Government and the Internet: A threat to present society

Harbir Singh Batth
Mar 5 · 6 min read

In January 2019, I visited India to attend my cousin’s wedding. On my flight back to Seattle, I had a three-hour layover in Dubai. The check-in and the security in Dubai went by smoothly; however, right before boarding, security officials stopped me and performed another security check. They highlighted something on my boarding ticket and eventually let me go. I then glanced back at my ticket and saw that the highlighted part said “SSSS,” which stands for ‘Secondary Security Screening Selection’ — this is a list made by the CIA that targets people who could be potential threats to the United States. Although the CIA claims that secondary screening happens on the basis of random selection, files leaked by hackers Edward Snowden (former employee/hacker for the NSA,) and Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks, a non-profit known for leaking secret information) revealed that people were added to the SSSS list based of their race and country of origin.

A boarding pass with SSSS highlighted on it. (Wikipedia)

This form of surveillance by the government, which are controlled by a handful of powerful men, really questions my identity and human rights.

Every day, many crimes (and terrorist attacks) are prevented by cameras installed in different places such as supermarkets, banks, airports, seaports, and streets. Surveillance started as a form of protection and not as a major violation of privacy. Today, governmental surveillance works on all platforms, including “tapping” into cameras of mobile-phones and laptops. However, this increased security comes with a downside:

An increase in the use of technology and its exploitation by the government has led to a form of ‘dystopian police,’ also known as an ‘Orwellian police state.’

If you’re not familiar with George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ this is a novel about a political regime that keeps its citizens under strict check through various surveillance models and strict protocols, for handling such data. The biggest threat is the lack of transparency in the government and lack of awareness in the people. Already, reality shows that there is a number of early warning signs to an end in freedom and our rights to privacy.

Edward Snowden, an NSA analyst, discovered that he was able to access all the cameras, microphones, and devices in over 15 countries, including the USA and the UK. His colleagues, who are also analysts aged 18 to 22, had serious ethical doubts concerning the power that they had been endowed with. Snowden recollected several incidents of analysts discovering people in sexually compromising positions while going about their daily work, resulting in serious violations of personal privacy. However, the analysts and hacker’s “breaking point” was the moment when James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, lied under oath on March 12, 2013 by telling a congressional committee that the NSA does not collect any type of data of US citizens. Moreover, the director attempted to get his Swiss diplomat counterpart arrested for driving under influence to defame him.

Public awareness regarding privacy changed drastically in mid-2013 when Snowden leaked highly classified information about American intelligence to journalists, who then revealed this to the general public. The files, belonging to multiple agencies such as the CIA, the NSA, and the Justice department, contained plans on building multiple global surveillance systems in cooperation with the governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (also known as Five Eyes) and telecommunication companies like AT&T and Verizon. When leaking the news, Snowden made sure that this information is available to the people, making him a freedom fighter for human rights. He consequently received mixed reactions from governments worldwide with German Chancellor Angela Merkel who said that that “spying amongst friends is not acceptable.” On the other hand, the US government said that the leak devastatingly affected the War on Terror, since terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS became aware of the strategies planned against them.

Five Eyes(Wikimedia Foundation)

The NSA gave analysts a tremendous amount of power against internet users who became their targets. The leaked files contained the different types of surveillance used in order to track people and their activities. MAINWAY and MARINA are databases that keep track of phone records and internet browsing history respectively from telecommunication companies; PRISM, bundled with XKeyscore, is an intelligence system that collected data from websites like Amazon, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook. The leak also revealed many other immoral practices committed by employees such as LOVEINT who used the intelligence to spy on love interests, and SEXINT, who blackmailed a user based on their pornographic references and browsing history. The CIA went as far as spying on users from popular gaming platforms such as the Xbox Live, World of Warcraft, and Second Life (in an attempt to recruit informants) and also surveilling charities such as UNICEF.

The leak, which showed the surveillance of millions of innocent people, reveals the extent to which the government would go in order to extract information. Snowden’s courageous efforts lead to an increase of fearful people taking precautions in their internet usage, an action popularly known as the ‘Snowden Effect.’ Basic defense actions include taping laptop webcams in order to not “be seen,” while more extreme cases include people encrypting networks to protect their privacy.

Five years after Snowden’s infamous reveal, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica (CA) Scandal was uncovered. On March 17, 2018, Harry Devies, a journalist for The Guardian, reported that Cambridge Analytica (CA), a political consulting firm, was illegally acquiring data of over 80 million Facebook users without their knowledge or permission. The scandal led to a public outcry which dropped Facebook shares to all-time low, losing of billions of dollars in value. At first, CA created a survey on the pretext of academic use but ended up acquiring data of not only from people who completed the survey but also those who agreed to the terms of it. With the acquired data, the company carried out opposition research and used methods such as bribery, sting operations, and even prostitutes in order to extract sensitive information from opposing politicians in an effort to discredit and defame opponents. The firm was also accused of publishing fake news and targeted advertisements in order to influence major decisions and referendums such as the 2015 Ted Cruz campaign, the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign, the 2018 Brexit vote, and the 2018 Mexican General Election.

Facebook CEO appears for a senate hearing due to the scandal, April 2018 (The Verge)

Facebook had also been a subject of controversies, especially the 2016 Russian interference in the general elections when the social giant was accused of selling advertisements to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a company which is connected with Russian intelligence. The IRA used the Events feature on Facebook in order to organize anti-immigrant rallies all across America, some with over two hundred-thousand members. The company’s advertisement algorithm allows ad-purchasers to direct the ads at a specific group of people. In one instance, a rally was organized and was directed at people who expressed interest in anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, and anti-immigrant ideologies. Consequently, the company filed for insolvency in May 2018 and shut down its operations; however another company named Data Propria was formed later in 2018 and is reportedly working on Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.

Along with social media, surveillance has turned out to be the supreme power of the modern, present-day society. People like Snowden, Assange, and Davies revealed the horrors of extreme control and surveillance by the governments. The efforts made by them should be lauded by the general public as it furthered the consequence of privacy of individuals. Companies like Facebook and agencies like the CIA have been working, often together, with virtually unlimited power and threatening the very idea of freedom, democracy, and the power of the people — all of which can be changed only with strict regulations and the general public having a vote in how their data is safely handled, without violating basic principles of human rights.

Var City UW

Empowering the University of Washington’s Computer Science, Informatics and Human-Centered Design community

Harbir Singh Batth

Written by

Var City UW

Empowering the University of Washington’s Computer Science, Informatics and Human-Centered Design community

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