The Surveillance Society

Secrets are so 20th century now that we have the ability to collect and store billions of pieces of data forever

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Michael Wolf / laif / Redux

Privacy is mostly an illusion. A useful illusion, no question about it, one that allows us to live without being paralyzed by self-consciousness. The illusion of privacy gives us room to be fully human, sharing intimacies and risking mistakes. But all the while, the line between private and public space is as porous as tissue paper. The adulterous couple sneaking off to a hotel: Is someone following them? The teenagers skipping school to visit the mall: Will they bump into a woman from Mom’s book club? The solitary motorist thrashing an air guitar at a traffic light: Will the driver in the next lane look over? Like children of a certain age who think closing their eyes will make them invisible, we assume that no one sees or hears our private moments, and we’re right—until someone watches or listens.

This was true long before the National Security Agency began collecting our telephone and Internet records from technology and communications companies, and long before the House of Representatives on July 24 gave a fresh thumbs-up to further NSA collections by a narrow 12-vote margin, 217-205. It was true long before a military judge found Private Bradley Manning guilty of espionage for his role in the WikiLeaks case—but acquitted him on the charge of aiding the enemy—on July 30. The illusive quality of privacy is a recurring theme of literature going back to the Hebrew Bible. Consider beautiful Bathsheba, who strips for a bath in the second Book of Samuel, an ancient text, only to come under the lustful gaze of King David, pacing on his palace rooftop. Or Hamlet, whose private conversation with his mother is overheard by Polonius, hiding behind the drapes. The great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated by secrets that would not stay hidden and made a masterpiece, Rear Window, from the premise that entire lives (and deaths) are on display behind the uncovered windows of anonymous cities, just waiting for a watcher to decrypt them.

But the revelation of the NSA’s vast data-collection programs by a crusading contract worker, Edward Snowden, has made it clear that the rise of technology is shattering even the illusion of privacy. Almost overnight, and with too little reflection, the U.S. and other developed nations have stacked the deck in favor of the watchers. A surveillance society is taking root. Video cameras peer constantly from lamp poles and storefronts. Satellites and drones float hawkeyed through the skies. Smartphones relay a dizzying barrage of information about their owners to sentinel towers dotting cities and punctuating pasture-land. License-plate cameras and fast-pass lanes track the movements of cars, which are themselves keeping a detailed record of their speed and location. Meanwhile, on the information superhighway, every stop by every traveler is noted and stored by Internet service providers like Google, Verizon and Comcast. Retailers scan, remember and analyze each purchase by every consumer. Smart TVs know what we’re watching—soon they will have eyes to watch us watching them—and smart meters know if we’ve turned out the lights.

(MORE: TIME’s full coverage on privacy)

And the few remaining technical barriers to still more surveillance are falling before the awesome force of 1s and 0s, the binary digital magic that is the fuel of revolutionary change. Until recently, there were hard physical limits on the number of pictures that could be developed, videotapes that could be stored, phone–company records that could be typed or photocopied or packed into boxes—let alone analyzed. Now the very idea of limits is melting away. In 1980 (not that long ago; Barack Obama was in college), IBM introduced its Model 3380 disk drive, the first device capable of storing more than a gigabyte of data. It was roughly the size and weight of a refrigerator and cost an inflation adjusted $100,000. Today a flash drive costing one-thousandth as much can store 50 times the data and fit on a key ring. The amount of data that can be stored is nearly infinite. In a prescient series of blog posts several years ago, Princeton computer-science professor Edward Felten explained that this tremendous growth in storage capacity would inevitably spur intelligence agencies to collect all available data—everything—simply because it’s cheaper and easier than trying to figure out what to take and what to ignore. “If storage is free but analysts’ time is costly, then the cost-minimizing strategy is to record everything and sort it out later,” Felten noted.

