Round the Clock Surveillance: Is This the Price of Living in a ‘Free, Safe’ Society?

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Immediately following the devastating 9/11 attacks, which destroyed the illusion of invulnerability which had defined American society since the end of the Cold War, many Americans willingly ceded their rights and liberties to government officials who promised them that the feeling of absolute safety could be restored.

In the 12 years since, we have been subjected to a series of deceptions, subterfuges and scare tactics by the government, all largely aimed at amassing more power for the federal agencies and extending their control over the populace. Starting with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, continuing with the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and coming to a head with the assassination of American citizens abroad, the importing of drones and other weapons of compliance, and the rise in domestic surveillance, we have witnessed the onslaught of a full-blown crisis in government.

Still Americans have gone along with these assaults on their freedoms unquestioningly.

Now, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, we are once again being assured that if we only give up a few more liberties and what little remains of our privacy, we will achieve that elusive sense of security we’ve yet to attain. This is the same song and dance that comes after every tragedy, and it’s that same song and dance which has left us buying into the illusion that we are a free, safe society.

The reality of life in America tells a different tale, however. For example, in a May 2013 interview with CNN, former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente disclosed that the federal government is keeping track of all digital communications that occur within the United States, whether or not those communicating are American citizens, and whether or not they have a warrant to do so.

Clemente dropped his bombshell during a CNN interview about authorities’ attempts to determine the nature of communications between deceased Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his widow Katherine Russell. In the course of that conversation, Clemente revealed that federal officials will not only be able to access any voicemails that may have been left by either party, but that the entirety of the phone conversations they had will be at federal agents’ finger tips.

“We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation,” stated Clemente. “All of that stuff [meaning phone conversations occurring in America] is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.” A few days later, Clemente was asked to clarify his comments, at which point he said, “There is a way to look at all digital communications in the past. No digital communication is secure.”

In other words, there is no form of digital communication that the government cannot and does not monitor – phone calls, emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, internet video chats, etc., are all accessible, trackable and downloadable by federal agents.

At one time, such actions by the government would not only have been viewed as unacceptable, they would also have been considered illegal. However, government officials have been engaged in an ongoing attempt to legitimize these actions by passing laws that make the lives of all Americans an open book for government agents. For example, while the nation was caught up in the drama of the Boston bombing and the ensuing military-style occupation of the city by local and federal police, Congress passed a little-noticed piece of legislation known as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA).

In short, the law dismantles any notion of privacy on the internet, opening every action one undertakes online, whether emailing, shopping, banking, or just browsing, to scrutiny by government agents. While CISPA has yet to clear the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the spirit of it is alive and well. In fact, officials in the Obama administration have for some time now been authorizing corporate information sharing and spying in secret through the use of executive orders and other tactics.

The Justice Department, for instance, has been issuing so-called “2511 letters” to various internet service providers like AT&T, which immunize them from being prosecuted under federal wiretapping laws for providing the federal government with private information. Despite federal court rulings to the contrary, the Department of Justice continues to assert that it does not require a warrant to access Americans’ emails, Facebook chats, and other forms of digital communication.

These government-initiated spying programs depend in large part on the willingness of corporations to hand over personal information about their customers to government officials.

Aside from allowing government agents backdoor access to American communications, corporations are also working on technologies to allow government agents even easier access to Americans’ communications.

For example, Google has filed a patent for a “Policy Violation Checker,” software which would monitor an individual’s communications as they type them out, whether in an email, an Excel spreadsheet or some other digital document, then alert the individual, and potentially their employer or a government agent, if they type any “problematic phrases” which “present policy violations, have legal implications, or are otherwise troublesome to a company, business, or individual.”

The reality is this: we no longer live in a free society. Having traded our freedoms for a phantom promise of security, we now find ourselves imprisoned in a virtual cage of cameras, wiretaps and watchful government eyes. All the while, the world around us is no safer than when we started on this journey more than a decade ago. Indeed, it well may be that we are living in a far more dangerous world, not so much because the terrorist threat is any greater but because the government itself has become the greater threat to our freedoms.

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