Thursday, December 16, 2010

Big Brother is Watching

Big Brother is Watching

Orwell's 1984 has Arrived

 George Orwell in his novel, 1984, posited a time when civil liberties were a thing of the past and the government—with the help of informants and electronic surveillance—controlled every aspect of its citizens’ lives. In 1949, when the story was published, it was pure science fiction, and its title was an inversion of 1948, the year Orwell was composing it. The advanced technology that enabled his imaginary dictator, known as Big Brother, to monitor individuals closely had not yet been developed.
Skip ahead to today. On our increasingly wired planet, with video cameras not just on every corner, but in people’s smart phones, computers and wireless devices, such a scenario is entirely plausible. All it would take for us to slip into that nightmarish world is a totalitarian-leaning government or government-business alliance. If you are wondering how to prevent such an eventuality, you may be a bit behind the curve. Many believe this Orwellian future has already taken hold and, although still in its infancy, is growing up fast.
In the summer of 2002, less than a year after the attacks of September 11, President George W. Bush proposed a new corps of civilian informants to help bolster his War on Terror. Dubbed “Operation TIPS” (Terrorism Information and Prevention Systems), it would recruit Americans to spy on their fellow citizens. TIPS was to use truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees and other workers who frequently came into contact with the general public and who could poke their noses into places law enforcement could not, especially private homes. In the operation's own words, it would be “a national reporting system that allows these workers, whose routines make them well-positioned to recognize unusual events, to report suspicious activity.” Operation TIPS's initial goal was to have one million civilian informants, more than even the notorious East German Secret Police, the Stasi.
Possible abuses under this new informant program were immediately evident. Even TIPS proponent, Attorney General John Ashcroft, admitted that there would be no way for average people to know if they had been reported on—or for them to correct or explain any erroneous information. A neighbor harboring a grudge could report people in his neighborhood with no accountability. A wife desperate to get back at an ex-husband could spin lies to the government with no adverse repercussions. Citizens spying on citizens was the ultimate goal, and in the TIPS logo, the all-seeing eye was an all-too-obvious symbol of this out-of-control spying.  Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and the blatant divisiveness engendered by this program might very well threaten the very fabric of the country that it was ostensibly trying to defend.
Fortunately, a brave journalist, Ritt Goldstein at the Sydney Morning Herald, reported on this nefarious program, and its dark plans withered under the harsh light of public scrutiny. In the Homeland Security Act, the formation of the TIPS program was expressively prohibited. The right to privacy had seemingly won the day. But if the government can try it once, what is to stop it from trying again, under a new name, under a different set of objectives? What will happen the next time the government tries to infringe on our privacy rights? How can average citizens protect themselves from the ever-present threat of Big Brother?
Using existing technology, one or more chilling acts of collusion between big business and big government could allow Big Brother to watch your every step, know exactly what you watch, exactly what you say, exactly what's in your home and exactly what you think. Even if you didn’t broadcast all of your personal information to the public through use of social media, your neighbor could be recruited to be Big Brother's accomplice, your license plate a hidden tracking tool, your telephone a secret microphone into your life. If you carefully parse corporate-government doublespeak, you will discover that not only is the technology in place, but so are the actual programs. A prime example is InfraGard.

Technology as Spymaster

RFID Identifies and Tracks You
Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, is a device that sends out an identification/tracking signal using radio waves. This device can be applied or attached to products, animals or people, and the signal it sends can be read from several yards away. There are three types of RFID tags—Active RFID, which contains a power source and can transmit signals continuously and autonomously; Passive RFID, which contains no battery and requires an outside source to provoke signal transmission; and Battery-Assisted Passive, which requires an outside source to trigger transmission, but whose battery allows a greater signal range.
RFID was invented and first utilized by the Soviet Union as an espionage tool to help facilitate covert listening.  Nowadays, the technology is everywhere: RFID is used in the E-ZPass and other electronic toll-paying devices in many public-transportation systems around the world, in quick-pay systems such as the Exxon Mobil Speedpass, and in U.S., Korean and European passports.
ECHELON Monitors Your Communication
ECHELON is the name given to the system of signal-collection and analysis networks run by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. ECHELON was created during the Cold War to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was used to monitor communications to help spot terrorist chatter, drug-cartel information and other illegal activities. The exact locations of ECHELON listening posts are unknown, but likely sprinkled across the globe in order to increase the vast spider web making up the program's area of coverage. ECHELON is thought to be capable of collecting virtually any form of communication—including telephone calls, faxes, emails and other data traffic—by intercepting satellite transmissions, microwave links and public-switched telephone networks, as well as tapping into fiber-optic networks.
But Who Watches the Watchmen?
ECHELON was born out of the pitched frenzy of the Cold War. Nuclear obliteration and the destruction of the human race were very real possibilities in the early atomic age. Today, however, the outlook is not as apocalyptic. Terrorists may want to hurt America but the chances of their ending life on Earth as we know it are slim. In addition, electronic conversations and communications, while common enough in the 1960s and 1970s, are now completely ubiquitous. Electronic records of commerce, banking statements, medical records, personal identification numbers and private conversations are whizzing through the air in a way that barely seemed possible even 10 years ago. Emails, texts, tweets, cellphone calls and Internet traffic can each contain information both deeply personal (religious beliefs and romantic gestures) and highly private (social-security numbers and credit-card details).
Can the average Joe really trust the government not to train its billion-dollar spy systems on his private conversations and transactions? The government claims that it is only after bad guys, but is there any way to be certain? And how does one define "bad guy?" Is it a known lawbreaker, a suspected terrorist, or could it be stretched to a member of the political opposition? It might sound paranoid if there was not already ample evidence of the government listening in and spying on citizens without required court-ordered warrants.

