A furious debate is raging in the United States over government surveillance strategies and privacy violations following revelations of a top-secret surveillance programme that harvests huge amounts of Internet and phone data. British and American newspapers have identified former CIA employee Edward Snowden as the person responsible for leaking details of the intelligence-gathering operation. He is reportedly holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, waiting for the inevitable fallout from his revelations – in fact, some people are already very agitated – and hoping that someone, somewhere, will offer him asylum.
Snowden reportedly told the Guardian newspaper at the weekend: “… I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” Over the years, Popular Mechanics has published many articles about government and other surveillance strategies – all of them in the interests of keeping you informed and alert. Hence our pay-off line: “Be the first to know.”
In the digital crosshairs
In our February 2013 issue, for example, we carried an article titled “In the digital crosshairs”. It cited some of the myriad ways in which private citizens’ privacy could be invaded via Internet spying and other (occasionally quite scary) tactics, commenting: “The Internet’s avenue for adolescent nastiness can lead to unpredictable and dramatic invasions of personal privacy, but it is the institutional and governmental intrusions into our lives that are, arguably, more unsettling.”
Our article continued: “If you live in Minneapolis, New York City, San Francisco or many other cities in the United States and you drove to work today, the licence plate of your vehicle was very likely scanned by an automatic licence plate recognition (ALPR) device, logged into a database and checked against police records of stolen cars and wanted criminals.”
On the face of it, this doesn’t appear too bad. After all, if the system helps the authorities to track down and punish offenders, where’s the problem? Er, it’s not quite that simple. Said Allie Bohm, a privacy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union: “ALPRs tag each photo with the time, date and GPS location of the photograph.
“(The police) collect information not just about people suspected of crimes, but everyone in the camera’s field of view. And they’re storing all the data they collect – sometimes for years, sometimes pooling it in state and regional databases. These systems are popping up everywhere in America; if the pace continues, they will be on every single corner a decade from now, and it will be the equivalent of monitoring every vehicle on the road with a GPS tracker.”
It gets better – or worse, depending on where you stand. We revealed that in New Haven, Connecticut, the tax collector’s office had used mobile cameras to hunt down and tow the vehicles of thousands of citizens who owe back taxes. Over the past decade, vast networks of police surveillance cameras had also been trained on pedestrians in cities such as New York City, Baltimore, Detroit and Long Beach, California. Currently, we revealed, many systems used video analytics to automatically alert authorities to suspicious movement or behaviour. But recent improvements in the technology of facial recognition at a distance meant that it wouldn’t be long before surveillance cameras would be able to ID faces as easily as they did licence plates.
Our article continued: “As large databases that profile the movements of private citizens build up with little oversight, it is difficult to know whether these systems are being abused. But evidence collected from law enforcement databases that are monitored shows that, even though the vast majority of police officers use the technology for legitimate purposes, there are always a few rule-bending cops willing to use these tools for illicit ends.”
Worried? Read what happens when your personal data falls into the wrong hands.
Is my car spying on me?
In another surveillance-related article, this one related to monitoring private cars, we made the point that everything changed when you added a cellular connection. “Cars equipped with telematics systems such as OnStar or Hyundai Blue Link have two-way links to service providers that relay GPS data. The operators of these services do, indeed, have the ability to see where you are, how fast you’re going, and what state your car is in mechanically.”
In the United States, we said, insurance companies had begun testing tracking systems that policyholders plugged into a port under the dash. The systems record data on driving habits, and in exchange, customers could potentially get lower insurance premiums. The caveat: any data collected belonged to the insurer (including any crash data). What? Now it’s my car that’s spying on me?
The well-equipped spy
Okay, now that your paranoia is out of control, you’re probably ready for a short primer on spy gear, courtesy of yet another PM article on spying (this is starting to make us look mildly obsessed, but it’s more about awareness than persecution): “According to Robert Wallace, real-life spy gear isn’t anything like the showy devices we see in the movies. As he tells it: “The equipment is developed for clandestine use, for use that isn’t flashy, that isn’t noticed.”
He should know: during his 32 years at the CIA, some of them spent working undercover, Wallace served for seven as director of the Office of Technical Services (OTS), where spy gadgets are created. In his new book, Wallace and co-authors H Keith Melton and Henry R Schlesinger trace the history of US spy gizmos. “The most common object can be turned into a piece of spy gear,” Wallace says. “I look at a pen and say, ‘Well, there can be a camera in there, a listening device or tablets to make secret ink. There can be a suicide pill in there – who knows?” Want to know more about supplies for spooks?