillance. And since SWIFT is involved, it likely also means a full blanket coverage of who buys what stock, and furthermore, leaves open to abuse the knowledge of which equities or FX pair the Fed, for example, is buying ahead of time in order to prevent yet another daily stock market plunge.”

This brings up an important point – gathering all this financial data could be quite profitable for those who are appropriately positioned to use it! Of course, that would never include people like you and me. And it’s also easy to see how having your personal financial info in a database somewhere could be inimical to freedom. Perhaps you don’t want people to know the things you’ve purchased or invested in.

But how widespread is this surveillance, really? Is it actually that bad? According to more documents from Der Spiegel, it is:

“Indeed, secret documents reveal that the main NSA financial database Tracfin, which collects the “Follow the Money” surveillance results on bank transfers, credit card transactions and money transfers, already had 180 million datasets by 2011. The corresponding figure in 2008 was merely 20 million. According to these documents, most Tracfin data is stored for five years.”


“The classified documents show that the intelligence agency has several means of accessing the internal data traffic of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a cooperative used by more than 8,000 banks worldwide for their international transactions. The NSA specifically targets other institutes on an individual basis. Furthermore, the agency apparently has in-depth knowledge of the internal processes of credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard. What’s more, even new, alternative currencies, as well as presumably anonymous means of payment like the Internet currency Bitcoin, rank among the targets of the American spies.”

There’s no escape (note that bitcoin has never been anonymous, nor is it an “internet” currency)! In the past, perhaps you could have counted on some discretion by using offshore banks in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands. But then the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) happened, and financial privacy is now completely dead.

FATCA gives the IRS broad powers to force foreign financial institutions to give your info to them (and that info is available to be shared with other agencies in the government, such as the NSA/CIA/FBI). Many foreign banks will no longer take US customers or are shutting down American’s accounts because of the difficulty complying (and not complying comes with a 30% penalty).

Most people have never heard of FATCA. But it is a critically important piece of legislation, and I strongly suggest you read more about it here. While the stated intent is to prevent financial “crimes” such as tax evasion, the real purpose is about collecting your financial information:

“If FATCA’s sole purpose were to “recover” tax revenues from assets squirreled away offshore by American “fat cats,” it seems odd that it targets only individuals and specifically exempts reporting on accounts held by U.S. corporations. On the other hand, targeting individuals makes a lot of sense if FATCA’s purpose is directed towards something else: adding to U.S. government agencies’ global electronic “map” of personal information.”

Put simply, unless you conduct your financial affairs entirely in cash (or perhaps some anonymous cryptocurrencies like Darkcoin), whatever you do is being documented and stored in some massive government database.

Even if you don’t think that all this financial surveillance is out of line because you believe it’s “worth it” to sacrifice privacy for security, you should still be concerned, because the IRS is notoriously bad at protecting peoples’ data:

“Former Internal Revenue Service employees have access to your sensitive financial information. So do current employees who aren’t authorized to see such data. Even some visitors to IRS facilities may have access to sensitive material.”

“Note that the GAO report comes after revelations that the IRS has a habit of rehiring people it fired for snooping through data or otherwise misbehaving on the job. That may help to explain why its employees are regularly exposed as identity thieves and filers of fraudulent returns. The tax agency also improperly turns over sensitive data about taxpayers to law enforcement agencies.”

Yeah, pathetic. And horrifying.

Taking Your Measurements – Biometric Surveillance

Biometric surveillance technologies are being rapidly developed, and there is simply no way I can cover this as thoroughly as it deserves to be covered here.

Not only that, but biometrics tend to interface with all of the other methods of surveillance mentioned thus far. For instance, the drones that can recognize faces, and so on. Nevertheless, I did want to provide some examples of what would – if used appropriately rather than for mass surveillance – be considered really cool technology. All kinds of neat things fit in this category, from facial and voice recognition software to fingerprint scanners. Some of this starts to almost delve into the realm of science fiction. For a great overview of biometric technology and some of the issues with its use, see this paper from the EFF.

