The electronic revolution of the latter part of the 20th century ushered impressive advances in communications and information gathering technology. News that used to take weeks, if not months, to travel the world is now shared almost instantaneously. Likewise, tools such as the Internet and other social media have given the masses nearly inexhaustible resources to amass knowledge. However, such advances have not been without a cost, and that cost is our privacy. These technological leaps have allowed governments, corporations, and other entities to gather substantial information on practically anyone they please.
What used to be a time consuming effort by police states with an army of informants (as seen by the former Soviet Union where 1 in 7 of its population were informers) to discover significant details on individuals, is now a quick gleaning by organizations such as the American NSA and the British GCHQ, as well as social media like Facebook and Twitter. Besides the traditional methods of physical surveillance and human intelligence employed by intelligence organizations, there are now countless means of spying on people electronically. These means can be used to monitor, track, or gather information on individuals. The first two means relate to observing subjects and determining their routine and habits, while the last one relates to discovering their personal information.
While Hollywood and CNN have illustrated the power of satellites and predator drones to track down terrorists and other malcontents, in reality satellites and predator drones are limited in number and used almost exclusively on high profile targets rather than spying on the masses. The real boon for governments to monitor their people is CCTV (closed circuit television). For example, in Britain there are more CCTVs per person than any other country in the world and it has been said the average Brit is caught on 300 CCTVs per day. The power of CCTV was amply shown by the documentary entitled “the girl in the suitcase” aired by the Fifth Estate on CBC where a man who murdered a woman and put her in a suitcase was caught on multiple cameras with the suitcase between his hotel and an airport in England. Though it is obvious how such technology could be useful for national security and law enforcement purposes, it is easy to see how it could be turned against the populace as in such movies as “1984” and “V for Vendetta.”
CCTVs can also be used to read license plates by using Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology. Just as in tracking individuals, the ability to track automobiles has important security implications but could just as easily be used for cynical political ends as well. Either way, CCTVs, like any other piece of technology, is not infallible. With rudimentary means of disguise, simple evasion tactics, or being constantly on the move, it is not hard to beat the system. Similarly, a fake license plate, a bit of dirt, or partially obscuring one’s license plate can easily defeat ANPR cameras. It goes without saying that the easiest people to track are innocent people who follow the rules, rather than organized criminals or terrorists who inevitably find simple solutions to thwart advanced technology.
GPS can also be used to track people, especially via their phones, or if such a device is planted in a vehicle they use. To defeat the spooks one can simply deactivate the GPS function (if it is an option), turn off one’s phone or buy a pre-paid phone. Or if you wanted to throw the spooks off your scent, you could do what the protagonist did in Henry Porter’s “The Dying Light” when she sent her cell phone in the mail and the spooks followed it around all day. The same counter-measures can be used in a vehicle installed with a GPS device, although it may simply be easier to use a different car altogether.
Phones are another electric means that can be used to spy on people. Unless one has a secure or a prepaid phone, it is are easily tracked (especially if one’s GPS setting is active). Organizations like the NSA and the GCHQ have the means to listen in on almost any phone call, along with computer programs that look for keywords or voiceprints. While this seems omnipotent, these means can easily be beaten by talking in code, scrambling one’s voice, getting someone to use the phone who does not have a pre-existing voice print in their database, or simply not communicating via telephone at all! Very few high-ranking terrorists have been eliminated by being careless with their cell phone such as when Chechen rebel Dzhokar Dudayev was killed by a Russian missile that homed onto his satellite phone’s signal. Texting generally has the same pitfalls as communicating by phone, but can also be secured by the same means.
Electronic cards can be used to spy on the masses. While people generally understand that governments and law enforcement agencies can use credit and debit cards to track their finances, most other electronic cards can be used to gather people’s information and track their movements as well. Even seemingly innocuous things like library cards or grocery store club cards will leave an electronic imprint. However, once again, simple solutions can hide what one is doing. People who would rather have their purchases hidden from prying eyes can buy things in cash rather than with plastic. Terrorists and criminals also have no qualms about stealing people’s credit cards, or making counterfeit ones.
The Internet is a significant security breach when it comes to privacy. Organizations such as the NSA and the GCHQ can read any e-mail, hackers can steal private data en mass (as seen lately by Sony and the IMF), and Google records everything we search while using their website. This does not include social networks like Facebook (which the CIA partly owns) and Twitter where millions of people give up personal details voluntarily, often to the benefit of corporations doing market research. It is no surprise that intelligence agencies in despotic nations such as China and Iran use such tools to track, and sometimes encourage, dissent to identify trouble makers and arrest them. One of the reasons the so called “Arab Spring” was successful in Egypt and Tunisia is that, unlike most other dictatorships, the ruling elite in those countries did not put much effort into controlling the Internet. The NSA, the GCHQ and other organizations also monitor Internet traffic to specific websites (mostly terrorist or criminal related) and key words during searches (such as “bomb making” and “Al-Qaeda”) to weed out potential troublemakers and malcontents.
Fooling the spooks online is often simple enough. Just like phone conversations or texting, talking in code or simply refusing to communicate via technology will leave them in the dark. One could also have several e-mail accounts and use Internet cafes or scramble one’s IP address to hide one’s identity online. A novel stratagem was used by Don Cheadle in the movie “Traitor” where he typed e-mails but saved, rather than sent them, and then gave his contacts the e-mail addresses and passwords allowing them to see the messages. As for social networking, it should be common sense not to give out important information to sites such as Facebook or Twitter. In the case of online banking and other supposedly secure means, one must simply accept the potential risk that some government entity or criminal organization may inevitably hack one’s private information.
CCTVs, GPS, cell phones, electronic cards and the Internet provide powerful organizations the means to track the public and gather vital information on them. Unlike traditional means such as physical surveillance and human intelligence, technological means of intelligence gathering do not require as much time and effort to find relevant data. Fortunately, technological means are arguably easier to counter. By simply refusing to communicate via technology or taking simple countermeasures, one can significantly eliminate the chances of being tracked or spied on. This is precisely how unsophisticated terrorist or criminal elements with limited resources have been able, often with considerable success, to evade powerful organizations like the CIA, the NSA and the Pentagon.
For every sophisticated innovation, there inevitably exists a simple solution. For example, after the “Six Day War,” the Israelis built massive sand ramparts on the east bank of the Suez Canal to protect their soldiers. Soldiers, security analysts and armchair generals all concluded that only nuclear weapons could breach them. Yet when the Egyptians retook the east bank of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur war, they simply washed away the ramparts with high pressures hoses!
Those who advocate that we are on the brink of becoming a technological police state are probably exaggerating, but there is no question that powerful organizations have the ability to glean a ridiculous number of our personal details with relative ease. However, a simple understanding of those organization’s capabilities, combined with basic countermeasures and common sense is often enough to safeguard against their worst excesses.