Earlier this year, an interesting yet depressing article on the End of the American Dream had pointed to "25 signs that America is rapidly becoming more like Nazi Germany." Then in a radio interview last week, Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin said that thanks to all the surveillance capabilities in the USA, the U.S. government has more data about average Americans than the Stasi collected on East Germans. The Stasi were "widely regarded as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world." These surveillance files caused a later controversy between people who opposed opening the files for privacy reasons and those who "argued that everyone should have the right to see their own file."
While I'm not sure how much private info the Stasi had due to spying on everyone, a lot of that is accomplished via automated technology these days. In fact, thanks to social media and search engines, most of us could pull up a good deal of data on almost anyone else. Oh, and by the way, using social media makes you a potential terrorist. When Danger Room reported that the Army considers complaining about bias, believing in government conspiracies, and using "social networks" to be possible signs of radicalism, the article was qualified with a declaration that it was "not from the Onion." Then again, it's not just the use of social media that could land you in hot water; there seem to be endless you-might-be-a-terrorist if lists. Besides that, even if you did none of those allegedly suspicious behaviors, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake said that you're automatically suspicious until the government proves otherwise. So it would seem logical that most Americans would be curious to see what their files contained.
Yet when Def Con founder Dark Tangent, aka Jeff Moss, asked NSA Chief General Keith Alexander, "So does the NSA really keep a file on everyone, and if so, how can I see mine?" Alexander replied, "No, we don't. Absolutely not. Anybody who tells you we're keeping files or dossiers on the American people knows that's not true."
At the HOPE 9 hacker conference, NSA whistleblower William Binney had been the one to reveal that the NSA has dossiers on nearly every U.S. citizen. In reply to Alexander's comments, Binney said that Alexander was playing word games, meaning the NSA may have "missed a few" Americans. NSA expert James Bamford agreed with Binney, adding that Alexander's claim was "technically legal," so "long as no human listens to or reads any of the harvested communications without a warrant."
On IEEE's Techwise Conversations, Steven Cherry asked Bamford about the threat to the liberty of ordinary Americans due to the "vast treasure troves of information the government is collecting." Bamford replied, "Well, the threat is that so much communication today gets at the heart of what people actually think." He explained how the government is collecting and correlating so much data on the average Joe that it's like Big Brother is able to read our minds. He added:
Today, NSA has not only the capability, but it does eavesdrop on phone calls, e-mail, data searches--if you're looking through the Internet, if you're doing a Google search--all that are records that are available to NSA if they want to eavesdrop on it. And once you start eavesdropping on everybody's form of communication today, from cellphones to tweets to e-mails to Google searches, then you're basically getting into a person's mind. You know exactly what they're thinking of every minute of the day if they're always on the phone or on the e-mail or looking through Google searches, and that's much more dangerous. And that's what the NSA has developed its capability for.
We've looked at how anything you say on social networking sites may come back to bite you, as well as how tweeting can be used against you, and the Independent warned activists to be cautious about what they say online since monitoring social media is the "next big thing in law enforcement." Australian activist @Asher Wolf is trying to help teach people encryption skills. She said, "The idea is to stay safe online and protect the privacy of personal communication." We doubtfully stop to think that every comment, tweet or status update is giving the government one more thing about us to collect for our file.
Bamford said this loss of privacy and the power struggle and fear-mongering for even more control through surveillance will continue until congressmen and senators have enough guts to vote against it. Surveillance grows, but unless there is a leak, we don't know what is happening...secrecy and claiming state secrets to protect national security are the norm. As it is now, "if there's another terrorist incident, then your opponent is going to come up and say you're weak on terrorism: You're responsible for this happening, since you voted against this last bill. So there's no real constituency out there voting for privacy, and there's an enormous constituency out there arguing for more and more secrecy and security and surveillance."
I try to be bipartisan and not touch upon politics any more than absolutely necessary, but you might consider Bamford's words of wisdom and make sure you vote. Or I suppose you could embrace all this data collection and the 'file' about you and think of it this way: if Big Brother can 'read your mind,' then perhaps there is a government phone number to call for personal reminders in case you forget an appointment or something else important in your private life?
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Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. Smith has a diverse background in information technology, programming, web development, IT consulting, and information security. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.
Smith is an independent contractor and is not affiliated with any vendor that makes or sells information technology.
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