Where else can I start but with the revelation that the GCHQ and NSA intercepted 1.8 million webcam images (that many in just six months!) from Yahoo webcam chats, mostly from people who were not under any suspicion of wrongdoing, and stored them in a database with the intention of using facial recognition technology to identify terrorists using the service to communicate. Up to 11% of that webcam imagery was “undesirable nudity.”

Facial recognition technology has been used to great effect in Iraq  and Afghanistan, where the US has created massive databases of facial scan data.

“Information about more than 1.5 million Afghans has been put in databases operated by American, NATO and local forces. While that is one of every 20 Afghan residents, it is the equivalent of roughly one of every six males of fighting age, ages 15 to 64.

In Iraq, an even larger number of people, and a larger percentage of the population, have been registered. Data have been gathered on roughly 2.2 million Iraqis, or one in every 14 citizens — and the equivalent of one in four males of fighting age.”

Using these databases, the military is able to see if the people that they capture in the field are known terrorists, escaped prisoners, or the like. This kind of information can prove invaluable on the battlefield.

The real problem comes from when this use of the technology is brought back home. And unfortunately, this is happening at an alarming rate.

For instance, the Boston police had a dry run of their facial recognition software and spied on everyone who attended a local music festival. In and of itself, this wasn’t a huge deal; the problem is that the Boston PD tried hard to cover it up.

“Like many surveillance programs, this uses the assumed lack of an expectation of privacy as its starting point. But this assumption only works one way. The public can only expect a minimum of privacy protections in public, but law enforcement automatically assumes a maximum of secrecy in order to “protect” its investigative techniques.”

Most of the facial recognition data from this was posted online – a massive security issue.

But that is nothing compared to what is happening on a national level. As reported by the New York Times, the NSA is harvesting images from the internet and feeding them into its facial recognition database.

“The agency intercepts “millions of images per day” — including about 55,000 “facial recognition quality images” — which translate into “tremendous untapped potential,” according to 2011 documents obtained from the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden.”

“It is not clear how many people around the world, and how many Americans, might have been caught up in the effort. Neither federal privacy laws nor the nation’s surveillance laws provide specific protections for facial images.”

In other words, your Facebook photos are giving the NSA biometric data which they can then use to identify you elsewhere.

And an article on Newsweek shed some more light on the scope of the biometric surveillance that is going on, along with some reasons to be concerned.

“…the federal government has been quite busy with biometrics. This summer, the FBI is focusing on face recognition with the fourth step of its Next Generation Identification (NGI) program, a $1.2 billion initiative launched in 2008 to build the world’s largest biometric database. By 2013, the database held 73 million fingerprints, 5.7 million palm prints, 8.1 million mug shots and 8,500 iris scans. Interfaces to access the system are being provided free of charge to local law enforcement authorities.

Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney for the privacy-focused Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), notes there were at least 14 million photographs in the NGI face recognition database as of 2012. What’s more, the NGI database makes no distinction between criminal biometrics and those collected for civil service jobs. “All of a sudden, your image that you uploaded for a civil purpose to get a job is searched every time there’s a criminal query,” Lynch says. “You could find yourself having to defend your innocence.”

Through a federal lawsuit, EFF obtained redacted NGI documents that it will soon publish. documents show that by 2015, the FBI estimates that NGI will include 46 million criminal face images and 4.3 million civil face images. The vendor building the face recognition system, MorphoTrust, was asked to design it to receive up to 55,000 direct photo enrollments per day and 2,300 per hour, as well as process 34,000 photo retrievals per day and 1,400 per hour. The statistics hint at the sheer scale of the face recognition infrastructure under construction—in one year, over 20 million Americans could be put into the system.

…any time citizens have their photo taken in a governmental capacity, whether it’s a background check or a driver’s license, their faces are liable to be analyzed by NGI.

“What would a world look like with comprehensive biometric surveillance? “If cameras connected to databases can do face recognition, it will become impossible to be anonymous in society,” Lynch says. That means every person in the U.S. would be passively tracked at all times. In the future, the government could know when you use your computer, which buildings you enter on a daily basis, where you shop and where you drive. It’s the ultimate fulfillment of Big Brother paranoia.

