Monday, December 15, 2008

Big Brother is listening! And watching...

Is the government listening to you? How would you know? As it turns out, you wouldn't.

The U.S. Commerce Department's security office warns that "a cellular telephone can be turned into a microphone and transmitter for the purpose of listening to conversations in the vicinity of the phone." An article in the Financial Times last year said mobile providers can "remotely install a piece of software on to any handset, without the owner's knowledge, which will activate the microphone even when its owner is not making a call."

Nextel and Samsung handsets and the Motorola Razr are especially vulnerable to software downloads that activate their microphones, said James Atkinson, a counter-surveillance consultant who has worked closely with government agencies. "They can be remotely accessed and made to transmit room audio all the time," he said. "You can do that without having physical access to the phone."

Because modern handsets are miniature computers, downloaded software could modify the usual interface that always displays when a call is in progress. The spyware could then place a call to the FBI and activate the microphone--all without the owner knowing it happened. (The FBI declined to comment on Friday.)

"If a phone has in fact been modified to act as a bug, the only way to counteract that is to either have a bugsweeper follow you around 24-7, which is not practical, or to peel the battery off the phone," Atkinson said. Security-conscious corporate executives routinely remove the batteries from their cell phones, he added.

I am uncomfortable with this technology, mostly because of the incremental way in which these changes come. At first, we are assured that it's only to be used against criminals and terrorists, but then we find out that it's used against everyone: soldiers, journalists, aid workers, even foreign leaders. Those on the right will argue, "If you're not doing anything wrong, then you shouldn't have anything to hide." Everyone else realizes that it's a clear example of the government overstepping the boundaries that once prevented us from calling our government "tyrannical". Sadly, since the advent of the Patriot Act, those boundaries are mostly gone.

It's not only cell-phones by the way. This surveillance is possible everywhere, making George Orwell's 1984 frighteningly prescient. Does your vehicle come with On-star? If so, it also comes with FBI. Does your computer have a webcam? How about the internet- ever use that? Walk down any street and keep a count of how many surveillance cameras you see. Do you have a passport? Have you ever made statements critical of governmental policy? Then you may find yourself in a situation like these Americans- entered into a database of terrorism suspects. And for nothing more than being outspoken against the death penalty, being anti-war, and/or being pro-environment. Regardless of how you feel about those issues, think about how it would apply in your case. Because unless you consistently agree with the government, then you are a potential target. These are not violent criminals being surveilled, they are ordinary citizens that disagree with the government and are expressing their dissent under the protections of the First Amendment.

I've mentioned elsewhere the legal prohibitions against the military performing law enforcement duties at home, largely ignored. And in the wake of the political conventions this year, we find out that spy satellites, military, as well as the major telecom companies were involved in "pre-emptive policing". In other words, arresting people before they've committed a crime.

Incidentally, notice in the article where they point out that, "Security-conscious corporate executives routinely remove the batteries from their cell phones." This implies one of three things:
  • Corporate executives are concerned about being surveilled by the government due to criminal wrongdoing.
  • Executives are worried about being surveilled by the government, even though there has been no criminal wrongdoing.
  • The power to do this type of surveillance is already used by people other than the government, despite assurances from the telecoms.
None of these options are very palatable, but it's food for thought anyway.

UPDATE: A federal appeals court has made the right decision, and overturned part of the Patriot Act.
Because of the ruling, the government will now be forced to justify individual gag orders before a court, instead of casually wielding the power of a blanket gag as the Bush administration has done since the blindingly fast passage of the Patriot Act in Oct. 2001.

In Sept. 2007, a federal judge ruled unconstitutional provisions within the Patriot Act which allowed the government to obtain search warrants without probable cause.

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