Category Archives: Surveillance

“Animal Farm” and Life in the former Soviet Union

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” – I read this Orwell’s masterpiece after I have left the land of victorious proletariat and was struck by how well it captured the essence of the Soviet order.

In fairness, life in the Soviet Union was not too difficult if one followed the rules:

  • Accept the corruption. There are different rules for little people and for big people
  • Outwardly, accept the political correctness. Of course our Soviet society is the most fair and inclusive. Be careful what you say,  surveillance is ever present. Differing opinions deserve no respect, only condemnation. If someone disagrees that’s because they are bad people with ulterior motives
  • Most of the problems are created by an officially sanctioned enemy that possesses almost mythical powers (it was, of course, the United States back then).

From what I read, life in the Nazi Germany also was OK for most people that followed the “rules” and didn’t belong to one of the officially persecuted groups. At least until Herr Hitler decided to get some “lebensraum” in the East, wars tend to turn out not how one plans. And Nazis had their all-powerful enemy in Jewish women and children.

Are we getting to be like the Soviet Union? We are not there yet but for someone who came from behind the Iron Curtain the trajectory is not encouraging:

  • Some are more equal than others? Check. Top 0.1% have as much wealth as the rest of the country – do you think your view matters as much as that of Qatar’s sheik paying Bill Clinton $1MM for 5 min of his time (really, Bill?). And what do you think would have happened to a “little person” that was grossly negligent with the government’s confidential information? If you have any doubt that he or she would have paid a much higher price than just saying “I accepted responsibility”, I want to have whatever you are smoking. But we’ve gotten so cynical about corruption at the highest level, we just shrug it off as expected. Different rules for different folks.
  • Political correctness, lack of tolerance for differing views, massive surveillance? Check. Do you really believe that the government respects your privacy? And if you prefer a different political candidate, you are a “deplorable” (Clinton), a welfare leach (Romney), racist (Obama) or sexist (Clinton). Tolerance and ability of self-critical evaluation were not common traits amongst Communist Party bosses. These traits seem to be missing in many US politicians now.
  • Officially sanctioned enemy with mythical powers? Check. Anything we don’t like is Putin’s fault. Jullian Assange’s WikiLeaks have been exposing the corruption of ruling elites for a long time, but now we know that they’ve always been Putin’s agents hell-bent on destroying Hillary Clinton (the case that their disclosures has never been showed to be falsified is so-o-o irrelevant; really, why bother with facts?)

I can go on and on. The media that doesn’t even pretend to be objective. Disappearance of the middle class. Government agencies such as IRS targeting political opponents of the regime. Even previously respected FBI is being tainted. The national debt is totally out of control. Inequality is reaching critical levels.

But most of us know that something’s broken. That’s why we just saw two deeply flawed candidates – Sanders and Trump – take the establishment to the edge even with the deck of media and political and financial interests stacked against them.

No, we are not like the Soviet Union yet. But as Orwell showed us, a transformation from a democracy to oligarchy and to outright tyranny is gradual. We are in the oligarchy stage now. The trend is not our friend.

Each of us chooses what to do. I personally decided to vote Libertarian. This is not about 2016: I live in California and it’s going for Clinton by a huge margin. It’s about getting a party not called Democratic or Republican over the 5% limit to qualify for electoral funding in the future. We’ve had the same two parties for over 150 years. At this point I question whether either of them truly represents us “little people”. It’s time for change. The real one, not the “hope and change” we were sold in 2008. In the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the likely President Clinton won’t push us into war with Russia and China. I mean, I don’t see their soldiers on our borders while there are plenty of ours near theirs.

Surveillance vs. The Right to Privacy

Some of you may have seen The Minority Report directed by Steven Spielberg, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0181689/. In the year 2054, criminals are apprehended before they have a chance to commit a crime and people’s movements are continually tracked in order to advertise to them and keep them under surveillance. While pre-crime does not look feasible anytime soon, potential for the constant surveillance – and accompanying loss of privacy – has almost arrived. Not only that, privacy is no longer viewed by some as an important right. To quote then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Rather astounding lack of comprehension that desire for privacy is not the same as desire to break the law and that privacy is an essential component of liberty.