But anonymity isn’t going quietly. Over the past several years, mass protests have disrupted governments in countries across the globe, including Egypt, Syria and Ukraine. “It’s important to go out in society and be anonymous,” Lynch says. But face recognition could make that impossible. A protester in a crowd could be identified and fired from a job the next day, never knowing why. A mistaken face-print algorithm could mark the wrong people as criminals and force them to escape the specter of their own image.” [emphasis mine]

This brings up an important point. The increasing ease by which police departments can identify people in specific locations makes it far easier for the government to mask civil liberties violations and abuses. Rather than arresting every protester at a public protest, the police could use facial recognition technology to selectively arrest or detain the leaders or organizers of the protest. Clearly, this could destroy it before it even has a chance to get off the ground.

Biometrics are starting to be secretly used in the US, largely by Customs for immigration/border crossing purposes. Right now, these are more in an experimental phase, but surely it won’t be long before this is the standard. Here are three biometric programs that have been revealed by leaked documents that were acquired by Motherboard:

  • Facial recognition at Dulles Airport. The intention of this program is to catch “impostors,” or people who are using passports that aren’t their own. Customs officers are allowed to “randomly” select people to take aside for a mug shot, and if selected, they are not allowed to opt out. This picture is then compared with their passport photo and is scored on how well they match up.
  • Fingerprint scans in Atlanta. When foreign nationals exit the US, they will have their fingerprint scanned and matched with their entry records to see if they have spent more time in the US than allowed.
  • Iris scans and facial recognition at the US-Mexico border. This is an experiment to test the viability of these technologies in terms of adding extra layers of security to the border crossings.


This is how it begins. First, they are unveiled for the fairly noncontroversial idea of improving border security. But soon enough, these technologies will be used everywhere – when you buy things, when you enter buildings, when you are driving, and so on.

I want to close this section with a very short sampling of the insane new technologies being developed in this area. These are just a handful of the creepy things I’ve found, but I’m sure there are a gazillion more.

  • Voice recognition technology allows investigators to recognize and analyze your voice, even when background noise makes the recording itself inaudible. Imagine this, combined with the ability to remotely turn on your phone, car, or computer’s microphone.
  • New spy tech lets investigators retrieve your “voice imprint” from physical objects. Using this technology, researchers “could detect speech from an object photographed from 15 feet away through soundproof glass, as well as analyze video recordings and extract the data from objects in a room even when the people targeted were off camera.”
  • Fingerprint scanners can capture and analyze your fingerprint from up to 20 feet away. This could streamline the process of walking into the gym, but it could also be deployed to get a much larger fingerprint database of innocent people.
  • Soon, scientists may be able to read your memories. So far, this has only been done on rats, but humans could be next. Don’t worry, the technology for this is still likely many years away – but we are on track to develop it eventually.
  • Similarly, scientists may soon be able to read your mind. Again, this is a long way off, but scientists can already get some crude information on your thoughts via brain scans.

These technologies have legitimate uses, and could solve some very real problems. But used inappropriately, they could lead to an incredibly dystopian future.


Technology And The Future Of Surveillance

The modern iteration of the surveillance state is already quite impressive, as you have just seen. But technology is advancing rapidly, and certain trends may lead us into a world even beyond the wildest ideas of Orwell’s 1984. If these trends continue along a certain path, life in America could be a lot like living in an open-air prison. Consider people who are on house arrest who are made to wear GPS trackers – except that everyone will be subject to it, and it will be literally impossible to cut it off.

The Internet Of Things

“Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation Internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing.” – Former CIA Director, David Petraeus

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects embedded with electronics, usually connected to the internet, in order to get some kind of additional benefits or functionality based on the ability for these objects to communicate with each other, with you, and with their manufacturer. IoT offers us unprecedented benefits in terms of convenience and lifestyle improvements, but is also a massive threat to our privacy.

