Surveillance: two rare glimpses into who’s watching you, and how

Online surveillance is now easier than ever (Image: VoxEfx via Flickr)

If it hasn’t become apparent to you yet, you are living in an age when your every online step is being monitored. The notion of communications privacy has been steamrolled in the interests of security, and the occasional tiny chance we get to peek back at the people who make it their business to watch us is truly frightening. Two new stories from America this week give a rare glimpse behind the curtain at just how closely you’re being watched, and by whom.

Online privacy: now virtually nonexistent

Do yourself a favor and check out Glenn Greenwald’s article at, titled “Project Vigilant and the government/corporate destruction of privacy.” In the article, he shows how the United States government neatly sidesteps any legal restraints that might prevent it from gathering information on its citizens – in this case, by accepting dossiers from a network of private cyber-vigilantes that operates in near-total secrecy and with no accountability to mechanisms like the Privacy Act or the Freedom of Information Act.

This group is comprised of as many as 500 operatives, some of whom have experience in data security and surveillance after leaving top-level positions at organizations like the U.S. Department of Justice, Homeland Security, the Pentagon, the NSA, the New York Stock Exchange… and they are exploiting loopholes in ISP contracts to mine data on every step you take online.

Project Vigilant is just one further tool the U.S. government uses when it can’t get what it wants – let’s not forget that as the ‘War on Terror’ escalated, the NSA showed through its warrantless wiretapping program that it believes that such privacy laws as there are stopping the government from spying on its own citizens are at best flexible, or at worst to be completely ignored. And it’s not like the Obama administration has made amends in this regard – if anything, they’ve pushed the Bush agenda even further.

So your online communications – including your browsing history, forum participation, social networks, emails and transactions can all be considered to be laid bare on the table, tracked back to your real-world identity and locations, by whoever decides it’s worth doing.

Intercept and record mobile phone calls for US$1500

And if you were under the misapprehension that your mobile communications were any safer, Chris Paget’s recent demonstration of cellphone tower spoofing showed just how easy and inexpensive it is for anyone with the appropriate knowledge to intercept and record your private phone calls as well.

Paget’s device simply pretends to be a cellphone tower that delivers a closer and stronger signal than a real tower. Mobile phones automatically connect to the tower with the best signal, so they switch over to the spoofed tower, which quietly records the conversation and sends the information on to the real network. The user is completely unaware.

Worse still, the equipment Paget built for his demonstration, in which dozens of audience members’ phones were ‘hijacked,’ cost him less than US$1500 – most of which was for the laptop he ran the system through. More about the demonstration at Paget’s blog.

So the ability to spy on your mobile conversations is now so cheap to attain that it’s no longer the sole preserve of cashed-up government and law enforcement agencies – just about anyone can do it. And it’s a glimpse at the kind of capability the NSA and other agencies have almost certainly had since day one.

Read more about the cell phone tower spoofing demonstration at Wired.

This information is U.S. centric – it would be interesting to know the extent of government surveillance in other countries. But so much of that information will never come to light – because as Greenwald points out, the agencies and private groups that spend so much time ensuring you have no secrets are the ones that operate under the tightest secrecy protections themselves. No transparency, no accountability.

It raises two important questions – how much are you comfortable with your government knowing about you – and to what extent should a publicly funded government be allowed to operate in secrecy?

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