The double-edged sword of mass surveillance


If you’re reading this, then it’s a given that you have either a laptop, tablet, PC and/or smartphone.

At least one of these devices are in almost every home in the world, and by the end of this century it is likely that there will not be a home on earth that does not have one.

While digital and mobile devices have helped connect the world in ways never thought possible, this modern hi-tech revolution presents as many challenges as it does solutions. And according to the facts, the ones turning them into problems are our own governments.

An appropriate example to start with is the United States Government, which happen to oversee the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – both of which are charged with protecting the United States government against network warfare and overseas intelligence gathering.

What they are not charged with, however, is the wholesale collection and storage of citizens’ personal information, such as sensitive banking information, medial records, private interactions on social media, telephone calls and even offline activities at home.

But, according to leaked information from its former employees and Wikileaks, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Let’s start with the CIA.

In perhaps the most significant data dump against a government agency in history, Wikileaks released the Vault 7 files, revealing a CIA program called “Weeping Angel”. In short, this program allowed CIA hackers to remotely activate Samsung Smart TVs’ built-in voice control microphone, even when it appears to be switched off. The documents also showed extensive hacking of smartphones, including iPhones.

To some, this story might sound familiar, and that is because another agency has already been carrying out this very same Orwellian Big Brother-esque activity for years.

Enter the NSA.

According to a report in The Washington Post in July 2014, relying on information provided by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, 90% of those placed under surveillance in the US are ordinary Americans, and are not the intended targets. The newspaper said it had examined documents including emails, text messages, and online accounts that support the claim.

But wait a minute…didn’t the NSA end its bulk collection of phone call data in November 2015?

Yes, but other “initiatives” serving the same purpose (and worse) are alive and well, snooping on just about everyone. Here are a few of them.

PRISM: the clandestine internet-spying program where the NSA bulk collects internet communications from companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook).

Section 702 of the Patriot Act: used by the NSA to justify mass collection of phone calls and emails by collecting huge quantities of data directly from the physical infrastructure of communications providers).

Executive Order 12333: used to authorise foreign intelligence investigations. The beauty of 12333 is in its empty, flexible language: As Gizmodo explains: “Any information “incidentally” collected during an intelligence gathering mission focused outside the US – even if it’s the entire email history of a Minnesota teen or every iCloud photo from a Chicagoan’s iPhone – is fair game.”


Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand

In countries like Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – all of which work very closely with US intelligence via the CSEC, GCHQ, ASIO and NZSIS respectively – similar programs are also working overtime.

If you doubt it, just take a look at the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance, which comprises of the give intelligence agencies you see above. That some of them have been caught spying on the average Joe is disturbing enough, but it’s evident that the cornerstone of democracy and free speech – journalism – has also been a target.

According to FBI documents published by The Intercept last year, the bureau’s “secret rules” allow it to obtain information about journalists’ calls without going to a judge or informing the news organization being targeted.

In Australia, as far back as 2012, law enforcement and government departments are accessing vast quantities of phone and internet usage data without warrants. Meanwhile, Australian security agencies employ private contractors like the National Open Source Intelligence Centre (NOSIC) to monitor, collate, and report on publicly accessible information about individuals and organisations. Given the close working relationship that ASIO has with the NSA, it’s conceivable that the pistons of PRISM-type programs are spinning also.

The UK is not alone in these Orwellian practices, either. In November 29, 2016, royal assent was given to The Investigatory Powers Bill, passing it into law. This effectively legalised the UK’s global surveillance program, which scoops up communications data from around the world, but also introduces new domestic powers, including a government database that stores the web history of every citizen in the country. UK spies will be empowered to hack individuals, internet infrastructure, and even whole towns – if the government deems it necessary.

In 2013, referring to Canada’s intelligence agency CSEC spying on ordinary Canadians, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald told Canada’s CBC: “There’s a lot of other documents, about [CSEC] spying on ordinary citizens, on allied governments, on the world, and their co-operation with the U.S. government, and the nature of that co-operation… I think most Canadian citizens will find [this] quite surprising, if not shocking, because it’s all done in secret and Canadians are not aware of it.”

This is not only still going on, but accelerating.

In 2015, VICE Canada reported that: “Canada’s signals intelligence agency will gain, for the first time, the authority to spy on Canadian citizens if Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is elected prime minister this month.” Perhaps the biggest concern was that the kind, mildly-mannered Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, was promising to give even more powers to an agency that already possessed unprecedented surveillance powers.


Are Western democracies becoming totalitarian?

All of this brings us to a sobering reality.

We know that people living under regimes in North Korea, China, Russia and Iran are very careful when it comes to speaking out against their governments publicly. We know this because dissidents, activists, journalists and protesters are sometimes killed when they do.

But surely that doesn’t happen on the soil of the Land of the Free, or the True Patriot North? And what about the Land of Hope and Glory? Well, it certainly couldn’t happen in Australia, for we are Young and Free.

Unfortunately, it’s happening in all of these nations. To you and I, and probably to everyone else we know. The bittersweet gift that Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and others have given us – and in doing so, painted a target on their own backs – we are watched 24/7 too.

In light of the recent Vault 7 revelations, which revealed that the CIA was able to hack ‘smart cars’ and potentially cause “fatal accidents”, this adds another disturbing factor to the reality of mass surveillance.

For the investigative Journalists, political figures and activists in Western capitals, their untimely deaths could easily be labelled as just that – “fatal accidents” (particularly if there was little evidence to suggest otherwise).

One Journalist, Michael Hastings, who worked for Rolling Stone, was investigating CIA director, John Brennan for a major exposé. Hastings told his colleagues that the exposé would be “the biggest story yet”, and that he had received death threats. Hastings had also been working on an article, titled:Why Democrats love to spy on Americans“, which he published on Buzzfeed.

On June 18, 2013, Hastings was driving in his car in Los Angeles when it crashed into a tree at over 100mph. The car exploded and his body was so badly charred he had to be identified by fingerprints. 

Let’s go full “conspiracy theorist” and say the CIA did it. No hit man was needed. No bloody gloves or unregistered gun to dispose of. Just a laptop. Nice, clean and untraceable.

Perhaps we will never know whether Hastings was assassinated by the CIA. For now, we’ll just have to put it down as a strangely timed accident. After all, with nothing left of the car and the in-built technology that might have exposed foul play, there is little evidence to suggest otherwise.

Yes, many of our governments are most definitely spying on us. All of the evidence above shows this very clearly.

How they intend to use the information they’re collecting is anyone’s guess, but it will mean that if more investigative journalists die under unusual circumstances, others will be looking over their shoulders.

And that’s something a journalist in a free country should never have to do.


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