As more and more physical devices become connected to the internet, more and more pieces of data become easily gathered and transmitted. Some estimate that there will be 30 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020. Most people are willing to allow this to happen without a peep, and without any concern for their privacy, because they are willing to trade it for some added convenience. In fact, one in four professionals aged 18-50 have stated that they would like to connect their brains directly to the internet if possible.

Before diving into the more terrifying aspects of this, let me make clear that the IoT does in fact promise massive benefits to society. If implemented with proper security and without government surveillance involvement, it would be one of the most incredible advancements for humanity that I can imagine.

Consider just some of the mundane applications of this. As you start coming home from work, your refrigerator reminds you that you need to pick up milk, so it tells your car the best route to get to the store where milk is sold cheapest. As you pull into your driveway, the thermostat turns up the heat – remembering the temperature that you like. And when you step inside, there’s already a hot cup of coffee ready for you; because of some files open on your laptop, it figured you might be burning the midnight oil.

Yes, the Internet of Things offers unprecedented amounts of convenience, but it comes at a serious cost. And we are collectively marching forward with this without giving enough thought to the consequences. You can opt out of using the internet/cyberspace on your computer, but you cannot “opt out” of your home gadgets in the same way. “Always on” connectivity means that these appliances can continue collecting and transmitting data even when they appear to be off, so it could be almost impossible to protect yourself. Soon, people will need to choose whether they want these appliances or not, but people who rent likely will not have that option. And at some point, “smart” devices may be all that are available on the market.

In theory, so long as there is some demand for devices that are not connected to the IoT, there should be some that are sold and available. But don’t be surprised if these kinds of devices become mandated as standard for “safety” reasons. You must have a self-driving car, because of the risk of human error. You must have a smart refrigerator in order to prevent you from getting food poisoning, or to prevent food from being wasted. You must have a smart thermostat, because it will be better for the environment.

We don’t even need to bring government into the picture before this becomes a bad idea. There are massive security risks to the Internet of Things, and these absolutely need to be addressed. IoT technology is highly susceptible to hackers, government or otherwise; a recent HP study found that 70% of internet connected devices are vulnerable to attack. Most of the data transmitted from current “smart” appliances is unencrypted – in other words, anyone can easily get access to it. For more detailed analysis of the cyber threats posed by the IoT, see this.

According to security expert Claude Baudoin, IoT devices are susceptible to three main kinds of attack:

  • Listening in on the data or the commands could reveal confidential information about the operation of the infrastructure.
  • Injecting fake measurements could disrupt the control processes and cause them to react inappropriately or dangerously, or could be used to mask physical attacks.
  • Sending incorrect commands could be used to trigger unplanned events, to deliberately send some physical resource (water, oil, electricity, etc.) to an unplanned destination.

In other words, not only can data be stolen, but the actual physical integrity and operation of these devices can be compromised as well. This can be particularly scary when you think about your car; if hackers or government operatives can take control of your vehicle, it would be very easy to, say, murder you and make it look like suicide. And the terrorist attacks of the future could be catastrophic, like that portrayed in Live Free or Die Hard.

charlottes webcam

There are already some unsettling examples of the IoT in practice, and others where it is easy to envision them being used in a creepy or dangerous way:

  • Children’s toys. There is a Barbie doll that records what your children are saying, sends that audio over the internet to a third party, and uses their words to come up with a response. Children tend not to have much of a filter, so who knows what kind of potentially incriminating things they could say? And children have always been used as spies in totalitarian regimes…
  • Smart TVs. The Samsung smart TV recently got some attention because it is recording your conversations, is able to conduct a voice analysis, and then transmits this audio to a third party. It’s also logging your website visits, and is equipped with a camera for facial recognition. Perhaps even worse is the LG smart TV, which also transmits voice recordings. Not only that, but it tracks when you change the channel, and it transmits file metadata from your USB sticks. In other words, your TV knows about your files stored elsewhere. Finally, even when you turn the “collection of watching info” setting off (it is on by default), it continues to collect your data.
  • Baby monitors. These things have terrible security, and there have been multiple instances where hackers have taken control of them and started yelling at peoples’ babies from across the world.
  • Health “wearables”. These devices offer some incredible benefits, like allowing doctors to remotely monitor your health (“OnStar for the body”). But what happens when, under a socialized medical system, this information is used to enforce doctors’ orders?