As described in The Outer Circle, surveillance has both business (“to sell you things”) and security (“to make sure you don’t do bad things”) components. But these components are not entirely separate as businesses routinely share the information they collect with the government:

“Thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies are working closely with U.S. national security agencies, providing sensitive information and in return receiving benefits that include access to classified intelligence…” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-06-14/u-s-agencies-said-to-swap-data-with-thousands-of-firms

Microsoft has collaborated closely with US intelligence services to allow users’ communications to be intercepted, including helping the National Security Agency to circumvent the company’s own encryption…” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/11/microsoft-nsa-collaboration-user-data

And many more.

Anything you do with Google-provided services (search, e-mail, maps, etc.) will be combined into targeted advertising. This is not to single out Google – all companies are trying to collect as much information about you as they can. Google just happens to be, by and large, better at it.

The government snoops on phone, email and text records of virtually every US citizen – with the forced cooperation of US telecommunications companies. PBS program United States of Secrets http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/united-states-of-secrets/ describes how the government spies on its citizens and how technology companies feed into the dragnet. According to some of the NSA technologists interviewed by PBS, it was possible to protect the privacy of the citizens by anonymizing the data – however, the NSA chose not to do this.

In The Great Game, the heroes were tracked down by their cell phone. A few years ago that was a fairly novel suggestion, a province of conspiracy theorists. Now, it’s an established fact. If a cell phone is turned on, it constantly registers its location with cell phone networks. All cell phone carriers implemented location-based services (LBS) that rely on this capability. Anybody who gains computer access to cell phone networks infrastructure technically can track active phones in real time. It is widely known that the government (FBI, police departments) track cell phones, possibly without a warrant: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/08/warrantless-gps-phone-tracking. Some people assert that a phone can be tracked even when it’s turned off, e.g., http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larry-bodine/big-brother-is-definitely_b_1799521.html, http://news.softpedia.com/news/The-NSA-Can-Track-Cell-Phones-Even-when-Turned-Off-370225.shtml. Only removing the battery and/or placing the phone into an environment where electromagnetic waves can’t penetrate would assure that your phone can’t be followed.

In 2007, there were estimated 30 million surveillance cameras in the US. The number is certainly much higher now. The size of the smart surveillance and video analytics global market is estimated at $13.5 billion in 2012; it’s expected to reach $39 billion by 2020 (source: http://fortune.com/2013/04/26/the-great-surveillance-boom/). But now, we are coming to the Age of the “Internet of Things,” where internet-connected devices will monitor every aspect of the environment. By 2024, the setting of The Outer Circle, there will be billions of internet-devices that people wear or have in their homes. Iris scanners, portrayed in The Minority Report, are being built into inexpensive devices including smartphones. “See-through-clothing” terahertz imaging, which is already familiar from airport security checkpoints, is coming to police scanners near you.

These things will make our lives more convenient and possibly safer. They will also destroy whatever little remains of our privacy as the data they collect will add to the giant pool of information that will be collected and analyzed in order to sell you things, to protect you and – if needed – to bring you to justice. But what would be so bad about increased convenience and protection? Well, if you are an average American you commit three felonies per day [source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704471504574438900830760842]. Unwittingly, of course. Life is complex, technologies changing fast, the laws don’t always keep up. There is no place to hide – under constant surveillance, everyone is a criminal.

This does not mean that the government is an evil, ill-intentioned force, ready to strike at you. That’s not the point. Every government always asked its citizens to trust it without question because it has the country’s goodwill at heart. But even best intentions do not guarantee good results. If there is one maxim that held through the ages, it’s that power corrupts. And giving someone ability to completely track our lives is to hand them an enormous power. Privacy is precious because it’s integral to liberty. Is free speech even possible in the absence of privacy? We would be well advised to remember what Benjamin Franklin said 260 years ago: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” And would likely lose both.