Big Government and Big Businesses Working Together to Spy on You

Spying Through Your Phone
In 2006, AT&T was sued in a class-action lawsuit for cooperating with the National Security Agency (NSA) and allowing them access to massive amounts of data from AT&T customers. The NSA was reportedly given a "direct hook-up" to the AT&T database, which stores information about all calls made on its systems, including duration, time and place.  Federal agents also reportedly contacted communications giant Qwest in hopes that they could gain access to its databases.
Jeff Dahlstrom, a former Air Force pilot and current government watchdog who monitors government disaster drills, related his own brush with the fearsome reach of unauthorized government wiretapping. In the middle of a normal business phone exchange with his bank, Dahlstrom learned that the representative to whom he was speaking was based in Portland, OR. Just as a friendly heads-up, Dahlstrom helpfully informed her to avoid downtown in the coming week because it would be hosting "a drill where they're gonna simulate setting off a nuclear bomb."
Whether the trigger was the word "nuclear" or "bomb" or some combination of the words Dahlstrom used, the call was picked up by the government, recorded, analyzed and flagged for further investigation. Dahlstrom continued, "Within six hours I have two Secret Service agents at my house. They had a transcript of every word that was said on the telephone."
Over-eager government agents plucked his words out of the ether, unconcerned about his privacy and civil rights.
Spying Through Your License Plate
As noted, RFID tags were born out of Soviet spy craft and, some worry, their ultimate purpose may have changed little. With increasing amounts of household items tagged with RFID devices, it's increasingly possible that every purchase made—every brand, every amount and every time—will be recorded in some database somewhere, open to government agencies or corporate monoliths. But RFID may not simply end in our kitchen cabinets or chest of drawers. It may soon track our every movement, whether by land, air or foot.
RFIDs are are small as the point of a needle
The automobile has been a symbol of freedom to generations of Americans, from teenagers who are given their first real sense of independence from their parents, to those who hit the open road in search of their share of the American dream. The idea that the automobile could be an instrument of control is a horrifying possibility that many Americans would prefer to not think about. However, license plates with RFID chips have already been introduced in many European countries. These chipped plates can transmit their identification information a distance of more than 300 feet. Anyone with a reader can merely point it at your vehicle to gain personal information about you. Moreover, the government can use them to track your every move—they can see where you've been, when you went, and study and make conclusions based upon your driving history. And in certain countries, there is a new RFID-enabled program being tested that would allow traffic citations and tickets to be issued based on the information transmitted by RFID plates. If the RFID chip thinks you're following the car in front of you too closely or believes you to be speeding, the chip can inform the local traffic authority of your alleged infractions.  Leaving aside the indignity of being fined by your inanimate license plate, there are the unfair impracticalities—what if you were speeding to the hospital or closely following the next car in a funeral procession? Beyond that, the ability for the government to know precisely when and where you go is a chilling one. Why would the government need to track its citizens so precisely? How is it anyone's business as to where you might go? RFID-enabled license plates are already a reality in Europe, and here in America a local politician in Texas has introduced a bill mandating them in the Lone Star state.
No Limits on Spying
And it's not just government intrusion we need to fear. What if someone were to read all the personal identification from every car parked at a particular rally? Or a religious gathering? All one would need is the right equipment, and the desire for ill-gotten political or financial gain.
Privacy expert Katherine Albrecht tells just how easy it is to build a device to read RFID transmissions. "The type of RFID technology that they've put into these licenses can be picked up by anybody. I can spend a couple hundred bucks and buy a reader to pick this up. I could be standing here right now reading the number off of your ID card right though your pocket. Right through your wallet."