But this is just the beginning. Much has been written about the Internet of Things and how it spells the end of privacy. I can’t possibly reproduce it all here. I highly recommend reading this fictional account of an IoT future from Wired reporter Mat Honan, from which the following is excerpted:

I wake up at four to some old-timey dubstep spewing from my pillows. The lights are flashing. My alarm clock is blasting Skrillex or Deadmau5 or something, I don’t know. I never listened to dubstep, and in fact the entire genre is on my banned list. You see, my house has a virus again.

Technically it’s malware. But there’s no patch yet, and pretty much everyone’s got it. Homes up and down the block are lit up, even at this early hour. Thankfully this one is fairly benign. It sets off the alarm with music I blacklisted decades ago on Pandora. It takes a picture of me as I get out of the shower every morning and uploads it to Facebook. No big deal.”

I also suggest reading this article by Matthew Harwood and Catherine Crump regarding the dangers of IoT surveillance. Some excerpts:

“…Apple introduced iBeacon last year.  It’s a service based on transmitters that employ Bluetooth technology to track where Apple users are in stores and restaurants. (The company conveniently turned on Bluetooth by default via a software update it delivered to Apple iPhone owners.) Apps that use iBeacon harvest a user’s data, including his or her location, and sometimes can even turn on a device’s microphone to listen in on what’s going on.

Another company, Turnstyle Solutions Inc., has placed sensors around Toronto that surreptitiously record signals emitted by WiFi-enabled devices and can track users’ movements. Turnstyle can tell, for instance, when a person who visited a restaurant goes to a bar or a hotel. When people log-on to WiFi networks Turnstyle has installed at area restaurants or coffee shops and check Facebook, the company can go far beyond location, collecting “names, ages, genders, and social media profiles,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The danger of the rise of Big Data and the Internet of Things is straightforward enough. Whenever data is perpetually generated, collected, and stored, the result is going to be a virtual ATM of user information that government agencies can withdraw from with ease. Last year, for instance, local, state, and federal authorities issued 164,000 subpoenas to Verizon and more than 248,000 subpoenas to AT&T for user information, while issuing nearly 7,500 subpoenas to Google during the first half of 2013.”

This last point is critical. If the Internet of Things really takes hold, there will be unlimited amounts of data at the government’s fingertips. They will be able to know everything about you, and they will potentially be able to control nearly everything that you interact with. I’d like to close this section with some words from security expert Bruce Schneier:

“In the longer term, the Internet of Things means ubiquitous surveillance. If an object “knows” you have purchased it, and communicates via either Wi-Fi or the mobile network, then whoever or whatever it is communicating with will know where you are. Your car will know who is in it, who is driving, and what traffic laws that driver is following or ignoring. No need to show ID; your identity will already be known. Store clerks could know your name, address, and income level as soon as you walk through the door. Billboards will tailor ads to you, and record how you respond to them. Fast food restaurants will know what you usually order, and exactly how to entice you to order more. Lots of companies will know whom you spend your days — and nights — with. Facebook will know about any new relationship status before you bother to change it on your profile. And all of this information will all be saved, correlated, and studied.”

Mass Surveillance And DNA Databases

My final warning regarding the dystopian future we may be heading towards is about DNA databases.

DNA Testing

DNA contains almost limitless amounts of information about you, and it is something you will never be able to change. Not only can your DNA be used to identify who you are, but it also can tell you what you look like (there’s even a company that creates “mug shots” for police based on DNA samples), who you are related to, your health history, your likelihood of contracting certain illnesses, and your likelihood of behaving in certain ways. This information could be incredibly valuable to a government looking to control its subjects.

