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Surveillance: two rare glimpses into who's watching you, and how

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August 2, 2010

Online surveillance is now easier than ever (Image: VoxEfx via Flickr)

Online surveillance is now easier than ever (Image: VoxEfx via Flickr)

If it hasn't become apparent to you yet, you are living in an age when your every online step is being monitored. The notion of communications privacy has been steamrolled in the interests of security, and the occasional tiny chance we get to peek back at the people who make it their business to watch us is truly frightening. Two new stories from America this week give a rare glimpse behind the curtain at just how closely you're being watched, and by whom.

Online privacy: now virtually nonexistent

Do yourself a favor and check out Glenn Greenwald's article at Salon.com, titled "Project Vigilant and the government/corporate destruction of privacy." In the article, he shows how the United States government neatly sidesteps any legal restraints that might prevent it from gathering information on its citizens – in this case, by accepting dossiers from a network of private cyber-vigilantes that operates in near-total secrecy and with no accountability to mechanisms like the Privacy Act or the Freedom of Information Act.

This group is comprised of as many as 500 operatives, some of whom have experience in data security and surveillance after leaving top-level positions at organizations like the U.S. Department of Justice, Homeland Security, the Pentagon, the NSA, the New York Stock Exchange… and they are exploiting loopholes in ISP contracts to mine data on every step you take online.

Project Vigilant is just one further tool the U.S. government uses when it can't get what it wants – let's not forget that as the 'War on Terror' escalated, the NSA showed through its warrantless wiretapping program that it believes that such privacy laws as there are stopping the government from spying on its own citizens are at best flexible, or at worst to be completely ignored. And it's not like the Obama administration has made amends in this regard – if anything, they've pushed the Bush agenda even further.

So your online communications – including your browsing history, forum participation, social networks, emails and transactions can all be considered to be laid bare on the table, tracked back to your real-world identity and locations, by whoever decides it's worth doing.

Intercept and record mobile phone calls for US$1500

And if you were under the misapprehension that your mobile communications were any safer, Chris Paget's recent demonstration of cellphone tower spoofing showed just how easy and inexpensive it is for anyone with the appropriate knowledge to intercept and record your private phone calls as well.

Paget's device simply pretends to be a cellphone tower that delivers a closer and stronger signal than a real tower. Mobile phones automatically connect to the tower with the best signal, so they switch over to the spoofed tower, which quietly records the conversation and sends the information on to the real network. The user is completely unaware.

Worse still, the equipment Paget built for his demonstration, in which dozens of audience members' phones were 'hijacked,' cost him less than US$1500 – most of which was for the laptop he ran the system through. More about the demonstration at Paget's blog.

So the ability to spy on your mobile conversations is now so cheap to attain that it's no longer the sole preserve of cashed-up government and law enforcement agencies – just about anyone can do it. And it's a glimpse at the kind of capability the NSA and other agencies have almost certainly had since day one.

Read more about the cell phone tower spoofing demonstration at Wired.

This information is U.S. centric – it would be interesting to know the extent of government surveillance in other countries. But so much of that information will never come to light – because as Greenwald points out, the agencies and private groups that spend so much time ensuring you have no secrets are the ones that operate under the tightest secrecy protections themselves. No transparency, no accountability.

It raises two important questions – how much are you comfortable with your government knowing about you – and to what extent should a publicly funded government be allowed to operate in secrecy?

About the Author
Loz Blain Loz has been one of Gizmag's most versatile contributors since 2007. Joining the team as a motorcycle specialist, he has since covered everything from medical and military technology to aeronautics, music gear and historical artefacts. Since 2010 he's branched out into photography, video and audio production, and he remains the only Gizmag contributor willing to put his name to a sex toy review. A singer by night, he's often on the road with his a cappella band Suade.   All articles by Loz Blain
12 Comments

Looks like an American copy-cat of the n3td3v group which has been around since the late 1990s.

http://sites.google.com/site/n3td3v/

n3td3v group has over 10,000 volunteers, whereas these guys only have 600.

n3td3v group has proper connections with the authorities, whereas these guys haven't.

n3td3v group has over 10 years experience, whereas these guys haven't.

n3td3v
3rd August, 2010 @ 03:20 am PDT

I'm not really bothered by it all at all - so some desk jockey somewhere is going to file me under a game playing, porn watching, average scrabble playing, bad joke telling average guy category I'm sure I won't be alone :)

After all, I'm not bent on the destruction of the universe with the above plain faults

Victor McDermott
3rd August, 2010 @ 09:41 am PDT

As Victor demonstrated, most people just don't care. Yet Privacy Rights was one of the selling points of why "we" were good and "they" were not. I guess when "they" collapsed, it's inevitable that "we" fill the void. And now "we" have become "them."