That is precisely what has happened. And at the same time, ever more sophisticated computer algorithms make it possible to sift through and analyze larger and larger slices of that data, raising social and ethical dilemmas that cannot be ignored. The future is here. Nearly everything that happens from now on has the potential not just to be seen by some restless King David or overheard by an eavesdropping Polonius but also stored indefinitely. Government agencies, and the private corporations working with them, collect and store billions of records every day, and they’re hungry for more: not just phone records and Web addresses but e-mails, texts, downloads, medical records, retail receipts, bank balances, credit-card numbers and travel itineraries.

The world glimpsed a corner of this future in April, when two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The scene was chaos. The bombers had vanished. Yet within a few hours, their faces were plainly visible on TV screens around the world. It turned out that every nefarious move they made as they delivered their deadly packages to Boylston Street had been scanned and stored by surveillance cameras. Their quick capture was a triumph for law enforcement but left an unsettling realization in its wake: everyone else on those teeming Boston sidewalks was also being watched and remembered.

Then, just weeks after Boston, the slight and pallid Snowden emerged from his NSA cubicle to warn us that surveillance goes far beyond the tireless eyes of the cameras. Every phone call placed, every Web page visited—billions and trillions of data points, like raindrops in a monsoon—is captured daily and stored for possible analysis by the U.S. government. Remember the time you pocket-dialed your sister? The time you Googled your college flame? The day you did that thing you so deeply regret—that thing you thought was private—involving a Web search or a phone call or a text or an e-mail? It’s all there. In fact, the government, with the NSA as the lead agency, is this moment busy building the world’s largest data storage facility in Utah. More than a million square feet, room enough to preserve everything, for the time being.

The government calls the material it collects metadata, instead of plain old data. The difference,  it might seem, is the difference between a haystack and the needles hidden inside. No one cares about the hay; they hardly touch it as they search intently for the telltale glint. Perhaps a better analogy would be a catalog at the Library of Congress, which stores some 35 million books and other print publications, most of which no one ever opens. Why so many? Because it is easier to have publishers send one of everything than to choose which publications to preserve. (And who knows what, in that vast reserve, might be needed someday?) In any event, the government assures us that as long as we don’t consort with menaces to national security, our phone calls and Web searches are of no more interest to Uncle Sam than an outdated tome on Bolivian agronomy.

(MORE: A Glossary of Government Surveillance)

Across the political spectrum, from ACLU Democrats to Ron Paul libertarians, Americans are skeptical of the metadata fig leaf. According to a poll on July 26 by the Pew Research Center, only about 1 in 5 people surveyed believe the government actually keeps its nose out of private phone calls and emails. The same small minority trusts government claims to use the surveillance trove only for anti-terrorism purposes. Indeed, more Americans in the survey think Uncle Sam is hacking their personal communications (roughly 1 in 4 respondents) than have faith in the government’s explanations. The skeptics no doubt have noticed that governments are made up of people and that people are prone to misuse information when driven by greed or curiosity or a will to power. The current IRS scandal, in which the agency’s rules may have been bent to political ends, could prove to be an apt example. Somewhere in the vast NSA collections are data trails belonging to political foes, unpleasant neighbors, feuding ex-spouses, bankable celebrities—and it takes no great imagination to see the temptation for corrupt bureaus or individuals to take a look around.

What’s to stop them? In a recent speech at the Brookings Institution, Robert Litt, general counsel to the Director of National Intelligence, sought to answer that question. He argued that strong measures are in place to protect the privacy of Americans as their data accumulates on government silicon. Surveillance programs are administered by the Executive Branch, overseen by Congress and supervised by the Judicial Branch, through the super secret FISA court. The fact that most of these checks and balances take place behind closed doors does not make them toothless, Litt maintained.