The Obama administration has already proposed forming a massive genetic database containing the DNA of American citizens. So far, the proposal is only asking for 1 million volunteers, but as with all areas of government, there could easily be “mission creep” and have the scope widened drastically. And the government is legally allowed to collect your DNA without your permission or knowledge. In Raynor vs. Maryland, it was determined that leaving your genetic material behind is like leaving a fingerprint, and the government can do what they want with it. In this case, a rape suspect refused a mouth swab, but the police simply collected DNA off the chair he was sitting on. This sets a dangerous precedent, because as the scientist Leslie Pray says:

“We all shed DNA, leaving traces of our identity practically everywhere we go. Forensic scientists use DNA left behind on cigarette butts, phones, handles, keyboards, cups, and numerous other objects, not to mention the genetic content found in drops of bodily fluid, like blood and semen. In fact, the garbage you leave for curbside pickup is a potential gold mine of this sort of material. All of this shed or so-called abandoned DNA is free for the taking by local police investigators hoping to crack unsolvable cases.”

This DNA is ripe for getting picked up and included in any governmental DNA database. And it can get picked up in many other ways, too. For instance, during drunk driving checkpoints, or for that matter, any arrests or police interactions, even if not convicted. And it is certainly plausible that one day, DNA samples may be required in order to get a driver’s license, when entering government buildings, when applying for jobs, and so on. Even today, there are government rules mandating that hospitals collect the DNA of all newborn babies, without requiring parental consent or even that the parent knows about it. Soon enough, everyone’s DNA will be on file. There may even be mosquito-esque drones flying around extracting DNA samples.

As John Whitehead notes:

“With the entire governmental system shifting into a pre-crime mode aimed at detecting and pursuing those who “might” commit a crime before they have an inkling, let alone an opportunity, to do so, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine a scenario in which government agents (FBI, local police, etc.) target potential criminals based on their genetic disposition to be a “troublemaker” or their relationship to past dissenters.”

And researchers have shown that DNA evidence can be fabricated – perhaps these free thinkers will even be framed for crimes preemptively. Or the database could be used to implement a eugenicist program. The possibilities for abuse are almost unfathomable.



Obama I Spy

While you may believe you “have nothing to hide,” you have every reason to value your privacy and to fear and fight back against the surveillance state. Mass surveillance is not about stopping terrorism; it is a tool to control the population and to secure the interests of an elite group of aristocrats.

Mass surveillance can lead to all kinds of dangers for both individuals and the wider community. There can be witch hunts based on certain information, people will be considered guilty until proven innocent based on predictive analytics, and due process will be a thing of the past. Laws will be inequitably enforced, everyone will be suspicious of everyone else, and society will lose its moral cohesion. And the potential for totalitarian government is simply too strong to ignore, even in countries that most consider a part of “the free world.”

The degree of surveillance going on already is staggering, but the public outcry has been almost non-existent. Sure, a few people have listened to Edward Snowden, but half of America thinks he is a traitor and should be killed! And regardless of what the rest of us do, the government has been ignoring our outrage.

How can we stop this? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. Ultimately, I believe the solution lies in technology; what we need is for strong encryption to become easy to use and the default way we communicate. And we need a cultural transformation, where people who care about their privacy aren’t immediately viewed as “suspicious.”

But until then, there are things you can do to protect yourself. You should always stay up to date on the privacy and security world and it’s technology, because these things change rapidly. A great start is with Laura Poitras’s white paper, detailing the methods she used to securely communicate with Snowden.


  1. Sam Spade says:

    An advantage I have over most of y’all is age: I’m octogenarian. My various appetites have waned. It’s not that I’ve got “…nothing to hide…”, it’s that I’ve got nothing to lose. That I can’t live without, that is. “Come-And-Get-It!” (Annoying to discover nobody wants or is even that interested in “it” — whatever “it” happens to be).

    Last time I voted was 1964 — for Barry Goldwater. Those were the days I had quite a bit of stuff to lose, but became libertarian nonetheless — later anarchist (before it was cool). Had seven kids and a hungry wife under that panoply. Karl Hess and Harry Browne (both long gone) were my primary mentors. They were able to pound into my thick skull that I would do well to focus on things I can change.