InfraGard: From Virtual Reality to Actual Reality

 Much as the ECHELON program began in a different era, the InfraGard program had its inception in an intelligence world unlike the present. In those pre-9/11 days, wide-scale terrorism at home did not seem possible—the previous attacks on the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City federal building seemed like isolated incidents—and our financial cyber infrastructure appeared to be the more likely venue of attack. However, after the deaths of almost 3,000 people, suddenly the likelihood of domestic terrorism seemed to increase, and InfraGard was meant to be one of the first lines of defense.
The private nonprofit group known as InfraGard was founded in 1996 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) field office in Cleveland, OH. Starting as a local effort to gain support from tech industries and academia to help combat cyber crime, it expanded to other FBI field offices and went nationwide in 1998. This self-described partnership between the private sector and the FBI is an information-sharing network that connects various state and local law-enforcement agencies, businesses, academic institutions and federal law-enforcement officials. After the attacks of September 11, InfraGard's purview was expanded beyond cyber attacks on American infrastructure to actual physical terrorist attacks, and oversight was transferred to the new Department of Homeland Security. The stated goal of the program is “to promote ongoing dialogue and timely communication between members and the FBI. InfraGard members gain access to information that enables them to protect their assets and in turn give information to government that facilitates its responsibilities to prevent and address terrorism and other crimes.”
FBI field offices gather interested individuals to form local InfraGard chapters. Each chapter is governed by an executive board that meets with an FBI agent. Participants have access to a secure InfraGard website that “provides members with information about recent intrusions, research related to critical infrastructure protection and the capability to communicate securely with other members.”
Matthew Rothschild, investigative reporter and editor of The Progressive, explains just who makes up the ranks of InfraGard: “More than 350 of the top Fortune 500 companies are represented. It’s agriculture, it’s computers, it’s energy, it’s utilities, it’s food industry, it’s transportation, it’s banking, it’s everything.” And what's more, it has grown exponentially in a very short period of time. “In November 2001 there were just 1,700 members,” says Rothschild. “Now there are 32,000 members and there are chapters in every state.”
And this hidden group of informants is granted special rights and privileges not afforded the average citizen. An InfraGard whistleblower revealed to Rothschild that “they get privileges, special phone numbers to call in times of emergency. They can get their family out maybe in times of an emergency or their friends, so they know about these threats. They’re getting secret intelligence on almost a daily basis that the American public isn’t getting, so they’re in the know in a way that we aren’t in the know.”

A Corporate License to Kill

Most frightening of all is that this secret group of informants has been given a license to kill. Rothschild's whistleblower informed him that he "was at a meeting where there was an FBI member and a Homeland Security member telling him and the other business people in the room that there's gonna be martial law in the United States. Not if, but when, and when martial law comes down the pike, it's the responsibility of the business owners to protect their little corner of the infrastructure and that they have the right to use lethal force to protect [it]."George W. Bush got the ball
rolling with the Patriot Act

InfraGard is nothing less than a secret, quasi-governmental organization made up of your friends and neighbors who have a direct line to the FBI, access to secret information and privileges, and the government-given right to exercise lethal force with little fear of reprisal. Could this be the much-reviled wolf once known as Operation TIPS clad in sheep's clothing?
As technology races forward, the citizenry of any country must have assurances that their privacy will not be lost to the insatiable maw of information gathering. So many private and personal details can be collected with so little effort that average persons might easily find themselves completely catalogued, marked and tagged by anyone with the power to do so—be it government, business or military. While the conveniences of speeding past a vacant tollbooth or tapping out our payments with our cellphones are evident, the dangers of such devices must be more readily and easily known. Convenience is wonderful, but like all things, it comes at a cost. And our cherished right to privacy is a price too high to pay.
But while technology can always be modified and retrofitted, regulated and bypassed, the use of citizens to spy on their neighbors is a much more insidious blow to our rights. When people begin to fear their own neighbors, when bitter suspicion replaces easy acceptance between coworkers and friends, and when a man can mistrust the intentions of his own brother, that's when a nation begins to falter and fail.
A country depends on its average citizens to right the ship of state when it begins to pitch. And so, like Operation TIPS before it, InfraGard must be exposed and investigated. Only through the harsh daylight of truth can the all-seeing eye of Big Brother be blinded.

No comments:

Post a Comment