The Government is Spying On You Through Facebook Right…Now

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Your Democratically Elected Government.

Democratically elected governments spy on citizens01Controlling information and spying on citizens were hallmarks of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century. Today, even moderate democracies are getting in on the action. In the last decade, as communication has shifted from traditional landlines, phone calls, and postal service to cell phones and email, governments around the world have struggled to maintain their ability to hunt down criminals and dissidents. As the world went wireless, intelligence gathering agencies have adapted and upgraded wiretapping skills, and major telecommunications companies have helped them do it. Nokia, Sprint, Ericsson, Facebook, Google - think of a business that helps people talk and exchange information and you'll think of a company that has helped law enforcement agencies look through private data in search of the bad guys. Not such a big deal, right? I mean, we all want to hunt down the bad guys. Yet it's becoming clear that not only is the loss of our privacy considered acceptable collateral damage, but giving backdoor access to governments make a business' data more vulnerable to the bad guys as well.

In many areas of the globe, such as the US, UK and EU, to name a few, governments may monitor a citizen's communications when they are suspected of a crime. There are legal/judicial hurdles that must be cleared for such observations to be installed but once they are cleared governments are legally allowed to spy. Such wiretapping has been going on since before the phone was invented. Now, however, much of our communication doesn't pass through telephone wires but through the servers of corporate giants like Google. This proved to be both a hindrance and a large opportunity to information gathering and law enforcement agencies. They didn't have direct access to those lines of communication, but the new medium allowed for automated detection and recording. By requiring companies like Facebook, Google, Sprint, etc to grant them automated backdoor access to their technologies, government agencies all around the world suddenly had the means to browse through billions of communications. Email subject lines, mobile phone GPS locations, call histories - all this digital information could be scanned, sorted, and stored for future use. And boy is it used. Sprint-Nextel provided US agencies with 8 million requests for cell phone GPS location information in 2008-2009 alone - and that's just one mobile company. In an interview with Russia Today, Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks recently stated that other tech companies, such as Facebook, are so accessible to US intelligence agencies that they act as de facto information gathering sources - see the video below for more:

A quick reality check, neither WikiLeaks nor Russia Today are particularly fond of US government activity, and it's not surprising that both would critique the US government for invading online privacy. Yet it goes beyond one nation.

The EU's massive Project Indect, which we've discussed before, is going strong. Among other prerogatives, the initiative will require major telecomm companies to assist them in establishing automated data mining for mobiles, email, social networks, etc. If you send data to the EU, it's going to get looked at by a computer, and if it sets off the wrong filter, a human will look at it too. This is just the next step in the wiretapping evolution - we've seen other high profile incidents already. In 2008, Nokia sold Iran the wiretapping protocols and equipment they would need to monitor their citizens' phone calls. A group of Iranian citizens are suing the company for aiding the government in (unlawfully) detaining and persecuting them after the disputed 2009 elections. In 2004-2005, during Greece elections, unknown groups were able to monitor the calls of elected Greek representatives. They did so by illegally hacking into Ericsson's wiretapping capabilities - capabilities that were required by the Greek government. When Google was the victim of a cyber-attack based out of China more than a year ago, the hackers exploited wiretapping protocols Google built into their systems as dictated by the US government.

These last two examples highlight how ongoing compliance with wiretapping laws make telecommunications companies more vulnerable to cyber spying in general. Backdoors that grant access to the FBI or NSA also serve as tempting targets for everyone else. Whether they are exploited for identity theft, or used to coordinate concentrated cyber attacks from other nations, wiretapping access is a proven weak point in telecommunication security.

Which is perhaps why I find it so frustrating that countries are pushing companies for more access, not less. Starting last fall, the FBI has been leaning on Google and Facebook to open themselves up further to online wiretapping (presumably to grant easy access not just to subject lines and metadata but body text as well). Sweden's FRA-Law (passed in 2008) gave the government unheard of access to online data passing through its lines. While that law proved to be grossly unpopular with the citizenry of Sweden, it went into effect January 1st, 2009, and remains enforced today. WikiLeaks alleges, and Russia Today reports that cables from the US embassy show that the American government was prodding Sweden into adopting greater access to online communications, ostensibly because 80% of the traffic from Russia to the US passes through there. Here's another news video on the topic (my earlier reality check should be repeated here):

How secure is your online information? Depends on how much attention you've garnered. While current wiretapping technologies would make it unlikely for every correspondence you produce to receive even automated attention, there's little doubt that should you become the suspect of government scrutiny, there are systems in place that allow you to be monitored easily. When a law enforcement or intelligence agency comes a knocking, the backdoor to your data is opened. That's the reality of modern wiretapping laws.

The situation, however, is complex. Companies like Google and Yahoo struggled with being coerced to help countries like China censor information. They were also legally pressured to comply with wiretapping laws in the US and EU. On the flipside, Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants are setting up camp in Washington DC, spending more money every year on influencing laws that affect their industries. Governments pressure businesses, businesses use their wealth to pressure government's a fun little waltz, don't you think? The only problem is that we seem to be the dance floor, even if all the parties involved claim they're trying to help the average citizen.