    There is one facet of my world I can change: me. I’ve had some influence on children (now 25 grandchildren to boot), but not a lot. They range from Demopulbican to Republicrat to Christ-an to Agnostic to Atheist to Amerikan and who knows what else. But I’m pleased with each and every one of ’em.

    I am a sovereign state. Fun to watch “libertarians” twist and moan when they hear me use the word “state”. I am totally responsible for my “society”. I don’t engage in “surveillance” — other than to observe my world, which revolves around my belly-button, not yours. The liberty I enjoy is in knowing that your world revolves around your belly-button, whether you admit it or not.

    Do I engage in “illegal” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) or “black market” activities? Sometimes. But I know something about you that makes it fairly easy to pull off. If you’re “authority”, that is. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not. If you’re “authority” you’re full of ego, vanity and bullshit. You’re not terribly bright, and you’re easily circumnavigated. You’re so full of your own self-importance that you believe I’m afraid of whether or not you’re monitoring this little comment. I ain’t.

    I can redirect and bamfoozle you. And the horse you rode in on.

    So go ahead and spy. I’ll still be free. And sovereign. Sam

    • Thanks for that perspective, Sam. Based on your personal philosophy here, I’m not the least bit surprised that Harry Browne was a mentor of yours.

  2. Sam Spade says:


    Harry made one grievous error: Against most libertarian (lower-case “l”) advice he listened to Mama, who convinced him to throw in his hat to the scavengers seeking a Grand Wizard for the Klan. Some have not forgiven him for that — Ad hominem indeed — even in death. Because that blunder did not alter the fact that “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” is still probably the finest short guide to libertarian living anywhere — 40 years forward.

    I still have the original printings, but a free pdf revised version is available online I’ve never taken the time to compare it with the original, but presume the basic thrust hasn’t changed.

    Am glad to see you editing over at . That site gravely needs a “stimulous package”, and I think you’re an excellent start. Sam

    • Haha thank you! I’ll try to provide as much “stimulus” as I can. If there are particular kinds of articles you like to see, let me know and I’ll try to oblige.

      Also, THANK YOU so much for posting that link! I read HIFFIAUW many years ago online but lost the link and couldn’t find it. Needless to say, about a year ago I purchased it at the greatly inflated but still worthwhile price that I could on Amazon. I must agree with you – it is a fantastic work.

  3. This reminds me of an article by Michael Rozeff on the subject. I wrote a response here:

    The problem with such articles is that they are not themselves without cost. They likely increase fear, and guess what? Fear is another tool of government. If anything, this article may immobilize people more than it motivates them.

    Really, what do you expect government to do? Of COURSE they spy on the peons, and work to keep them suppressed. How could it be otherwise? There is no way to stop it, short of revolution.

    You say, “Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer.” If not, then why bring this up in the first place? What good does increasing fear do?

    I do have the answer. Put your fear aside. Don’t expect to deter in any way, through any conventional means, the collection of data; but put as many barriers up to that collection that you can stand, just to make life difficult for the snooping bastards. Find other things the ruling class hates and do that (e.g. homeschooling). Go buy a battle rifle and a case of ammo. Train your friends in the use of weapons. Resolve not to let anyone arrest you for such things as expressing an opinion (as you noted), or for anything else. If they try, make the bastards pay.

    The problem is not that the ruling bastards are spying on us; they can do no other. The problem is not even that there are ruling bastards. The real problem is that ordinary people put up with it.

    By the way, I don’t accept your suggestion that being watched causes all people to “trim their sails”. Obviously there are others who, being told to do X, is all they need to do Y instead. In fact that is more essentially an American characteristic than anything else I can think of.

