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Over Easy: …one more thing

Three Surveillance cameras


It’s even worse than we thought. We are being monitored, spied upon, tracked, whatever you want to call the egregious invasion of our personal privacy, even more pervasively and subtly than most of us knew. My astonishment was greater than it should have been when I came upon information about still more — and more hidden and intrusive — spying than I had imagined.

We’ve all had a crash course in the past four months in how Washington has created a global surveillance state shrouded in extreme secrecy, on a scale almost beyond our imaginations. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras continue to reveal information from Edward Snowden’s documents. And yet for all that we know, and all that has been released but we have yet to fully comprehend, it’s clear that we’ve nowhere near a complete picture of the totality of the U.S. surveillance enterprise.

There are little known software products hidden inside our cellphones and lurking behind our web browsers that can follow us around anywhere. Companies can routinely install various kinds of software in all of our communications devices, and sell them to the government to use to spy on us. Pratap Chatterjee reveals on Mother Jones (via TomDispatch) how The Data Hackers mine our information for Big Brother.

Many of us have played Farmville or Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, or used Google’s free search, Gmail, Google Docs, etc. We’ve talked on previous Over Easy threads about how these products suck up our data for various purposes.

We willingly hand over all of this information to the big data companies and in return they facilitate our communications and provide us with diversions. Take Google, which offers free email, data storage, and phone calls to many of us, or Verizon, which charges for smartphones and home phones. We can withdraw from them anytime, just as we believe that we can delete our day-to-day social activities from Facebook or Twitter. (msmolly’s note: we can’t.)

Some of us have installed software that helps prevent this data mining, hoping to retain some shred of privacy. But there are high-tech outfits that help themselves to our information without our knowledge, to allow government agencies to dig into our past and present. They get government contracts to (in effect) break into our homes in broad daylight and steal all our information — on our (the taxpayer’s) dime.

One example that raised the hairs on the back of my neck is an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catcher. An IMSI catcher is a portable device that poses as a mini cellphone tower and can capture all of the phone signals in a specific place. Each mobile phone has a unique IMSI. Once deployed, an IMSI catcher tricks phones into sending it data wirelessly. Some IMSI catchers fit into a briefcase or are no larger than a mobile phone.

By setting up several IMSI catchers in an area and measuring the speed of the responses or “pings” from a phone, an analyst can follow the movement of anyone with a mobile phone even when they are not in use. (My emphasis.)

Furthermore, much of our communications (voice and data) now travels across optical fiber, especially internationally. A company called Glimmerglass provides network management for optical fiber installations, and a product they call CyberSweep™ which

is an agile platform for identifying persona from communications networks and performing behavioral and predictive analytics to identify internal and external threats as well as identifying the source from communication networks.

According to the Glimmerglass website,

Our fast and agile solutions derive results and discover the source in near real time to counter cyber terrorism, cyber crime, and ensure public safety. Glimmerglass serves a global customer base in Cyber Security, Defense, and Telecommunications.

So all of our communications are “swept up” in secrecy, fed to the government (or who knows whom else?) all without our knowledge. This goes way beyond the “metadata” they claim is “all” they can see — they see everything that crosses the optical fiber or the airwaves between cell towers.

I feel safer now. Don’t you? (It is clear to me that we need a sarcasm font!!)

And on a slightly different but related topic, a new report out today from the Committee to Protect Journalists terms the Obama administration worse than the Nixon administration on its unparallelled secrecy and unprecedented attacks on journalists. Read the entire report here. And read Glenn Greenwald’s commentary about it here.

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."