Love him or hate him, Edward Snowden forever disabused us of the notion that certain things in life are still private. Reaction to his disclosures is directly proportionate to the level of support or disgust over the growing surveillance establishment.
In spite of the fact that the odds of becoming the victim of a terrorist attack in the U.S. are 20 million to 1, the global war on terror continues to be used as the pretext for taking away any remnants of our fragile privacy. It’s been estimated that during the last decade the U.S. spent $7 trillion dollars to fund this endless battle. The fear of a phantom bearded terrorist, waving a pitchfork out of a desert cave in a distant land is also being used to silence any criticism over our extrajudicial drone murders, foreign policy, as well as domestic and international spying.
While the U.S. is more than willing to sacrifice the lamb of our privacy at the throne of the ubiquitous “war on terror”, we openly support Sunni extremists all over the world, grant asylum to murderous Chechen terrorists, arm Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and encourage our allies to do the same.
It also bares mentioning that the definition of terrorism is in the eye of the beholder. The Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence assessments warn government officials to be on a lookout for American veterans, anti-war protesters and those who dare to reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority. Speaking out against corruption or simply voicing your disagreement with our official foreign policy on heavily-monitored social networks is very likely to turn you into a target of warrantless surveillance.
Let’s examine what it’s like to live our lives under the microscope. In the morning, when you open the refrigerator, crank up your coffeemaker, use a toaster or any other kitchen gadget, your movements become a part of a larger network. Surveillance-minded Big Brother has been eyeing “dumb appliances” for years. Now that most of them contain sensitive electronics, items of interest can 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,” explained General David Petraeus.
While “dumb appliances” can reveal a plethora of information about your habits and whereabouts, smart electronics go far beyond that. They reveal information about your whereabouts, your contacts and the content of your communications. Service providers obediently provide backdoor access, passwords and encryption algorithms to the government. In return, companies like Verizon are rewarded with $10 billion dollar, 10-year government contracts.
If you’re using an IPhone, it can also read fingerprints, scan irises and collect biometric information about your face. Any phone can be remotely activated to operate as a microphone and/or a video camera. Biometric apps and contraptions can identify not only your face, but also other identifying features, such as your ears and your distinct walk.
Pentagon poured billions into face and iris recognition systems. State and local law enforcement hurried to catch up, deploying facial recognition systems all over the nation. One of such systems, the FaceEXPLORER, supports a database containing over ten million images and growing by 15,000 additional images every single day.
Your nosy Big Brother knows not only how you look, sound and walk – but also literally what you’re made of. The government’s library of DNA samples, along with the names of their sources, is growing exponentially. This genetic cornucopia has been actively compiled since 1960’s. The samples were neither willingly provided nor obtained by a court warrant. Many of these DNA samples were harvested from helpless newborn babies. There are also other libraries of DNA samples, such as the Joint Federal Agencies Antiterrorism DNA Database, which is compiled by the Department of Defense, the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community from foreign and domestic sources.
Disclosure of DNA and other medical information for intelligence purposes is explicitly authorized by government regulations. DoD directive 3115.09 states that under U.S. and international law, “there is no absolute confidentiality of medical information for any person... Medical information may be released… for any lawful intelligence or national security-related purpose.”
When you reach for the remote to watch the morning news, your TV may be watching you. Modern HDTV sets include an internally-wired HD camera and microphones, capable of face tracking and speech recognition. These capabilities can be used by private and government hackers to watch and record your every move.
Want to weigh yourself before breakfast? Your scale just might share your body-fat percentage with the world. It could also quietly deliver the same information to advertisers of weight-loss products and supplements.
Using Facebook, Twitter or other social media networks? Don’t forget that the government’s data-mining goes far beyond your public posts, dipping into your chats and private messages. It also penetrates encryption and eavesdrops on your Skype calls, both of which were previously assumed to be private.
Once you leave the house, it’s all downhill from there. Your own car is spying on you through systems such as OnStar and black box devices, built into every modern vehicle. Automatic license plate readers snap pictures of every vehicle in their line of sight, time-stamping those images and recording the location of where you were at that particular point in time.
Using public transportation? Don’t expect privacy there. Surveillance equipment aboard buses, trains and trolley cars provides remote access to live video and sound in real time.
On your way to the bank? If you’re planning to make a cash deposit or withdrawal, use a safety deposit box or enter into any transactions exceeding one thousand dollars, under current banking regulations your innocent activities will likely be written up as a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR).
Going to the pharmacy? Keep in mind that your prescription records may be released to third parties in many states, including Florida and California. You may be required to produce a State ID or a Driver’s License to purchase over-the-counter cold and allergy medications. That information will then be entered into a nationwide database. Such scrutiny is merely a prelude to the ongoing legislative efforts to require a prescription for any OTC remedies containing pseudoephedrine. State regulations allow doctors and pharmacists to access your prescription history, while under the same laws you have no right to request access to your own records.
On your way to the store? Waive to the mannequins, because they’re watching you. Inside some of those giant plastic heads are hidden cameras, equipped with face recognition capabilities that will allow them to link your shopping habits to your social media profiles. Spying mannequin models are called EyeSee. They can determine your age, gender and race. Corresponding audio technology will soon allow them to eavesdrop on customer conversations. Retailers in the U.S. and Europe are already using these mannequins, without any notice to consumers.
All kinds of information collected about ordinary Americans from various sources is aggregated and morphed together into expansive dossiers, under the programs such as the Information Awareness Prototype System codenamed “Basketball” and “TopSail” (formerly known as “Genoa II”).
Who’s watching the watchers? Creative interpretations of the Patriot Act lead to the warrantless implementation of the surveillance. Even when a court order is sought, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court lacks the tools to independently verify the veracity of the government’s representations. The National Security Agency (NSA) breaks privacy rules thousands of times every year, not to mention numerous other agencies that collect copious amounts of surveillance without proper oversight and routinely lie about it.
In the mean time, President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) experienced mass exodus and sits virtually empty. Since 2012, it has gone from 14 members to 4, after 7 of its members were asked to step down and 3 left voluntarily.
We’d be silly to rely on the mainstream media for any modicum of exposure. To the contrary, the majority of coverage is designed to help you develop a garden variety of the Stockholm syndrome, by artificially cultivating feelings of warm gratitude towards the abusive Big Brother. For example, we have Michael Grunwald of Time magazine, who writes embarrassing propaganda pieces, such as “Tread on Me”, opining that “the government must protect the public even if it has to limit individual rights.”
Yesterday, the same Grunwald posted a Twitter message that said, “I can't wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange.” Grunwald apparently believes that “limiting individual rights” can be taken all the way up to extrajudicial murder. After all, he also exclaimed, “I don't even get why I'm SUPPOSED to care about the American we iced in Yemen.” Sadly, this creature of the deep is one sad example of what Senator Dianne Feinstein would call a “real reporter.”
John Swinton, former managing editor for the New York Times, famously said: “There is no such thing, at this date of the world's history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.” (Source: Labor's Untold Story, by Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, published by United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America, NY, 1955/1979.)
Fortunately, for every vile Grunwald there is a valiant Greenwald. To see the big picture, we must seek out truly independent reporters and support their work. To change the status quo, we need to take it upon ourselves to spread the word and proactively fight back against privacy violations, injustice and government abuse. That is the only way out from behind the looking glass.