Take the specific case of a suspected foreign terrorist known to have communicated by phone with U.S. citizens. Litt detailed a litany of privacy safeguards that government sleuths must honor as they investigate the records. “We allow only a limited number of specially trained analysts to search these databases,” he explained, and “even those trained analysts are allowed to search the database only when they have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a particular telephone number is associated with particular foreign terrorist organizations.” Moreover, the FISA court must certify that the terrorist connection is based on a valid suspicion, supported by   information “documented in writing and approved by a supervisor.” Even after all this, the analysts are “allowed to use this information only in a limited way, to map a network of telephone numbers calling other telephone numbers,” Litt continued. And finally, the analysts don’t know the names that match the phone numbers.

(MORE: Americans Sharply Split on Privacy Issues)

Since the Snowden disclosures, further protections have been suggested. Perhaps the government should employ a team of skilled attorneys, with appropriate security clearances, to argue against the sleuths before the FISA court—to ensure that the judges hear strong arguments against snooping. Another suggestion is to declassify FISA court proceedings, to the extent possible, so the public can better understand what’s going on. Even without those additional steps, however, a majority of Americans support the current arrangement, even if they don’t entirely trust the government’s explanations. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, after digesting Snowden’s news, a solid majority feel that it’s more important to fully investigate terrorist threats than to protect personal privacy.

While the scope of surveillance today is much broader than in the past, Americans long ago grew accustomed to limits on privacy. The Supreme Court has held  that information voluntarily given to third parties is no longer secret, nor can we expect privacy to cloak our actions in public places or our communications via the public airwaves. The government can intercept radio signals and is allowed to read what’s written on the outside of our mail. It’s just a step—granted, a large step—from those principles to the ones that underpin today’s massive data collections. The header of an e-mail is not so different from the face of an envelope, nor is the signal from a tablet to a wireless router entirely unlike the signal from one radio to another.

We have also learned to trade elements of our privacy for all sorts of supposed benefits. Google tracks our searches so that it will know which advertisements to show us. Smartphones record our locations to be more helpful in steering us to the nearest multiplex, restaurant, gas station or church. Drugstores analyze our purchases to reward us with coupons redeemable on a future visit. And so on. We want our gadgets to know us intimately—want our thermostats to know when we’re cold, want our toasters to know how we like our bagel, want our search engines to know what we’re looking for even when we misspell it. So far, we have been willing to pay for that intimacy in lost privacy.

Which brings us to a strange crossroads. The more technology endangers our privacy, the less we seem to prize it. We post family photos on social-media sites and ship our credit-card numbers to total strangers. We ask websites we’ve never visited—designed by people we’ve never met—to give us advice on treating embarrassing maladies and hunting for potential mates. But the government is different, as Litt acknowledged in his recent speech, because “the government has the power to audit our tax returns, to prosecute and imprison us, to grant or deny licenses to do business and many other things. And,” he continued, “there is an entirely understandable concern that the government may abuse this power.”

In recent years, privacy advocates have persuaded the Supreme Court to require search warrants before police can sneak GPS trackers onto suspects’ cars or scan houses from the outside using infrared devices that sense the telltale heat signature of marijuana grow lights. Such steps seem small, however, compared with the rapid rise of surveillance powers and the grim history of governments corrupted by the temptation to watch their peoples too closely. The admirable goals of public safety and national security have been exploited time and again by intrusive regimes around the world seeking to spy on their critics and smother dissent. Americans need only read the Bill of Rights to see that suspicion of government intrusion is a national birthright. As tools for prying grow in number and strength, this is no time to stop being suspicious.

(MORE: Privacy and the Law: How the Supreme Court Defines a Controversial Right)

Perhaps there’s consolation in the magic of the microchip. Technology makes all secrets more difficult to keep—not just our personal secrets but the government’s as well. Again and again over the past dozen years, the methods, mistakes and misdeeds of the world’s most powerful government have been unmasked by lowly employees convinced that what they are witnessing is wrong. From the photos at Abu Ghraib prison to the avalanche of WikiLeaks documents to the Snowden disclosures, large caches of data have been loaded onto thumb drives or burned onto wafer-thin discs—then spread around the globe in the blink of an eye. Though the clarions may be prosecuted, the facts they reveal cannot be recalled or repressed.

