It's been 12 years since the horrifying tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001, and Americans are just now learning the extent to which our government has tightened its grip on our privacy and communications.
With the recent disclosure of wide-sweeping domestic surveillance programs, such as Prism and XKeyscore, and the most recent revelations about the NSA's practice of analyzing the telephone and Internet communications of millions of Americans, it's become increasingly clear that innocent citizens are becoming ensnared in the search for international terrorists. To some, this is a necessary evil; to others, it's a gross invasion of civil liberties.
No matter what a person's standpoint is on these matters, it's no longer possible to deny that U.S. intelligence agencies are monitoring the populace in huge numbers -- and it's becoming increasingly difficult to get out from beneath their lens.
We're All Bugging Ourselves
Today, most people in the United States carry a mobile phone that accompanies them wherever they go. We use them for everything: to make phone calls, send emails, take photos, get directions, store information, surf the Web, and play games. This essentially makes them perfect tracking and bugging devices. We now know that the NSA and other government agencies are obtaining data pertaining to Americans' communications and activities from wireless providers, and they're doing so under the legal umbrella of the Patriot and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Acts.
Not only do intelligence agencies gather information via mobile companies, but there are reports that your phone can be hacked using spyware. Even if your phone is turned off, it can be remotely accessed to record conversations and take photographs -- and the information is available to any government agency trolling for information. With the increasing public interest in wearable technology, such as smartwatches, vital statistics will be the next thing available for collection.
Essentially, there are five primary sources that intelligence agencies use to gather information on American citizens:
• GPS: Whether you're using a GPS-enabled smartphone or have it built into your car, GPS is a governmentally funded project that can provide real-time tracking of your movements.
• Public cameras: As the years go by, more and more cameras are popping up in cities, in neighborhoods, and along highways. This is another measure that we're told has been implemented for our safety, but we don't know if they're actually effective to that end.
• Phones: As we've already noted, your phone is essentially a comprehensive personal information-gathering device. Through interviews with governmental sources conducted by CNET security reporter Declan McCullagh, we've learned that the FBI is putting pressure on companies like AT&T and Verizon to equip their customers' phones with "port reader" software that would provide intelligence agencies with the ability to intercept communication in real time. While the companies are reportedly resistant, the FBI is claiming the legality of the project under the Patriot Act.
• The Internet: Today, people share pretty much everything about their personal lives online. From emails to social media, there's a lot of information available on the Internet about an individual's day-to-day life. And what better organization to understand the intricacies of the Internet than the original developer of the wired network than the government, as it was originally launched as a military communication network called ARPANET.
• Mail: Most people wouldn't consider it in the Digital Age, but old-fashioned snail mail provides intelligence agencies with a "treasure trove of information," according to a former member of the FBI's Mail Isolation Control and Tracking system.
Getting Off the Grid
When it comes down to it, completely escaping potential surveillance and reclaiming total privacy is practically impossible. You would have to completely stop using any form of electronic device, and in effect, withdraw from society.
There are, nevertheless, a variety of encryption and cryptology services that can increase a person's privacy. For example, AT&T offers encrypted mobile voice for a monthly fee of $24.99. Other companies provide encrypted email services, which are popular among activists, journalists, and diplomats. However, such companies are under threat as of late, with services such as Silent Circle and Lavabit (which has become famous for attempting to protect the privacy of its most notorious customer, whistleblower Edward Snowden) terminating their services, rather than succumbing to government pressure to provide data on their users.
Realistically, achieving total communication encryption or wiping oneself off the grid is not something with which the majority of Americans should be worried. Unless a person is attempting to communicate highly sensitive material, the concern over an individual's right to privacy from his government is more of a moral issue. Let's face it -- most of us aren't up to anything the various intelligence agencies are interested in.
But while questions involving governmental communications monitoring may seem a bit academic, these issues potentially have significance when it comes to the future of our civil liberties. The real question we need to be asking is: If we've allowed our right to privacy to be encroached upon as far as we already have, how much further are we willing to let it go in exchange for security?
Kenneth Coats is the founder of eKnowID, a new consumer background-checking solution, and CEO of KENTECH Consulting, Inc., a global background check technology and private detective agency that caters to both private and public organizations across the United States.