    • Paul, thank you for the comment. I must confess that I don’t really understand your sentiment here though. Yes, fear is a tool that government uses. That doesn’t make it bad intrinsically. By your logic, Edward Snowden has damaged the liberty movement (perhaps you actually believe this, and I’m sure there is an argument to be made), but that is something I cannot accept. Fear motivates action. That action can include any of the things that you’ve mentioned here: using protonmail, learning to shoot, homeschooling, whatever. And it makes people resent the state. That can only be a good thing.

      And I completely agree with you that surveillance doesn’t have a chilling effect on everyone, and I specifically called that out. But it does tend to have a chilling effect on many, and the incentive to chill your speech is stronger if you have more radical ideas. But clearly it doesn’t work 100%, otherwise I wouldn’t have written this in the first place 🙂

      • Here are my blatherings on fear:

        You are correct (in my opinion), fear per se is not bad, but it is only bad when it works for the ruling class against us. This is why I wonder whether the ruling class dislikes the fact their spying got outed. They win some (more fear and submission among the peons) and lose some (they are exposed). But note, the exposure did not and will not stop them spying. It *may* have caused more people to lose faith in government, so it is hard to decide how it all plays out in the end.

        Snowden is a personal hero of mine. I think in the end, you just have to do what is right and let the chips fall where they may.

        I *do* think it is important not to leave the impression we have no recourse. There is always revolution, if necessary. There are also nonviolent avenues such as a mass loss in government faith (e.g. “Velvet Revolution”).

        • First of all, I like your article, particularly the gun joke (and your general sentiment on guns, which is an interesting take I’ve never considered). And on the subject of coming to terms with your own mortality, I highly suggest watching Aronofsky’s The Fountain. And with regards to law breaking, I think jaywalking is a great candidate.

          I’ve speculated as to whether TPTB actually like that the word got out on surveillance as well. My thought is that no, they did not, but that the chilling effect and the intimidation were more of a silver lining. And you are right, it did not and will not stop them from spying. I think our recourse is to develop ways to easily, mainstream-ily, encrypt all communications in ways that the government will have serious difficulty cracking. Frankly, I think this fits in with what you’ve stated in your fear article as well.

          I agree that we shouldn’t suggest there is no recourse, but I simply don’t see revolution as an option even worthy of considering. I think there would be valid points to be made on your side as well, but I can only see more harm than good coming from this. That being said, conditions may deteriorate to the point where that is the only recourse. I’m more in line with your second suggestion, but I think ultimately we will “win” by having some critical mass of “true believers” in anarchy (perhaps 1-3%), a majority who have lost faith in government, and a technological/entrepreneurial environment where it is clear to the everyman that government is unnecessary and can be ignored.

  4. With regards to the FBI coming up with plots, I give you Glendon Scott Crawford:

    He is my neighbor. He was trying to pull a Tony Stark and invent something which he could sell to the US or allied military forces, in order to secure his retirement after the economy tanked. FBI informants supplied funds and necessary controlled components. Remember – it’s not entrapment if you call it “terrorism”.

    I was emailing with him about 2 weeks before his arrest. He was saying that he feared industrial espionage. I told him that I could help him set up better encryption, etc. He said that he wasn’t that concerned. I said that the NSA is known to monitor everyone’s emails and use them to help big US companies against competition, either by outright theft or by getting people arrested.

    “Don’t worry”, he said “I’m not doing anything illegal.”.

    “It doesn’t matter.” I said.

    I hate being right.

    • That article paints a very different picture of the story than you have, unsurprisingly. Loaded with character assassination, and there’s only one sentence buried in the article showing the most important aspect: it was the FBI that supplied him with the parts. Geez.


  1. […] real wars, thousands of deaths at the hands of drones, torture, overthrowing governments, and massively intrusive domestic surveillance) stems from this single event, resulting in the death of 3000 civilians. Many Americans continue to […]

  2. […] no big deal. It happens “over there” and has no immediate effect on our lives (other than expanded mass surveillance and loss of liberties, a concession it seems most Americans are quite willing to make). This makes […]

  3. […] September 11th, the US government gained broad new powers, such as mass surveillance of American citizens, in order to wage the so-called Global War on Terror. There is some irony to this, of course, with […]

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