Home Social Justice Opinion: Smartphones and Smartstate

Opinion: Smartphones and Smartstate

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Last week, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced they were eliminating Rapiscan body scanners, which had gained infamy for projecting nude images of airplane passengers. Though the scanners won’t be fully eliminated until June 1, 2013, fliers still roundly applauded the decision. However, this applause is premature. Nude scanners will be replaced with body scanners that project generic, stick-figure images of passengers. In order for this transition to be considered a palliative, we must assume that nude renderings of our bodies are worse than a creeping surveillance apparatus that seeps into every corner of life.

The ostensible purpose of body scanners is to catch terrorists, but given the fact that the TSA has caught exactly zero terrorists, the actual effect of scanners has been to normalize a culture of surveillance.

Body scanners are just one microchip in the circuitry of surveillance that states use to track their citizens. In 2002, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) unveiled its Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, which sought to integrate myriad surveillance technologies into a single network of aggregated data and thereby thwart terrorist plots. As its name suggests, its ambitions were totalizing, culling together a person’s credit card records, banking records, library records, medical records, school records, emails, phone calls, web searches, travel history, political activity, organization membership and so on, in order to generate a comprehensive profile of everybody.

Because of concerns that TIA would enable an esoteric agency to pry into people’s private lives, the program was officially deactivated in 2003, which, as you would expect, means the program went underground in order to avoid congressional scrutiny. Indeed, whistleblowers from the ultra-secretive National Security Agency (NSA) testified that the agency essentially continued the Total Information Awareness program.

The NSA’s Stellar Wind program creates a digital crumb trail of everybody’s activity. All of your Internet searches, emails, downloads, text messages, cellular calls and financial transactions are logged and stored in massive supercomputers. In effect, the line between recordkeeping and surveillance has disappeared. A ‘record’ used to be something that accumulated in your past as a list of things you’ve done; now, records are accumulated instantaneously. Records not only reflect your past, but also your present, and a record of the present is synonymous with surveillance.

This invasion of privacy is made possible by the combined efforts of both major political parties. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) first appeared in 1978 when it was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. It was later expanded by President George W. Bush in 2008 to permit domestic spying, and this expansion was recently reauthorized by President Barack Obama. People who oppose being spied on by their government have no representation in the highest offices of government.

FISA surveillance is commonly accused of ‘warrantless wiretapping’ because it gives government agencies carte blanche to monitor anybody and everybody’s internet and phone activity without seeking judicial permission. If this seems unjust, that’s because it violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Stored Communications Act, the Pen Register Act and, of course, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It was because of this flagrant illegality that President Obama granted legal immunity to telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and BellSouth, who all conspired with the NSA’s eavesdropping program, which according to an exposé in “USA Today,” seeks “to create a database of every call ever made.” According to William Binney, an NSA whistleblower, the agency also aims to capture and cache everybody’s network activity, even if those people are flawlessly law-abiding.

This epic project demands data-storage capacity of unprecedented magnitudes, which is why the NSA is building an immense facility in the mountains of Bluffdale, Utah that will house the world’s largest arsenal of supercomputing power, capable of storing yottabytes of data (one yottabyte equals approximately one million billion gigabytes), while also processing information one hundred times faster than Japan’s K Computer, which is the fastest in existence.

Disturbing as that is, it seems mild compared to the FBI’s “roving bug” capability that allows them to tap into anybody’s cell phone and activate the microphone in order to eavesdrop. Even if your phone is turned off, the FBI can still remotely activate the speaker and listen to your conversations. Smartphone cameras can also be remotely activated, but there is currently no hard evidence that governments utilize that function. Smartphones are also equipped with accelerometers that capture the owner’s walking pattern. Each person’s gait is unique, and so a ‘walking fingerprint’ is as accurate of an identifier as fingerprints, iris scans, face scans, ear-prints, and voice scans. As Carnegie Mellon professor Marios Savvides writes, “Because it does not require any special devices, the gait biometrics of a subject can even be captured without him or her knowing.”

Aside from personal, handheld devices, entire urban areas are being transformed into surveillance mechanisms. Nearly a decade ago, the Pentagon and DARPA unveiled a surveillance project known as “Combat Zones That See” (CTS). According to a Pentagon official, this project uses advanced software to “track everything that moves” within a city by interlinking a vast network of surveillance cameras and processing their feed through a centralized computer system. John Pike, director of a defense think tank, said CTS “seems to have more to do with domestic surveillance than a foreign battlefield” and would enable “Government [to] have a reasonably good idea of where everyone is most of the time.”

This surveillance grid was recently enhanced when the President enacted the Federal Aviation Administration Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act, which permits the use of spy drones in U.S. airspace. The Pentagon aims to equip these drones with biometric face-recognition technology and Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), which assesses a target’s physiology, such as heart rate, skin temperature, steadiness of gaze, and even changes in voice pitch, in order to gauge that target’s state of mind and determine whether they harbor “adversarial intent.” This feature will combine with the Adversary Behavior Acquisition, Collection, Understanding, and Summarization (ABACUS) technology, which according to the manufacturer uses a “human behavior modeling and simulation engine” to generate “intent-based threat assessments of individuals and groups,” thereby enabling authorities to predict whether someone might commit a crime, and preemptively intervene.

The Smarthome trend provides yet another vector for surveillance since it links household appliances, lights, and entertainment devices to smartphones, which are already vulnerable to government penetration. Describing this surveillance potential, former CIA director General Petraeus said, “items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters – all connected to the next-generation internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing…ultimately, heading to quantum computing.”

Society as a whole never discussed or decided if it wants to be kept under heavy surveillance: This decision was made by government and corporate officials. In a political system where representatives are subject to term limits and electoral recall, power can change hands overnight. So if a malevolent executive was elected, or if the elected executive was credulous to malevolent advisors, then surveillance power could be used for malevolent purposes.

In rare cases, surveillance agencies genuinely serve the public good by foiling terrorist plots. However, this laudable service merely adds a patina of legitimacy that masks the conflux of surveillance technologies which form a web of power whose effects we can neither comprehend nor escape.

States have always sought to track their population, whether by imposing permanent last names, permanent addresses, social security numbers, driver’s licenses, passports, and so on – all of which are now taken for granted. State power and surveillance power have increased concomitantly, and are mutually-reinforcing. If states pledge to protect their citizens, and promise absolute security, then they must strive to assure absolute control over everything.

Surveillance technologies are increasingly wired into our everyday activities. Their ability to protect society from real threats makes them appear innocuous. However, in protecting society from real threats, these technologies have become a real threat to society by eroding privacy.

Our cell phones and computers function as force multipliers for the surveillance state by opening a portal into our private lives. Judging by the public’s prostrate silence, it appears that the surveillance grid is here to stay. Above that silence, we can still hear the echo of the motto from the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago: “Science explores. Technology executes. Man conforms.”

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