PRIVACY IN THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE         

Myles Crouther

Old Dominion University

October 2015

Born in America, some believe we are raised without a sense of digital privacy. The greatest communication tools invented within our era are all constantly being surveilled. To make things worse, according to a study done by “Pew Research Center”, seventy percent of American’s are “at least somewhat concerned” with agencies, such as the National Security Agency (NSA), collecting mass quantities of Internet traffic. Our government is not alone in infringing on our trust; private industries have raised the bar. The same study shows, “Ninety-one percent of Americans believe that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies”. So, if we’re all concerned with privacy, most know not to trust the government or private corporations, why do we blatantly post our entire lives on social networks and blogs across the Internet? How can American’s take their privacy back?

Distrust in our privacy is no new concept. Mass cell surveillance dates back to a program the NSA launched with two major United States cell carriers, AT&T and Verizon, shortly after the declared “War on Terror”. This program, the creation of a database, which would contain an estimated 1.9 trillion call-detail record, allegedly began in 2001. When this news was brought to the attention of the average American by USA Today, the sitting president at the time, George W. Bush specifically stated, “First, our intelligence activities strictly target al-Qaeda and their known affiliates [...], the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities. We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans”. Bush was trolling Americans. If not “millions”, than “thousands” or “hundreds of thousands” of innocent American’s personal lives were being collected and data mined. The NSA admitted this data might be shared with other federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The United States government hasn’t only lost the trust of its people. After being exposed last year by Edward Snowden, foreign countries are cautious about handling business with American based corporations. Snowden leaked a classified NSA surveillance program called PRISM. This program noticed the USA was like the “World’s Telecommunications Backbone”. Thousands of gigabytes of foreign data frequently traffics through servers on United States soil because, information travels the cheapest path not the most direct. The NSA spied on this data.

Foreign nations hated the news Snowden released. Many businesses feared these nations would retaliate. Corporations thought if they were currently hosting foreign citizen’s data locally within the United States a shutout could be mandated. This mandate dictates data localization, requiring servers for each country's data within the country’s borders. Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch mentions this policy, if implemented, has enormous consequences, such as slower and less efficient servers, while increasing operating cost.

While most Silicon Valley technology companies may side with privacy reform, Facebook, Google, and more are no better. They generate money from advertising. They host most of their services for free. This is because its users are the products. It generates revenue by selling its data to other business. Most of the time, this data is used for targeted advertisements. For example, while using Facebook, if you liked a photo of Coke products, Coca-Cola could give Facebook money to place Coke ads in your Instagram or Facebook timeline. Facebook and Google track you while you surf the net, both on their sites and once you leave them. This is what you’ve agreed to in their terms of service.

Although many major corporations might collect our personal data for their own profits, in response to government surveillance, most have encrypted all local communications their servers handle. This basically insures all data traffic, externally or internally, handling end user data such as our account usernames and passwords are difficult to read. While not impossible to crack, encryption methods such as Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) have been the “go-to” choice for enciphering and deciphering 128 bits of data using a symmetric block cipher algorithm. This algorithm became a standard recognized by the United States Federal Information Processing Standards Publication in 2001.

Since the Edward Snowden debacle the AES encryption algorithm has been used by many developers around the world. Using its capabilities to secure anything from server communication protocols to full device and system encryption. Recently, an open source software project called Tails has been publicly supported by the computer security community. It’s ephemeral or “amnesic incognito live operating system” uses various measures to insure anonymity and privacy while using your device of choice. Tails uses the cyber security tool Tor to anonymize end user network data. The Tor Project has publicly announced that it has received direct funding from the United States Military (Lewman, 2014). The project is well supported by not only conspiracy theorist but the problem itself, or nation’s government. News outlets have suggested our nation leverages this tool in counter espionage (Lewman, 2014). These open source community advancements offer society an alternative method of utilizing modern computing devices anonymously. In essences, computer scientist have developed a way to give us some of our privacy back.

Many privacy critics claim surveillance secures citizen’s freedoms. A large talking point states public surveillance, via technology offers many advantages over conventional human methods.  Technology can bring clarity and reduces prejudice decision making. Machines offer an unbiased, theoretically possessing errorless opportunity to catch and report crimes committed by citizens and foreign nationals.

A simple example is street surveillance. Traffic cameras provide an accurate example of data collected via public mediums for moving violations committed by drivers. They report information such as, license plates, driver's facial recognition information, and descriptions of the moving vehicle. They are time based, avoiding imperfections of the human eye and perceptions of failure to respond appropriately. Computers are not subjective, giving government agencies such as law enforcement unbiased reports, not based on the drivers race, gender, or age.

Keyword traffic surveillance secures the safety of average Americans. Flags such as bomb instructions prevent future events. For example, to support counter terrorism, during the Boston bombing various algorithms leveraging this technology were utilized. They inform government agencies of possible threats while neglecting the casual internet traffic of common citizens. Filters and curation help reduce mistakes and minimize the wealth of data traffic billions of internet users daily generate.

While these technologies show their active benefits, the system remains flawed. If many are selling our secrets or collecting your personal data on the Internet, then whom do you trust? Companies like Snapchat, where we share snippets of our lives throughout the day. Is there security in an ephemeral social network or operating system? Can we truly be anonymous on the Internet? Should we trust our government to uphold our pseudo right to privacy? No, but the average American should already know that, what we need is reform.

Work Cited:

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Cauley, L. (2006, May 11). NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls. Retrieved

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Three Major Telecom Companies Help US Government Spy on Millions of Americans. (2006,        May 6). Retrieved September 13, 2015.

Chang, A. (2014, October 8). Tech leaders lash out at government's electronic spying. Retrieved

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Meyer, R. (2014, November 17). American Surveillance Now Threatens American Business.

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United States. Federal Information Processing Standards Publication 197. (2001). Announcing

the Advance Encryption Standard (AES). Retrieved from the Federal Information

Processing Standards Publication 197 Web site:

http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/fips/fips197/fips-197.pdf

A. Lewman (personal communication, July 22, 2014)