Edward Snowden verified tinfoil hat wearers everywhere in 2013 when he confirmed, in short, that the government is spying on US citizens. Some called him a traitor and others called him a hero, but one thing that couldn’t be disputed was the accuracy of his claims. While this is certainly a simplified claim; the government has the ability to spy on unknowing US citizens every day.
A lot of people say, “So what? I’m not doing anything wrong,” and that’s generally true. If you’re not doing anything wrong or embarrassing then why do you care if people are watching? In a perfect world, constant surveillance would make people nicer, more polite and generally law abiding. National and international terror events have given the country reason to request more surveillance, and there is a beneficial side to it.
There is also a dark side, however. Do you really trust the people who are in charge? Even if you do, there may come a time when someone with terrible intentions has all of this surveillance power at the tips of their fingers. Even more, if we are always aware that we are being watched, we act much differently. In a world in which we are always under a microscope, we will never truly be ourselves.
15. Your Phone Records
One of the biggest revelations that Edward Snowden’s report told the American people was that the majority of American’s phone records were being compiled and stored. Saving these records was justified as terrorist investigations, but links to potential terrorist spread so wide that it is impossible to tell if you’ve been indirectly connected to a terror suspect. You could be 100 steps removed, but your phone records are still being compiled and monitored by the NSA. They don’t listen to the calls being made, but they can tell who you called, when you called them, and the duration of the call. This doesn’t give them the whole picture, but a lot of suspicion can be derived from this information. Some consider this worse than actually listening to calls, as the NSA can use this information to fit whatever narrative they choose.
14. Through Your Television
Targeted advertising, while relatively new, is nothing unfamiliar to internet users such as yourself. In case you hadn’t noticed, if you look on Amazon for a product, advertisements for that product will be popping up everywhere from Yahoo to Facebook. What you may not know is that companies now have the ability to target advertisements to you on your TV. Of course, local targeted advertisements have always been a practice of marketing, but new technology in “smart” TVs allow companies to monitor what you watch and how you watch it. Companies have the ability to actually watch you watch TV. This means that they can see what you’re doing while you’re sitting in front of the screen in your living room or bedroom. While there aren’t any claims of the government hijacking this ability, it doesn’t mean that it’s never happened. In certain smart TVs, the user is practically buying and installing a surveillance camera in their own home. Even if the government never uses the ability, television companies are able to sell your data to the highest bidder. If you have a new “smart” TV, you’re likely being spied on one way or another.
13. Calls Outside of the US
Fortunately, it’s illegal for the government to monitor a private call that takes place within the borders of the US. Of course, agencies are allowed to tap phones with a warrant, but if you’re an average law-abiding citizen then this shouldn’t concern you. Where the line begins to blur is when you’re talking to someone who isn’t located in the country. Cell phones record locations, which government agencies collect and track. When a phone call is made to someone who is currently located in a different country, the government is legally allowed to listen in. This means that if a friend or relative takes a trip to Canada or Mexico for spring break, any call you make to them can be recorded. Of course, you shouldn’t be affected unless you’re asking that person to smuggle drugs over the border, but it’s an unsettling fact nonetheless. Any private conversation in which one party is outside of the US is subject to being monitored by the government.
12. Through Your Webcam
It has been public knowledge for a while now, but some people still don’t know that hackers can access your webcam relatively easily without your knowledge or consent. Clicking random links you get via email is always a bad idea, and can sometimes result in hackers gaining access to your webcam. I’m certainly not a huge tech guy, but I really don’t know what hackers would gain from seeing POV webcam shots of us pleasuring ourselves, but hey; to each their own.
It recently came to light, however, that the government has this ability as well. Apparently, the NSA can also gain access to your webcam remotely. On top of that, they can access you microphone and monitor conversations that you have on the web or in your own home. Many laptops come equipped with a webcam and a microphone, which is a virtual surveillance tool in every home. It’s much more troubling when you consider the government is the one spying on you online.
11. On the Bus
Surveillance video on public transit is another hotly debated topic when it comes to domestic spying. Most cities around the country have some form of video surveillance on public transportation, but many of them are standard video cameras. The Department of Homeland Security, however, is working on funding the implementation of microphones to accompany this video. It’s unclear if this will be legal, but it is certainly unsettling. This is just one more way that big brother can keep an eye on us as we go about our day. Of course, video surveillance is important in identifying criminals and preventing crime, but recording all interactions on buses and trains, including dialogue, may be going a bit too far. Advocates say that the cameras and microphones will deter crime, which is why cities like Detroit and Baltimore are already adopting them.
10. Built-In Hacks
One controversial way that the government is using the power of surveillance is by persuading some companies to build a back-door that they can use to hack a devise. There was a big controversy with this last year, when Apple refused to give the FBI a “key” that would unlock all apple devises. While they were attempting to gain access to a terrorist’s phone, the worry was that the government could use this back door to get information from other citizens. Even more, revealing this information could lead to criminal hackers exploiting the vulnerability. Unfortunately, other manufacturers have given-in to government requests and established a back door in which the government can access your phone and other home devises. This raises questions as to how often the government uses this tactic. It seems to be a breach of privacy if the government can access the data from your phone and see what you’ve been doing without a warrant.
9. They Know Where You Are
Pretty much everyone has a cell phone at this point, with most of them being smartphones. Cell phones now have a GPS installed in each one, which means there is no longer a reliance on cell phone towers to triangulate a person’s position. The government doesn’t pay much attention to people who are moving inside the US (unless they are under suspicion), but people who are outside of the US are frequent targets of US government tracking. As shown by Edward Snowden, the NSA collects around 5 million cell phone locations every day. This means that they can monitor where a person goes and who they meet with. They will be able to reasonably determine a person’s relationship based on who they are meeting with and where they are going. While this is useful for tracking criminals or potential terrorists, many of the people whose data gets collected are regular, law-abiding individuals.