This, ultimately, may prove to be our strongest protection against the rise of the surveillance state. The same tools that strengthen it strengthen those who protest against it. Privacy is not the only illusion in the new age of data; government secrecy is too. Big Brother might be watching, but he is also being watched.

—with reporting by Massimo Calabresi

34 comments
awake41
awake41

*sigh* One day this will all be over.  It may take thousands of years, but one day it will end and the world will continue on as if we were never here.  There is little we can do now to fight the madness of the human race, because most of the fighters are just as nuts as the enemy.  We can only deal with it, and let time destroy us in it's own course.  Take some comfort in the knowledge it will eventually end.

bxd7360
bxd7360

Does anyone know what's bias in this article?


vítima
vítima

U.S.A.

BARACK OBAMA

ADAN SANDLER

* The ultilizar TECHNOLOGICAL DEVICE (ARMA) IN PEOPLE who collaborated with USE ME.

* ALL THAT MADE ME THROUGH IN GUN TECNOLOGICA, ASKING THEM THE SAME IN ALL.

1 JR ° NEYMAR

2nd DAVID LUCAS

3 ° ETC

PS THIS SHOULD ONLY BE MADE IN SUCH PEOPLE LIST. BRAZIL

ASSINADO.VÍTIMA

westernfivepoints
westernfivepoints

After 9/11 It was easy to see increased surveillance was needed to ensure our security, so I had no problem with Uncle Sam increasing it's leverage to listen in to what was necessary to keep American's safe & secure.

Here we are now & there are rumblings it's been turned inwards, beyond the original scope of keeping us safe.

If that's the case, the Mrs & I have nothing to hide, we worked hard all our life in honest professions, we raised our kids to be honest law abiding citizens who are now contributing to their community's as well.

But that's life in the big city, if sam finds our personnel life so interesting, then tune in tonight me & the ole lady are retired & we can still rattle the house from time to time.

I'm just concerned of them learning about the fishing holes that my friends & I discuss.

Hello, yeah what's up chuck ? ( Where are they biting this week ? )  God Bless America & Our Troops.


AmandaGeorge
AmandaGeorge

von Drehle did an excellent job in highlighting the extent to which all of our lives are monitored and analyzed. What many don't seem to understand is that it's not that most people have anything to hide, but that does not give others free reign to invade our privacy.

larsot
larsot

P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }

Well, strictly speaking, no man is innocent and may be we don't have to wait until 2084 for a Totalitarian Surveillance State... oh no, sorry, I mean a World Community of Human Rights, Peace and True Democracy!

auronlu
auronlu

Metadata -- pull the other one; it's got bells on.

XKeyscore: NSA tool collects 'nearly everything a user does on the internet'

• XKeyscore gives 'widest-reaching' collection of online data
• NSA analysts require no prior authorization for searches
• Sweeps up emails, social media activity and browsing history
• NSA's XKeyscore program – read one of the presentations

-- http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data

They can hide behind the jargon "metadata," because it sounds inoffensive, but it's a lie. Metadata doesn't include your emails, your browser history, the content of your PMs, and everything you share in private or public. (And even metadata can be used to piece together a fairly complete picture of you.) 

Amit-Atlanta-USA
Amit-Atlanta-USA

I wrote the following in response to a readers comments saying that I was wrong to say that Huma Abedin could not be trusted based on her background. I am sure it's absolutely relevant here too.

Here's what I wrote:

I don't mind using less of my freedoms (as enshrined in the US Constitution) when it pertains to the nation's security.

Being myself a Brown Man, I don't mind one bit when I am pulled aside by a/p security for additional checks based on my looks alone, ONLY b'coz I don't want to jeopardize my & my fellow passenger's security when someone who looks like me gets a pass in the garb of political correctness and in the name of our great freedoms!

