As I See It: Privacy Pirates
November 28, 2011 Victor Rozek
November is when my property taxes are due. And living in a state without sales tax, they tend to be high. But the amount is not what rankles me. It’s the fact that in a nation built on the sanctity of property rights, I will never truly own my home, even after the final mortgage payment is made. The reality is that as soon as I’m unable to pay my taxes, the state is empowered to take it away from me.
Although property rights are at best tenuous, they are so deeply embedded in our mythology that it seems heretical to say so. Yet even if you’ve never owned a home, the proof is right in front of you. Look no further than your laptop.
It begins with automatic updates. As a user, if you want the latest operating system fixes and security patches, you are essentially required to give the software provider de facto control over your computer.
That leaves the consumer with what is potentially a lose/lose option: resolve to be vulnerable or be forced to trust. Refusing updates makes the user’s system vulnerable to outside intrusion; allowing updates requires blind trust in the provider and leaves the user vulnerable to intrusion from within. Either option is a risk and each requires that the user relinquish control of the system. It’s the difference between possession and dominion.
Firewalls and virus detection software not withstanding, the truth is no one (with the possible exception of elite IT professionals) really knows what nefarious chunks of code may reside on their systems. It’s like having someone hijack your car remotely and forcing you to drive to a destination not of your choosing.
The willingness of ISPs, search engine providers, and telecoms to bug our phones, track our online activities, and sell our personal information is well documented. Some have gone as far as colluding with repressive regimes and assisting them in identifying dissidents. If recent history tells us anything it is that corporations will bend or ignore the law when it serves their purpose. Simply put, profit trumps privacy. And things are about to get much worse.
The post 9/11 outsourcing of information gathering and electronic surveillance functions has resulted in the growth of a vast, private security state accountable to no one. Its reach stretches beyond our borders, and its interests often conflict with our own. Private surveillance firms regularly meet with representatives from governments (foreign and domestic), as well as police agencies, to offer the latest hacking, bugging, and GPS tracking services.
Although the meetings often take place in public venues, the public and the media are strictly forbidden from attending, according to Ryan Gallagher, writing for The Guardian. On display is “surveillance technology they would rather you did not know about.”
Undetectable surveillance technology that can commandeer your computer or intercept your communications is being globally and often indiscriminately marketed. The providers, according to Gallagher, “are using methods more commonly associated with criminal hacking groups.” Indeed, the targeted user would be hard put to tell the difference.
Some of the services offered include: social network monitoring; mobile location surveillance and intercept; intelligence gathering and analysis; encrypted traffic monitoring; mass data monitoring, intercept and analysis; and IT intrusion product demo and training.
Computers, smartphones, email, instant messaging, social networks, free chat services like Skype–no device or service is safe from intrusion. The software is written to bypass the usual security measures such as firewalls, malware scanning, and antivirus programs. Providers claim their spyware is nothing more than “lawful interception technology.” But advertising spyware as “lawful” is a guise designed to sidestep one very troubling question: Who makes the laws?
When Egypt fell, activists uncovered documents that showed that Gamma International, a global surveillance technology company had, in 2010, offered Hosni Mubarak’s murderous regime a portfolio of IT intrusion products called FinFisher. A year earlier, Gallagher reports that an American company SS8 had allegedly supplied the United Arab Emirates with smartphone spyware. About 100,000 users were sent bogus software updates that allowed authorities to bypass BlackBerry email encryption. We don’t know who is responsible for supplying Tunisian authorities with spyware, but Gallagher was told that posting anti-government messages on Facebook “resulted in death squads showing up at your house.”
The president of Intelligence Support Systems (ISS), the company that hosts these global surveillance soirees, was asked if he would be “comfortable in the knowledge that regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea were purchasing this technology from western companies?” His answer was the classic pass-the-buck justification employed by the morally bankrupt. “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians . . . we’re a for-profit company.” Apparently, to the ISS way of thinking, profit grants instant absolution.
A former Federal employee attended one of these spyware conferences. Gallagher recounts that he became concerned enough to “make recordings of seminars and later publish them online.” But like other whistle-blowers, he became the target of retaliation. He was subjected to an investigation and subsequently dismissed from his job at the Federal Trade Commission.
Before leaving, he offered this explanation: “When there are five or six conferences held in closed locations every year, where telecommunications companies, surveillance companies and government ministers meet in secret to cut deals, buy equipment, and discuss the latest methods to intercept their citizens’ communications–that I think meets the level of concern.”
His concern for privacy and transparency would typically be dismissed by apologists as the hyperbole of a malcontent. But surprisingly, his perspective is finding support in a most unlikely venue.
The most corporate-leaning Supreme Court in recent memory may be preparing to strike a blow for individual rights. As of this writing, the Court was hearing arguments in a surveillance technology case. The justices are pondering the constitutionality of the government planting a GPS device on a suspect’s car (without benefit of a warrant) and tracking his movements 24/7. At issue is the definition of what constitutes “reasonable search and seizure.”
But in some respects, this is also a private property issue. If someone can, without due process, bug a vehicle and track its movements, then that vehicle no longer belongs to the registered owner. It has effectively been highjacked.
At one point in the proceedings, Chief Justice Roberts posed a hypothetical question: “Would it be okay for the government to put GPS trackers on the cars of all of us without a warrant, and track our movements?” he asked, gesturing toward his colleagues on the bench. With a straight face the government’s attorney replied that, yes, it would be perfectly fine since their movements would only be tracked on public streets.
Although the case will not be decided until later this year, we can take some comfort from the fact that the justices looked noticeably displeased with that line of reasoning.