8. Internet History
When I mention internet history, I don’t mean the kind that you delete after you’ve visited an embarrassing site; I mean the type that stays with you long after that. Most people are familiar with the internet term “cookies,” and for those who aren’t, cookies refer to the data that is stored on your browser when you visit websites. They help you out in multiple ways, including remembering your passwords so you can forget them until you try to log in on a different machine. This data, however, is almost completely unregulated. This means that the people storing the data can sell it to the highest bidder. Most of the time this means advertisers, who use it to accurately predict what kind of product you’d want, but it also means the government. You can tell a lot about a person by seeing what websites they visit and how long they stay. You don’t need to know exactly what they’re doing, but compiling enough website data will give the government and advertisers alike an accurate picture of what kind of person you are.
7. Your Emails
Targeted advertisements are not isolated to what web pages you look at. Some people may have noticed that they were discussing a certain product via email and later saw advertisements for this same product. It’s not a coincidence that this is the case, as email providers such as Google and Yahoo are able to scan the contents of your emails. They typically do this for targeted advertisements, which are relatively harmless and can sometimes even be helpful. You can opt out of this feature on most platforms, but not many people even know it exists.
Of course, when it has to do with internet security and surveillance, the government is able to access your emails as well. Yahoo came under fire this year for reportedly creating a back door for the NSA to monitor the emails of its customers. They were looking for a specific phrase, but it is still troubling that Yahoo allowed the government to snoop around in our private emails. This event is also credited for leaving Yahoo vulnerable to the hacks that have taken place over the recent months. As a Yahoo user myself; I’m in the process of creating a new email account. Here’s to hoping Google is more secure.
6. Monitoring Your Purchases
Credit cards and store loyalty cards are one of the main ways that advertisers compile the data of your purchasing habits. This information is often bundled with your online history and sold to advertisers by your credit card company or by the stores you shop at. If you’ve ever seen an advertisement on Google for a product that you bought in the store but never searched for online, this is why. The government can get a picture of your purchasing habits the same way, if they’re interested. While this practice isn’t an everyday occurrence, it should be noted that your purchasing history is basically up for grabs to the highest bidder. Credit card companies such as MasterCard share the information of their customer freely unless they are explicitly told not to by the credit card holder.
5. Checking Your Licence Plate
Cameras are virtually everywhere when you’re on the road. If you’re driving somewhere, you’re likely on the government’s radar. From cameras at traffic lights to licence plate trackers that keep track of your tolls, it is virtually impossible to escape the eagle eye when you’re in transit. It’s not as if your travel locations are discarded either, as police departments around the country are compiling data of where people are traveling; even those with no criminal history who are not deemed to be a threat. Apart from the overbearing government, there is another potential risk involved with the storing of this data. Hackers and third parties interested in this information can steal and sell it to the highest bidder. It’s mostly true that you wouldn’t really need to worry about the police if you’re not doing anything wrong, but hackers don’t care about criminal history.
4. The Internet-ing of Things
As the world is becoming increasingly connected, so are our homes. Everything from the thermostat to the washing machine will soon have the ability to connect to the internet and many devices already have this capability. Unfortunately, the more things that are connected to the internet, the more ways the government has of monitoring its citizens. The worry here is that people will be unwittingly putting a device in their home that allows the government to monitor them. Naturally, susceptibilities that the government exploits are also exploited by hackers, making out homes even more vulnerable to cyber attacks. That new Amazon Echo seems a lot more menacing when you find out that it gives hackers and the government the ability to enter your home unimpeded.
3. Mind Reading
Strap on your tinfoil hat for this one, as it’s likely the most crackpot and paranoid item on this list. Obviously this method is not in practice now (that we know of), but reports claim that the government is experimenting with brainwave monitoring in Guantanamo Bay. It’s unclear if this is effective or even real, but for the point of discussion let’s just say it is. This type of reading would work somewhat like a polygraph test. Unlike a polygraph test, though, there is no contact needed. The devise would be able to measure physical behavior and state of mind along with heart rate, and there is no contact needed to administer the test. If this hits the streets, it’s possible for the US government to virtually monitor the thoughts of its citizens. They would use this as a sort of pre-crime deterrent. That’s right, we’re headed for a full-on Minority Report.
2. Surveillance Cameras
Surveillance cameras are becoming increasingly prevalent on city streets across the United States. Chicago, one of the more monitored US cities, has security cameras on virtually every block. These are not only public cameras, but private ones as well. If they are hooked up to the internet, the government has the ability to use these private cameras to monitor the daily happenings of its citizens. The primary use of these cameras is as a crime deterrent, but there is something unsettling about knowing you’re being watched everywhere you go. It should be noted that while may consider these cameras to be intrusive, crime is down in the neighborhoods in which these cameras were installed.
1. Facial Recognition Software
In 2013 it was revealed that the Boston Calling music festival was used as a testing ground for new facial recognition software that the city intends to implement once the bugs are worked out. The Boston Police department teamed up with IBM to use facial recognition on the thousands of the unwitting concert-goers during both installments of the festival. This was in the wake of the Boston bombing, so this type of surveillance was relatively justifiable under the circumstances. Although there are still kinks to still work out (the program is currently flummoxed by face paint and facial hair), it bears questioning how the government will use this tool once it’s up and running. Legislature, as always, is far behind technology in this case, so it’s difficult to determine what is actually legal. Once the program is feasible, will this kind of software be implemented across the country? Will the government be able to know exactly who is coming or going from every store, sporting event or concert? Is peace of mind worth the price of our freedom? This kind of software is straight out of Minority Report and should be questioned diligently before we accept it as the norm.