Today’s Wall Street Journal confirmed something that I knew already, at least on an unconscious level: The government is watching us very closely. In fact, there is a global surveillance arms race of epidemic proportions. The map below displays the proliferation of government-on-citizen surveillance.
The three primary government tracking methods that should particularly concern members of any movement (such as Occupy, or this one) are cellphone tracking, GPS tracking, and physicalinformation gathering by means of your trash and other items you leave unsecured.
24 Hour Cell Phone Tracking
Cell phone tracking is nothing new. Back in 2009, Google launched “Latitude” enabling people to track friends, family, employees with, or without, GPS. Since then, many applications and networks have joined in the monitoring movement. Whats new is the government’s growing secret use of your cell phone data. In today’s Wall Street Journal:
Little is known about the practice because tracking requests are typically sealed from public view. While search warrants are generally delivered to people whose property is being searched, most people whose phones are targeted never learn about it. They typically find out only if they are charged with a crime and their tracking data are used as evidence against them.
“Americans do not generally know that a record of their whereabouts is being created whenever they travel about with their cellphones,” Magistrate Lenihan wrote. “Most Americans would be appalled by the notion that the government could obtain such a record without at least a neutral, judicial determination of probable cause.”
Most cellphone companies keep historical records of location data for a year or more, according to a Justice Department document obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act.
How Your Cell Phone is Tracked
Every few minutes, your cell “pings” a nearby cell tower for signal strength. Wireless carriers can track individual cell phones by the tower last pinged. In urban areas, where there re thousands of towers close together, a carrier can narrow your location down to several hundred feet, and sometimes even a specific room in a specific home.
This method is called triangulation, or directional finding in military terminology. The more towers that are installed, the more accurately and actively you can be tracked.
Not only can cell phones be tracked, but data is compiled and retained for varying lengths of time by your provider. A secret memo reveals which cell phone carriers keep your data the longest. The document, marked “Law Enforcement Use Only” and dated August 2010, illustrates there are some significant differences in how long carriers retain your data. Verizon, for example, keeps a list of everyone you’ve exchanged text messages with for the past year, according to the document. But T-Mobile stores the same data up to five years. It’s 18 months for Sprint, and seven years for AT&T.
That makes Verizon appear to have the most privacy-friendly policy. Except that Verizon is alone in retaining the actual contents of text messages. It allegedly stores the messages for five days, while T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint don’t store them at all.
If you use social media applications on your phone (particularly that dumb-ass Foursquare!), you can be tracked all the more easily. Your tweets can pinpoin your house, and your uploaded photos can reveal your location data as well. (All this information can be removed with a bit of know how. I will be discussing how at length in next years Black Technology Summit). This information is easy for anyone to find with applications like this.
Has the Government Attached a GPS to Your Car?
According to ABC News, in March 2011 an Egyptian-American college student filed suit against the FBI for secretly putting a GPS tracking device on his car. Yasir Afifi, a California native who said he had and has nothing to hide, said a mechanic doing an oil change on his car found the device between his car’s right rear wheel and exhaust.
At a news conference, Afifi said when he asked the FBI about the device, the agency did not give him a clear answer as to why he was being monitored.
“I’m sure I have done nothing wrong to provoke anyone’s interest,” Afifi said in an Associated Press report, “although he noted that his family is from Egypt, he’s a young man and he makes a lot of calls overseas. ‘So I’m sure I fit their profile.’ ”
Perhaps Greg also fits that profile. Wired’s Threat Level reports Tuesday that Greg, a “Hispanic American who lives in San Jose at the home of his girlfriend’s parents,” contacted the publication after finding not one, but two hidden GPS devices on his Volvo SUV:
After contacting Wired and allowing a photographer to snap pictures of (the first) device, it was swapped out and replaced with a second tracking device. A witness also reported seeing a strange man looking beneath the vehicle of the young man’s girlfriend while her car was parked at work, suggesting that a tracking device may have been retrieved from her car.
Then things got really weird when police showed up during a Wired interview with the man.
Whose Digging Through Your Trash?
Even if you don’t leave a digital trail everywhere you go, you might still be leaving a physical one. Without paying attention, individuals throw out sensitive information that could compromise their security and privacy. Now, the government has given itself the right to collect this information and potentially use it against you. From the New York Times:
New FBI rules will relax a restriction on administering lie-detector tests and searching people’s trash. Under current rules, agents cannot use such techniques until they open a “preliminary investigation,” which — unlike an assessment — requires a factual basis for suspecting someone of wrongdoing. But soon agents will be allowed to use those techniques for one kind of assessment, too: when they are evaluating a target as a potential informant.
Agents have asked for that power in part because they want the ability to use information found in a subject’s trash to put pressure on that person to assist the government in the investigation of others. But Ms. Caproni said information gathered that way could also be useful for other reasons, like determining whether the subject might pose a threat to agents.
If You Are Cool With This, Consider the Following
One great worry is that those who stand out from the norm or express unpopular views, minorities, the poor, or just the ill-mannered, may get stomped in new and surprising ways. A recent incident in South Korea shows how this can play out: A subway commuter posted on the Internet some cell-phone photos he took of a passenger who had refused to clean up after her dog relieved itself during the ride. In no time, a vigilante mob on the Web identified her by her face and the purse she was carrying, and she became the object of national vilification.
On a broader scale, governments have been guilty of heinous crimes in the past, and ours is no exception.We participate in routine rendition: the kidnapping and trafficking of American citizens suspected of terrorism to secret locations around the world. These locations tend to lack due process of law and use torture as a means of extracting confessions.
How easy would it have been for Hitler to round up Jews, or Bosnia’s Slobodan Milosevic to round up Croats and Muslims, or for Rwanda’s Hutu to round up Tutsis if those administrations could track the movement and whereabouts of all their citizens? How easy would it have been to break up the civil rights movement if they had Twitter? How easy would it be today to create uprisings in countries that defy you with tracking and social media espionage?
And now, here we see the rise of a new surveillance society. A militarized police force no longer leaves intelligence work to federal authorities. It seeks out information about anything that can be connected to “suspicious” activity and is keeping track of certain individuals and groups whether or not there is evidence that they are engaging in criminal activity. Police are expected to chase down unsubstantiated tips from the public, and not just to pursue evidence of wrongdoing. A new notion of “community policing” has emerged, where monitoring communities – with all the trust issues that this implies – has taken the place of winning community support by being accountable to residents and solving crimes.
It is unrealistic to believe every government is just and peaceful-even to its owen citizenry. It is foolish to think genocide wont happen again in the future. Therefore, citizens, particularly those members of a racial underclass or a movement (OCCUPY??) should vigilantly protect their rights from the constant encroachment of the government.
Quick Tips on Privacy
In todays age of information and exchange and technology, its impossible to get off the grid completely, but you should have some measure of privacy to prevent complete intrusion. Dont get paranoid, get proactive.
- Learn how to keep yourself secure online, watch the constant amount of information that you give away (Could we have your zip code and email for this purchase? Hell naw!)
- Consider buying a home shredder for sensitive documents and notes
- Take the battery out of your cell phone in places you dont want to be tracked. Get more on preventing cell phone tracking here:
- Get rid of information built in to your pictures. Get more information here.
- Use a secured password management tool like LastPass to keep your login information secure.
- Learn all you can about electronic security, and stay on top of new information through the media and blogs like this one.
Lastly, for those of you (like us) who are serious about security and online tracking prevention, this company offers whole disk and email encryption products that even the government would have a hard time with. Check it : http://www.symantec.com/business/theme.jsp?themeid=pgp
Knowledge truly is power.