It’s a cold, bright day in March, not quite April yet, but it appears the clocks are already striking thirteen on U.S. surveillance…
This is in reference to a classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell in 1948. The novel describes a dystopia of surveillance in which the general public is monitored and controlled by Big Brother, an oppressive government regime.
Formerly North America, South America, parts of Africa, and Australia, the state of Oceania intentionally remains in perpetual war in order to justify a tyrannical monopoly of control over individual’s private lives. WikiLeaks’ recent revelations about CIA activities in today’s world eerily mirror the despotic institutional control of Big Brother written about nearly 70 years ago.
Before we delve into these more recent leaks, let’s measure the context. In 2013, former NSA and CIA contractor Edward Snowden released classified documents detailing various surveillance programs that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been using. These programs collect and monitor the phone records of tens of millions of Americans.
These documents laid out a continuous program in which the government obtains citizen’s phone records from private telecommunication companies and Internet firms on an “ongoing daily basis.” These firms include Verizon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo, among others.
Our daily means of communication are tracked and our information is commandeered by security agencies through the PRISM program. The revelations of this seemingly warrantless tapping of our private communication caused major uproar in the states as Snowden fled to Hong-Kong. He was later granted asylum by the Russian Government, and remains there to this day.
This NSA controversy was apparently just the beginning. If the PRISM program seemed Big Brother-esque, the recent WikiLeaks disclosures about CIA software tools put the 2013 findings to shame.
These tools allow for the CIA to hack phones, computers, and even televisions. They also lay out instructions for how to compromise Skype calls, Wi-Fi networks, PDF documents, and even antivirus computer programs. With a program called “Wrecking Crew,” they can crash certain targeted computers and can even steal passwords.
The largest leak in CIA history, WikiLeaks claims that this is the first installment in a collection of 7,818 web pages and 943 attachments. Most of the documents were redacted to avoid leaking sensitive information such as the codes for cyber weapons.
Though no public hearing has been conducted, according to the New York Times, an anonymous government official has said these documents and programs are real.
An agency that has always relied on its secrecy, they refused to confirm anything. Dean Boyd, a CIA spokesperson, said, “We do not comment on the authenticity or content of purported intelligence documents.”
This non-denial is unsurprising, as is the emergence of these technologies among certain circles. Within the technical community these programs were suspected to be under development already.
Beau Woods, Deputy Director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative, said, “The people who know a lot about security and hacking assumed that the C.I.A. was at least investing in these capabilities, and if they weren’t, then somebody else was.”
The implications of these programs, and more importantly the trend toward mass surveillance, holds vast importance to the vital power struggle between freedom and security. Some feel that the pendulum is swinging dangerously far from freedom in favor of a false sense of security.
The fourth amendment guarantees, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.”
But according to section 702 of a 2008 Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court law, ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer says, “it gives the government authority to engage in surveillance directed at people outside the United States. In the course of conducting that surveillance, though, the government inevitably sweeps up the communications of many Americans.”
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul agrees, as he said on Face the Nation, “They are not targeting Americans. They are targeting foreigners. But they are doing it purposefully to get to Americans.”
This tapping of Americans phone calls, though done through targeting foreign sources, really pushes at the constraints of constitutional law. Its legality was questioned by co-director of the Liberty and National Security program at the NYU School of Law, Elizabeth Goitein.
Goitein claimed that section 702 allows the right to gather information, “to, from, or about the target.” She points out that the word “about” strategically opens up Americans’ private calls for warrantless collection.
This is made irrefutably clear in documented hearings before congress in 2006 when former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden said that certain, “communications with one end in the United States, are most important to us.”
This goal, or at the very least right, to collect and tap American citizens’ phone calls combined with the ability of the CIA to hack into most all popular electronics has led to the government’s virtually boundless ability to track all Americans.
According to WikiLeaks, a program called “Year Zero” can exploit products such as “Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android, Microsoft Window’s, and even Samsung TV’s which are turned into covert microphones.”
Hacking into phones has turned into turning our computers and TV’s into Agency’s personal microphones and cameras. The CIA is even looking into technology to hack into cars that, according to WikiLeaks, could lead to “nearly undetectable assassinations.”
Whether or not the US government has technology that can track close to any one on the planet through countless means is almost incontestable at this point. Whether or not it is done for the purpose of security or the purpose of tracking Americans is more disputed.
According to the man who began this wave of security agency leaks, Snowden, “These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”
As for its security merits, Snowden spoke with Vice News about his recollection of the famed Boston Bombings of the Boston Marathon in April of 2013. Working in the NSA at the time, he remembered thinking while everyone was trying for days to find out who the perpetrator was, that they had probably already had the person’s records somewhere deep within security agency files in the first place with no ability to prevent it. He summed this up saying, “The problem with mass surveillance is when you collect everything, you know nothing.”
So here we are, in a 21st century society in which government agencies have the ability to “searches and seizures without warrant,” to quote a certain famous document. Though these laws appear to likely violate the fourth amendment, the government’s attempt to market these potential violations as “security measures” reflects a quote from Winston Smith, the protagonist of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He said, “First they steal the words, then they steal the meanings.”
So, is this Big Brother or is this enhanced security? The answer to that lies somewhere in between the facts and public opinion. Democracy is, in theory, supposed to figure this type of thing out. Democracy cannot work in the dark, however. The key to a good democracy, is an informed society. These WikiLeaks’ revelations have aided the process of informing society.