In that sense I am a strong supporter of NSA surveillance. Remember the 9/11 hijackers, the Boston and Times Square and ofcourse Maj. Nadal Hassan (heard of any of them?????) all were as innocent as I am, BEFORE they turned out to be bombers/killers.

SO FREEDOMS COME WITH LIMITS, when something INDEED goes wrong, it's you guys (so-called UNABASHED defenders of freedoms/constitution) who are the first guys questioning the police, FBI, govt. on WHY THEY WERE NAPPING!!!.

I "WAS"glad that unlike my former homeland India, and Europe who have put their nations' security at jeopardy in the garb of freedoms and political correctness, America was a lot more vigilant of "POTENTIAL" enemies within..........

But, thanks to untiring efforts of people like Huma Abedin, Fareed Zakaria, Dean Obeidallah, Imam Rauf, Rashad Hassan, and hugely naïve Hillary Clinton, John Kerry (even John McCain) and President Obama, things are fast changing in America too!

Remember it's necessary for the radicals to recreate a 9/11, or 7/7, or 26/11 to BRING ARROGANT, ANTI-ISLAMIC, AMERICA DOWN on its knees, there are countless ways to achieve just that.........

That's how TROJANs work...... a computer virus that sabotages everything... unseen, unheard of, but doing its job quietly........from within!

Nothuman
Nothuman

I did not know that the state of New York was monitoring me when I claimed my weekly unemployment benefits using a virtual private network app (vpn) from a public wifi hotspot. They immediately terminated my benefits because they claim that my i.p. address showed me being in another country even though I have never left the lower 48 in my entire life. It's been two months now without income and I am now homeless, carless, and hungry. My child support is in default and I cannot afford my three b.p. meds.

anti-government
anti-government

Good-Bye Liberty!

Societies that permanently take away individual liberties in the name of "security" are no longer free.

Our so-called liberties are empty shells, sucked dry of meaning by ever-growing government spying on us.

DaveEdeburn
DaveEdeburn

Do it for the lulz anonymous. Save us. 

wwmorgan
wwmorgan

In order to make a comment on this criminal invasion of individual privacy by the political police, I had to allow the people facilitating this comment to have access to an account having my profile and other such things.

None of this--9/11, the following terrorism and the reduction in privacy--would have occurred had not string of Americans wanted to be elected or re-elected president of the U.S.  And would not alienate the Jewish lobby by forcing Israel to restore the 1967 borders and allow the Palestinians to have what American Colonials wanted in 1776: independence and freedom.

Because it is America helping Israel to keep the Palestinians in a vast concentration camp that caused to eventually attack America. Then George W (Dour Leader) Bush, a man of limited intellect and understanding history, and low self-esteem, not understand the cause of 9/11 launched 2 war the killed a few hundred thousand people. Isn't that in itself "terrorism"?

If instead he had required Israel to restore the 1967 borders and allow Palestinians to have independence, terrorism and the resulting attack on privacy and freedom would not have been necessary. The worst thing about American democracy is that someone such Dour Leader can descend to the presidency, destroy our freedoms and bankrupt the U.S. and the world.

Openminded1
Openminded1

Ladies and gentlemen and every one in between, There is no privacy from the Govt, Big Business, super market chains, Trw and there peers , cell phone use or any other communication and please do not for get the computer of which we all are on and being monitored. the 60"s  are gone we are a open book. Unless of course you are The Ariel Castro Type for some odd reason fell beneath the radar. In the interest of national security big brother watching is ok    But for any other reason  by the likes of TRW , trans Union and equifax and and your local dept store or super market , collection agency or just anyone outside national security it is just BS, money making slime under the umbrella of security, marketing and sales revenue.

smjhunt
smjhunt

Isn't the real issue not what is being collected but what it is used for ?  Also, aren't we the ones who give up most of our privacy by using services that collect this data ?  Look at Ariel Castro. He managed to imprison three women in a house on a public street for 11 years.  Apparently if you want to keep your privacy there are ways to do so.