Singularity Hub has often speculated that the upcoming generation will have different mores about privacy, that youth raised on Facebook updates and Tweets will move much of their lives into the public sphere. I still believe that and I'm not convinced it's going to be a bad thing. The trouble arises when our love of expression is twisted into a tool of oppression. We're currently wading through a nebulous gray zone where criminals can be convicted by their online activity and governments can pour through billions of online communications looking for criminal activity. Wherever we decide to draw the privacy line, we need to do so willingly and on our own terms. The longer citizens wait to make this a prominent political issue the more government agencies will become entrenched in their current behavior. Living in a democracy is no longer a guarantee that a government won't act in very totalitarian ways. Maybe it never was.

[image credit: David Drexler (modified)]

[source: Russia Today, NY Times, Schneier]

Discussion — 3 Responses

  • Morgan Freeman May 18, 2011 on 12:24 pm

    Excellent article. Sadly, it appears that many people have adopted the, “If I haven’t done anything wrong, I don’t have to worry” meme since 9/11. Exactly what the government has done over the past 10 years to earn this trust is beyond me.

    We must take a more active interest in what is happening with all our information. Our data is being stored in very creepy ways by corporations.

  • broghamzvatox May 24, 2011 on 6:04 pm

    Peoples of the United States and of nearly every other democratic nation have come to suffer this day, rightly, of a rampant trepidation which fills the very fibers of our being with the fear that we no longer reside in the confines of a land governed “by the people” and, certainly, not “for the people.”

    So often have I had conversations of this nature, I fear it’s futility–I fear that every moment I invest in expressing these ideas is an utter waste. A mere submission of a dream to the common universal digital void; where it shall remain indefinitely never to receive consideration, never to incite criticism, or to inspire.

    Therefore, I shall utter merely one word, the last word to ever cross the mind of the content, the politically inclined; the one word that might, if it should attract critical attention, spare this sorrowful sight of existence the additional misery of tumbling down the ladder of civility and raising from the ashes sufficient justification to impose despotism upon all: Revolution.

  • johndoe1 April 7, 2013 on 1:23 pm

    No matter what “argue” a huge, governmental or private corporation says, information is power and sometimes is better to keep that information solely to the party you want to share it.
    Totalitarism can be disguised for democracy as a Wolf in sheep’s clothing and tracking every bodies activities by the claim of security, has a very thin line of being really in a state of surveillance and be really in a massive jail limiting personal freedom in ways that can scale to grotesque and truly unfair and unpleasant situations. Being judged by others is always a threat to personal freedom, and more if this other believes his prejudges are really “objective judges ones” and more of this others are in a situation of more power over others.
    History is full of this situations.

    Encryption of personal confidential information should be not only a legal but HUMAN RIGHT In order to maintain some quality of life, confidentiality gives people the right to have a degree of privacy that allows them to share, not acceptable for the status quo or mainstream conventional wisdom ideas or attitudes, passively disagree with others, or keep your safe from even radical judging end therefore radical antagonist actions due true opinions someone have and that not everybody shares agree or even respect. Especially of does ones in power to affect, “legally” or not the tranquility or good developing of a life.

    As the phrase goes: Power tends to corrupt and absolute powers corrupts absolutely
    Encryption should be a human right to limit power to those who already have a lot of it in the economical legal and political one.
    For the sake of true democracy and a system of check and balances in other words for the benefit the average citizen. Social networking companies should give their users guarantees that his private, or intended to be confidential messages are truly and not only on the surface, private and or confidential (encryption is the only way to do this)
    but if huge corporations and companies do not cooperate with this. As always, the citizen have the power to do it by personal means there is software that allows citizens to encrypt their messages maybe the next step and challenge is to raise awareness of this, and make it a reasonable attitude to all citizens and keep solidarity to anyone who could be “persecuted or criminilisaded” if any power in any part of the world decide to take this action (as to be quite honest, any can be) in a bad light.
    Critical thinking made man knows the world it leaves is round, but for centuries the main power the status quo (which main interest were to keep its privileges) persecuted the people that evidence support this thesis.
    Again: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and because of this, many enlighten people had to keep communication in secret or at least confidential societies.
    Are we too different this time than those ones?
    Now critical thinking should be set up in that authorities are not perfect and his opinions and actions over their governed people should not be always think as completely true or perfect, or to be quite honest, always good intended, because no matter how rich, powerful, educated, admired, a person or group of persons are, (or they want us to make us think they are) They are still human and due of that not being perfect. We have the right to share our opinion of that and don’t be bother by it. Confidentiality can help to make this a freer and better world.
    Confidentiality should not be a monopoly of intelligent agencies or huge bodies of surveillance, that as we had said before, already have a lot of economical legal physical and political power, but, as in any true democracy a right that any John Doe should be proud to stand for, like the one who has written this words.
    If you are in the political and legal scene and have a true interest in a freer and fair world make it a topic that matters!