Why did people bother escaping from East Germany, anyway. Just wait a couple of decades and that system has taken over the US.

Aloysius
3rd August, 2010 @ 07:40 pm PDT

Here's another 10,000,000 volunteers reporting everywhere you've been seen, who with, when, and linking it all to your email address and everything you write:

Good on the folks who reported this surveillance. Don't expect to ever hear from them again...

christopher
4th August, 2010 @ 05:34 pm PDT

Attempting to monitor everything all of the time has the same result as monitoring nothing.

Robert Walther
5th August, 2010 @ 11:18 am PDT

The NSA has had the capabilities to monitor every cell phone converstion taking place in the United States since cells became the norm of converation( and the FBI when it was all copper). Key words trip the trigger and you are now on a list. Don't think so, if you jokingly use the word "plane" and "bomb" in the same cell converation, you're next airline ticket will have a special code that guarantees a long boarding process for you. The system is automated, so there is not a federal agent in dark glasses listening to your every word. This system was in place before 9/11, but has become a more fine tuned instrument since. To protect an Empire, one must give up certain freedoms, and since the TSA became a goverment entity, this has become the norm. We have been a socialist state for almost 50 years, it just takes longer for some to realize. Bottom line, if you don't want to be monitored then don't participate in any government program....good luck on that one!

Bob Daly
6th August, 2010 @ 05:07 pm PDT

As it seems to be turning out, higher availability of information is leading to a lower level of effective surveillance due to information overload. So we are not more secure, we are less secure and now the Bill of Rights is now hardly worth the paper it was written on. Welcome to America, land of the free. What a joke.

JLR
13th August, 2010 @ 01:52 pm PDT

I'm curious if I make everything I do, public, if I put it on a forum, or a blog, absolutely everything, from toilet in the morning till moments with wife in evening, or whenever I fell like doing it :), and all the discussion with friends, colleagues and family, and all my thoughts, dirty, kinky, dreams, desires, then what, I would be blamed for indecent exposure? Or they would call me an exhibitionist? I have no secrets, and I would overload the system, and then.....? Useless!:D Do you think they will ban me from life? Or they will be bored and will quit watching me?

Facebook User
24th September, 2010 @ 06:36 am PDT

Here in Australia we are completely safe from this kind of surveillance. Basically what happens is that ASIO does the same thing as the NSA & CIA. Why we\'re safe is because whilst they\'ll find out some potential terrorist act they will always grab the wrong people for it because they\'re so incompetent. Only problem here is that if you get grabbed by them when it wasn\'t you.Yeah, I\'m being sarcastic. Our NBN is going to have this same kind of filtering & this will be the main reason for doing that filtering. They claim it\'s for paedophilia but the truth is that paedophiles are easier caught on-line without the filtering.As for the NSA perhaps they should be watching the CIA instead because if anyone in the USA is a terrorist it is the CIA. They\'ve created so much political instability in the Middle East & South America that it can be nothing other than terrorism.Who could ever really trust this group of terrorists?

Rex Alfie Lee
23rd January, 2011 @ 06:33 pm PST

While I'm not crazy about the loss of privacy, it seemed inevitable with the advancement of technology. I'm open about all my life, including my eff-ups, so I am not exactly blackmail material. What bothers me is the false information some fool has entered into the system about me; how do you correct lies?

chatbratstar
22nd April, 2011 @ 10:05 pm PDT

"and to what extent should a publicly funded government be allowed to operate in secrecy?" The governement should have NONE! It involves inself in illegal wars, has a private bank called the "Federal Reserve." The answer is NONE!

There are no enemies. Our country has become the enemy to the people. When the proof comes out that it is has enacted a "War Against The Sovereign People" then you'll have your proof, of course which they do not want you to have because that would cause accountability, and your answer of what their real intentions are and what they are doing to the people of this country and to the people around the world. No one is safe.

Nina Gonzales
27th April, 2011 @ 04:52 pm PDT

It seems that we need to pull Constitutional Attorneys, Lobbists and Legislature together to start changing to fix the law that they have managed to destroy.

Do you remember when they said way back when that they would not have the law necessary to protect the "Internet" and that it would take them years to catch up. Well, this is what they did... They were not behind, we were.

Nina Gonzales
27th April, 2011 @ 06:23 pm PDT
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