Tin Foil Nostalgia
In a recent DirecTV television ad, the character of "Overly Paranoid Rob Lowe" drills into blocks of cheese because, he warns us, that's sometime where they hide listening devices.
Not very long ago, I would have found that much funnier. Nowadays...?
In the months following Edward Snowden's revelation that our own government is using dragnet-style tactics to gather electronic communications - and, more ominously, storing this mass-collected personal data for reasons and durations unknown - we've seen a veritable deluge of stories underscoring this persistent, pervasive and warrantless surveillance of American citizens. Suddenly, Cheese Man looks slightly less crazy.
I could wax poetic about the dangers inherent in this approach, the philosophical objections, and the Constitutional questions raised. I could express moral outrage felt at being given the choice of submitting and being treated like a larval criminal, objecting and being treated like, well, Cheese Man, or taking countermeasures and being treated like a terrorist. Instead, though, I'm going to just list some of the most recent stories and let you decide for yourself how to respond.
- Camouflaged surveillance cameras were found outside several post offices in Colorado, situated to capture both license plates and facial images of drivers. The managers of the facilities had no idea that they had been installed and openly stated that they were not part of site security. When the Federal government was questioned, the cameras were ripped from the ground.
- In at least two separate incidents, municipal government sued their citizens and lawmakers to block duly-enacted legislation outlawing the use of traffic cameras and requiring their removal. Such camera-banning laws were passed in Ohio and Missouri by state legislators and citizen-driven ballot initiatives respectively. The local governments told them, "No."
- The ACLU discovered, after a lengthy Freedom of Information Act fight, that the DEA and ATF were considering deploying license plate readers to compile a database of gun show attendees While the agencies contend that this particular idea never went beyond the proposal stage, it raises the question of why they wanted to compile and store this data. There is also the not insignificant matter of their moving forward with general collection of this data from our roadways. According to the ACLU's report, "[t]he program also apparently data mines license plate reader data 'to identify travel patterns.' The extent of this data mining is unknown."
- Several Federal agencies and local police departments around the country are deploying Stingray devices, designed to trick all cell phones in a given area to connect to them, giving operators access to data transmitted by or stored on the phone. Often, no warrant is requested. In cases where Stingray evidence is submitted, police have lied to judges or refused to divulge the source of the information, rather than describe the capabilities of the devices during trial. In one case, a prosecutor dropped serious charges rather than comply with the judge's request for details.
- Similarly, dozens of law enforcement agencies are now deploying "RANGE-R" devices,. These are handheld radar units which literally allow police to see through structure walls without a warrant. The manufacturer of the device also offers more advanced models capable of 3D modeling of "hits" and can be drone-mounted.
- For that matter, NYPD has been deploying backscatter vans for years. These devices can see through vehicles, light structure walls and clothing, and appear to be nothing more than white panel vans. While many agencies - and even more "undisclosed customers" - have these units, NYPD bluntly refuses to divulge specifics about their deployment, ironically "due to confidentiality concerns." They have recently been ordered to release this information by a state judge but have not yet fully complied.
- New York has also joined many other cities in deploying "ShotSpotter" microphones, with over three hundred of these units going live in Brooklyn and The Bronx over the last two weeks. Unfortunately, they have a 75% false-alarm rate in recognizing gunfire (their stated purpose) but record the private utterances of citizens in the street well enough to be entered as evidence in criminal trials, despite the manufacturer's assurances that the devices don't have that capability.
- And, if all that wasn't enough, the Equation Group - believed to be the most secretive of the NSA's hacker groups - was revealed to have infected hard drives from dozens of manufacturers to the point where the spyware can survive military-grade data wiping. The malware and spyware used is virtually undetectable and, according to premier antivirus company Kaspersky Labs, the only way to get rid of the infection is to physically destroy the hard drive. Since the programmers would have needed access to the hard drive source code ("something that manufacturers would ordinarily guard ferociously"), it's possible that the manufacturers are either in collusion or don't even know they've been compromised. While this infection has only been detected in high-profile technical or political targets, it's possible that it's resident in all hard drives currently being manufactured and only turned on as needed. And, since it's believed to be developed by the same group that's been collecting and storing all our cell phone data for years....
Frankly, I miss being able to poke fun at silly, paranoid "Cheese Man". But somewhere along the line, we made a wrong turn and are now honest-to-God heading toward living in an Orwellian "Surveillance States of America." It's not funny anymore.
How is this acceptable? Why aren't we outraged? Why aren't we demanding that it stop, that the cameras be removed and our privacy restored? Aren't you willing to be a "little less safe" to be a little more secure in your liberty?
I don't have the answer, though I surely wish I did. All I can do is warn my fellow citizens of the danger we're facing, and harangue my elected officials into helping me push back - even if it makes me "overly paranoid" in the eyes of some. I hope you'll do the same in your own corner of the country.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to put my cheese in the microwave for a few minutes... just in case.