DanBruce
DanBruce

I get amused at those people who rant and rave about government data collection but make nary a peep when it is announced that, for instance, Apple will soon have the ability to access (and potentially place in a worldwide communications database, and how would we know if they did?) every future iPhone user's fingerprints (for user security, of course).

awake41
awake41

@Amit-Atlanta-USA Another person who values safety over freedom!  Freedom requires personal responsibility.  To be truly free you need to be completely responsible for your own protection, your own living situation, your health, food, water, transportation etc etc.  Today, most people want diminished responsibility; they want someone else to protect them, manage their health, maintain their home, produce their food, supply their water, etc etc.  Today, most people want things as easy as possible to deal with the mental and emotional strains of living in modern society.  Yes, hardcore surveillance can prevent or at least rapidly solve a terrorist tragedy.  Yes, monitoring everyone's information is prudent and logical from a security standpoint.  The tradeoff, however, is freedom.  By monitoring people's information, you gain a certain measure of control over them, and history shows that governments misuse their powers of control.  Though I may be physically controlled by force, I am a free man, and no other person, entity, organization or institution has control over my mind.  I will not let propaganda and fear-mongers scare me into giving up my freedoms because some violent nutcase might kill me.  That's just my opinion though, the "liberty or death" philosophy.

Amit-Atlanta-USA
Amit-Atlanta-USA

@DaveEdeburn 

The irony is, in the aftermath of 9/11. Time Square/Boston Bombings, Major Nadal Hassan's killings, none of these "so-called" defenders of Americans Freedoms/Constitution came out attacking the Fed./Police when they revealed their sources of inspiration/finance etc. by monitoring their emails/chats, financial transactions, movements etc. (even though many were after the fact).

Remember all these bombers/killers were as innocent as I & U whose privacy rights were violated.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@wwmorgan not badly said morgan but as long as the united states kisses Israel's ass to suck up to american jews we will forever have the problems we have and the hatred from the middle east. Its all about money and always has been, such is life in the USA.

GetReal123
GetReal123

It's "their" not "there". See, big bro even finds spelling errors.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@smjhunt very true just stay below the radar, use cash and live like a hermit.

GaryGnubian
GaryGnubian

Ya know.

I want that damn bio sensor on the phone.

How easy would that be?

~says me

The guy who never even considered that fine point

americandissonant
americandissonant

@DanBruce Well, Dan. some of us have never put our real names on any social media. Some of us choose to carry only the most basic cell-phones. Some of us have bought cars with GPS and lojack and disabled both tracking systems. And some of us, as long as 25 years ago, considered all the things that insurance companies could do with information that they got from supermarket shoppers who used a store loyalty card and decided that saving a few pennies was not worth the potential invasion of privacy.

And I am concerned about my right to privacy being messed with.  I will say, however, that Eric Snowden's revelations were not upsetting to me; anybody, individual or governing body, that is now on top will use any tool it can to stay on top. This is simply common sense and a basic understanding of human nature.

Nothuman
Nothuman

Do you mean telephone? Mine only has internet access with wifi because I lost phone service because I could not pay my monthly bill. I did not mentioneverything I've lost, my issues compound. daily. I know it's hard for some people to comprehend my situation.

auronlu
auronlu

@ChristopherMarkowski @DanBruce Christopher, Apple's considering adding fingerprint-reading technology. You don't think the sensors will be fine enough within a few years to include a fingerprint reader (which, just as at my parents' danged bank, is already being used in many places as a form of lock)? 

Openminded1
Openminded1

@GetReal123 Your welcome but no need to send anyone over I am right outside with a few FBI agents.

GetReal123
GetReal123

We have your address and I'll send over a NSA lackey to retrieve that six pack. Thanks. :)


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