Hush! Everybody’s Listening!

Americans have been spied on by their own government for far longer than most realized, it turns out, and the United States National Security Agency’s surveillance activities are just the tip of the iceberg.

The FBI, which repeatedly has expressed dismay at Google and Apple securing their mobile OSes — on the grounds that it will hamper the fight against terrorism — reportedly has become a major player in administering the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program.

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. increasingly are using high-tech devices to vacuum up cellphone data over a wide geographic area.

Several police departments are using the Stingray, a device developed for military use.

The U.S. Marshals service runs five Cessnas equipped with DRT boxes, popularly known as “dirtboxes” out of at least five metro-area airports, according to reports.

The DRTs suck up the IMSI numbers — essentially cellphone IDs — and geolocation data from all the cellphones in a wide area; they reportedly are able to cover most of the population of the U.S.

“There are serious questions about whether this is constitutional,” Chris Calabrese, the CDT’s senior policy director, told TechNewsWorld when the issue came to light last fall.

There also have been reports that the CIA has been trying to crack iOS security for years; and, of course, that the U.S. government has mandated the inclusion of backdoors in high-tech hardware and software, and undermined security algorithms.

The Drug-Fightin’ Granddaddy of Spies

The NSA’s surveillance activities — which are front and center in the public eye both in the U.S. and abroad — pale in comparison to the recent disclosure that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency collected billions of records of Americans’ international phone calls over more than 20 years without a warrant or supervision, searching them more often in a day than the NSA searches its records in a year.

Those calls were to 116 countries designated as being linked to drug trafficking and international crime, and were tracked regardless of whether there was probable cause. Canada, Mexico and much of Central and South America had been so designated.

The DEA effort was the model for the NSA’s phone metadata surveillance system, and had been approved by then-Attorney General Janet Reno and her then-deputy Eric Holder, who served as Attorney General from 2009-2015.

Connecting the Dots

The EFF recently filed suit on behalf of Human Rights Watch over the DEA’s surveillance.

The DEA has argued that its efforts helped nab several drag cartel members, but “just because, on the off chance, evidence might one day be useful in an investigation doesn’t give the government license to gather the information in the first place,” EFF staff attorney Mark Rumold told TechNewsWorld.

The U.S. government “has repeatedly tried to justify its spying activities on national security grounds, but it turns out it was doing much the same thing for years in aid of ordinary criminal investigations,” remarked Patrick Toomey, a staff attorney with the ACLU.

The U.S. Marshals’ collection of phone data also was conducted without warrants or probable cause, violating the 4th Amendment, noted FreedomWorks spokesperson Jackie Bodnar.

The same argument can be applied to law enforcement agencies using Stingrays.

It’s All About Trust

The DEA said it has stopped its bulk data collection program, but that declaration has been met with some skepticism.

The U.S. Marshals’ data collection evokes similar distrust.

“The NSA stores all the data they collect,” Bodnar told TechNewsWorld, “and there’s no reason to expect the DoJ (U.S. Department of Justice) to suddenly be responsible and discard our data.”

Putting a Good Face on Spying

There’s a positive side to some of the surveillance efforts.

The U.S. Marshals’ collection of phone data consists of “communications that do not have any content, and it’s not like the far-reaching intrusive communications capture that the NSA is conducting,” Darren Hayes, a professor at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of CSIS, told TechNewsWorld.

Even if the government did store captured phone and text messages, it’s not likely it did anything with the data “unless you were doing something that impacted national security, or you were being monitored for illegal activity,” Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, told TechNewsWorld.

“Are you willing to give up this information in the name of national security?” he asked. “If not, and Americans die as a result, will you take responsibility?”

Fighting the Good Fight

The battle against government surveillance continues.

High-tech companies — which took a drubbing when their participation in the NSA’s PRISM program was disclosed — last week urged reform in an open letter to the U.S. Senate. They included Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

The Fight215.org coalition of 39 organizations and companies is pushing to end the bulk collection of phone metadata under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act when that legislation comes up for renewal next week.

The coalition’s members include the ACLU, the American Library Association, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the CDT.

Whether these efforts might succeed is open to question. Republicans in the U.S. Senate last year blocked the USA Freedom Act, first proposed in 2013, which sought to control surveillance, although it had been watered down.

Arguments that collecting phone call metadata might come in handy if one of the subjects of surveillance ends up getting involved in criminal activity are iffy.

“In the United States, such evidence would presumably be suppressed, due to it being unlawfully acquired,” Yasha Heidari of the Heidari Power Law Group told TechNewsWorld in an earlier interview.

“The DEA could significantly deter drug trafficking if every U.S. citizen was forced to wear an ankle monitor at all times,” he said. “This doesn’t mean it should be done.”

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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