Big Brother is in your back pocket, butt-dialing the FBI

TAGs: fisa, foreign intelligence services act, geolocation, national security agency, smartphones

us-electronic-surveillanceWhile much of the online gambling world is focused on the fate of US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s online poker bill in the lame duck session, most members of Congress have far weightier items on their agendas. For starters, there’s the ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations, the National Defense Authorization Act, a Hurricane Sandy relief measure and (probably) a lengthy debate on why the Senate cafeteria ever stopped serving those delightful little cornbread muffins.

Oh, and there’s also a likely vote on extending the Foreign Intelligence Services Act (FISA) Amendments Act, which is set to expire at the end of this year. The Act, which (among other things) allows the US to snoop on American citizens’ international electronic communications without traditional court oversight, has been a lightning rod for criticism since it passed in 2008. The Bush administration had begun warrantless wiretapping well before this date, and the Act basically gave them a retroactive ‘atta boy’ as well as granting immunity both past and future to US telecommunications firms that acceded to government requests for data.

On Oct. 29, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding a constitutional challenge of the Act filed on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and other concerned groups. Like the legal tiff over sports betting between the sports leagues and New Jersey, the Supremes are tasked with determining whether the civil liberty lovers have the necessary standing to challenge the Act. Naturally, hardline conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito want these damn hippies strung up by their ponytails while liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor want to join the tree-huggers in a meditation circle.

As usual, the decision may come down to perennial swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy is often hard to read, but he may have tipped his hand while scoffing at assertions by Solicitor General Donald Verrill that concerns over warrantless wiretapping of Americans amounted to “a cascade of speculation.” Kennedy wondered if Verrill sincerely believed “that the government has obtained this extraordinarily wide-reaching power and we have extraordinary risks that face this country and the government’s not going to use it. It’s hard for me to think that the government isn’t using all of the powers at its command under the law in order to protect this country. And you want to say: ‘Oh, well, don’t worry. That’s not happening.’”

To be sure, there are likely rare instances in which such security precautions are necessary, even advisable. But history tells us that once such powers are granted, they tend to be applied more broadly than anticipated, like the extradition treaty the US signed with the UK in 2003, which was supposed to be all about combatting terrorism but ended up being used almost exclusively against digital copyright violators. Much of the ire directed at the Act is due to its stated targeting of citizens “reasonably believed to be located outside the United States,” which the ACLU et al believe gives spy agencies too much wiggle room in applying their digital driftnet.

Even if the Supremes rule in favor of the civil libertarians, the case itself may never come to trial, as the government will likely play its ‘national security’ trump card and claim that being forced to reveal its illegal activities would make it look, you know, criminal. Besides, as Justice Kennedy noted, it’s not like the National Security Agency is going to just switch off its mammoth monitoring apparatus. Do you know how many jobs that would cost? We’re in a recession, people. Think of it as part of the stimulus program. And stop protesting a looming surveillance society because it’s already here.

big-brother-smartphoneWHERE DOES IT END?
In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, wherever protagonist Winston Smith went, giant two-way telescreens monitored his every move. In the year 2012, technology has reduced Big Brother to the point where he fits in our back pockets, and for some reason we’ve agreed to carry him around so the friendly folks at INGSOC can keep tabs on our activities. Worse, the authorities aren’t even the only ones paying attention. Last month, we told you about the liberties free mobile apps were taking with your phones, up to and including discreetly initiating voice calls, turning your phone into a listening device and exposing your unfortunate penchant for noisily passing gas in elevators.

The problem with a society in which surveillance is condoned at the highest levels is that it sets the tone for officials lower down the chain of command. Schools in San Antonio, Texas recently became the latest institutions to require students to carry cards equipped with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips so the faculty can track their movements on school property. ‘Hmm… Johnny’s been in that bathroom stall for 10 minutes… Better go see if he’s getting high or just taking longer than usual to rub one out.’

Some kids’ parents have objected to their kids wearing the chips, not because of privacy issues, but because they believe the chips to be the ‘mark of the beast’ mentioned in the Book of Revelations and an endless series of crappy Omen movies. Faced with a (Christian) religious complaint, the schools caved far quicker than they would have over mere privacy concerns. Interestingly, the schools’ solution was to let the über-evangelical kids carry cards from which the chips had been removed, which the schools insisted would be perfectly adequate to perform all the other purposes of the cards, such as being allowed to vote for Homecoming King and Queen. But if the chips aren’t necessary, then why bother with them in the first place?

Civil liberty groups claim the kids are being conditioned to live in a surveillance society, making them less inclined to protest further encroachments on their freedoms once they become voting adults. Who knows… The situation might one day deteriorate to the point where US citizens aren’t allowed to play online poker with the site of their choosing! A preposterous prediction, perhaps, but as the below info-graphic from demonstrates, people are far too cavalier about these things. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary convenience and/or discount offers on movie tickets, deserve neither.



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