Big Brother Is Still a Thing
It all started on September 11, 2001.
Unthinkable violence struck, and decisive action was demanded. War – and security measures – never seemed so justified to so many. We had reached a turning point from which there could be no coming back. It was time to do something to protect America. Almost immediately, a police state seemed like common sense to many people and pundits across cable news. The PATRIOT Act followed almost immediately, designed to thwart terrorists by compromising their communication channels.
In many minds, then as well as now, this was an inconvenient necessity, the lesser of two evils. Who wouldn’t want to know something was out there fighting to protect them from the very real, bloodthirsty terrorists? If you weren’t a bloodthirsty terrorist, why should you fear people scanning for bloodthirsty terrorists?
The other point of view was concerned with the Constitution and the potential abuse of new powers. From Ron Paul on the right to Bernie Sanders on the left – and across the country – alarms were sounded about a violation of the Fourth Amendment. This argument also invoked Benjamin Franklin (“if you surrender liberty for security, you deserve neither and will lose both”) and Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”). Once the government gains an apparatus to abuse your liberties, it was argued, it will never surrender that power and in fact, will eventually abuse it badly.
The biggest objections to the PATRIOT Act concerned Section 215, known as the “library records provision.” This section allowed investigators to get almost any record from any citizen - down to your library records - but held limits to when and how the data could be collected. The NSA now had complete access to all phone records, library records, corporate network traffic, and Internet communications.
Bush then went even further, amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Section 702 was seen as particularly problematic as it created another new NSA electronic surveillance program, purportedly for monitoring foreign communications to the US (for intercepting things like al Qaeda communications to American-based terrorist 'sleeper cells'). Of course, a conversation has two sides, so in effect, the NSA was creating a database of records of all American communication with countries outside the US.
This took place through their secret PRISM and Upstream programs – programs Obama extended in 2011. Documentation of these programs was leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013. Snowden described the scope of this surveillance as “criminal” and said it amounted to unwarranted “hacking” of private records. The scope appears to be unlimited – a complete database of nearly every such electronic communication. As the UK started following suit both domestically and internationally, Germany’s Justice Minister called the entire idea “nightmarish.”
The PATRIOT Act’s Section 215 finally expired in 2019, and the NSA says they have abandoned their phone/text bulk collection program, but Trump quietly extended PRISM and Upstream and repealed Obama-era internet privacy regulations. As it stands now, the NSA continues to collect data without any apparent limit, allowing the FBI full access to its database without a warrant for anything they say is a “national security concern” -- the standard for which is a rubber stamp.
The debate over the constitutionality and underlying principles of these procedures are still alive and well; but it is taking place out of the Trumpian limelight, buried by an avalanche of other authoritarian outrages – so for the foreseeable future we are where we are.
Right now, it is safe to assume all American communications with the outside world are collected, assembled into a large NSA database, and available for effectively indiscriminate browsing by FBI agents without a warrant. It is uncertain whether domestic phone and text records are still being collected – the expense and legal trouble weren’t worth it and the NSA says they ended this program, but they absolutely may have simply found a better technical solution and continue to collect records. It’s not like they would tell us if this were the case. It appears that, for now, domestic Internet traffic is still protected by the Fourth Amendment.
For the time being, all seems fairly quiet in terms of consequences, and when we notice surveillance used for anything other than terrorism, we see human traffickers and distributors of child pornography go to jail – hardly a tragedy. This helps reinforce the narrative that the ends have justified the means. It doesn’t seem all that dystopian – nobody is being carted away by secret police for saying mean things about Trump.
Of course, there are no guarantees that things will stay this way. First, while domestic Internet traffic is ostensibly private and requires a warrant to investigate, establishment candidates in both parties have expressed interest in taking more control of the Internet. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, for instance, both agreed in 2016 that the government should be able to take control of the Internet, even shutting it down when they deem it necessary.
We’ve seen governments shut down and control the Internet in their countries in recent times. Having seen the efficacy of Arab Spring tactics, paranoid authoritarians from India and Indonesia to Iraq and Iran limit what people can see and even shut down the Internet to take away the potential for coordinated resistance.
Also, China’s control of the Internet is used to enforce government standards of good behavior with “social credit.” For instance, well-behaved people who love the government are granted the basic freedom to ride public transportation and board planes, while those who dissent or even jaywalk can lose their social credit and thereby basic freedoms. This does look dystopian to most people, and there’s no telling how far it might go.
If it seems unrealistic that an authoritarian regime in the USA would seek brainwashed obedience to a dictatorship, one must only look to our very own “God-Emperor Trump” for evidence to the contrary.
Do the ends justify the means, especially when the means might lead us into a dystopian police state future? Is this something we are comfortable with? Is the Fourth Amendment obsolete and should we discard it? Whether we like it or not, these are questions we answer in the affirmative every day that goes by without demanding change.
What is there to do about it, though? How might we create change, what would that change look like, and can we adequately protect ourselves without it? Do we have to let human traffickers and child abusers operate with impunity?
Another system is absolutely possible. INTERPOL was around long before the PATRIOT Act or PRISM. Investigators can infiltrate criminal spaces online and obtain warrants to obtain information from ISPs (rather than a government database) so they can conduct stings. Law enforcement agencies can set up “honeypot” spaces (as they do with child porn forums) to obtain a warrant and catch people disseminating illegal material. Almost all criminal activity in cyberspace is active and ongoing, so this not only follows established rules for warrants and puts distance between ourselves and a police state but also gives us the tools we need to go after bad actors in a much more effective way.
To affect change, we must raise awareness ourselves – even when it threatens our safety to do so. Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were willing to sacrifice their security to warn us. We must be bold - not cowardly – when our future is at stake. “Freedom isn’t free” is not just a slogan used to justify military expansionism – it’s an important truth for all of us.
Additionally, especially if engaged in activism and especially if you’re engaged in activism and research the government might not be fond of, make sure you protect yourself by practicing smart Internet and cell phone habits, such as:
- Using a VPN, especially on public WiFi
Practicing safe password habits (do not use easy-to-remember passwords with names of your loved ones; create truly complex passwords that will not be easy to guess)
Making sure websites you view are secured, especially if you are inputting personal information. Websites that are secured usually display a “lock” icon near the address bar.
Installing privacy-oriented browsers (like Firefox or TOR)
Avoiding Google, Bing, and Yahoo searches in favor of privacy-oriented search engines like DuckDuckGo.
Replacing your operating system (like Windows or macOS) with third-party operating systems such as Linux PrivatOS or TAILS
Being very selective about what you put on social media and using the appropriate privacy settings.
Never storing private information in “the cloud.” If hackers can launch “The Fappening,” there is no telling what else might be in store down the road.
Always reviewing permissions for your mobile apps.
Learning how to prevent tracking (https://www.kaspersky.com/blog/anti-tracking-tools/26556/).
In a democratic system, change comes from legislation by popular demand. In our system, though, legislation usually comes – sometimes directly – from corporate think-tanks. As with so many other pressing issues the state of our government as a tool of corporatists stands in the way. To create change in this area – and many other important areas -- we must create a government that truly operates of, by, and for the people so that our voices will be heard. We must reject candidates for the government that do not seek to reform this reality and we must fight for those that do. We must raise candidates that pay this issue its due.
Meanwhile, we live in a time of increasing tumult and danger, with both liberty and security at stake -- so keep fighting while you still can, and stay safe out there.