Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.

How Are You Being Watched?

Flickr Photo/g4ll4is

You are under surveillance when you go online. The information gatherers include the government, advertising companies and brokers who sell your data. Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist for the national ACLU, explains that the constantly updating world of technology has  also changed the government's ability to spy Internet communications and mobile telephones.  

If you watch a Hollywood movie and you see wiretapping usually the way it is portrayed is that there will be an FBI van parked outside someone’s house that will be unmarked with a couple of agents inside hunched over a pair of headphones. That’s not what wiretapping looks like today. These days when the government spies on you they simply call up the phone company and they demand data.

According to Soghoian, the three biggest cell phone companies – AT&T, Verizon and Sprint – collectively receive 1.3 million such requests annually. Unless these come with a gag order, companies are free to let their customers know that the government is seeking information, but they are under no obligation to do so. Soghoian said that Google and Twitter are two more progressive companies in that they do have policies in place to inform their users, but the phone companies do not.

Companies are getting so many requests that they are almost crushed by requests. Sprint for example has more than 200 employees doing nothing but responding to surveillance requests. Every big Internet and phone company has a team like this.

The government’s legal standards can vary greatly depending on what kind of information is being sought according to Soghoian. For intercept communication, that is, the ability to listen to a person’s phone call as it happens, the government needs a wire-tap order. However, to receive copies of emails that you’ve sent, a lesser order is needed. Records of communication – not what you say, but rather who you said it to – can be obtained with just a subpoena.

Of those 1.3 million requests, Soghoian said that 500,000 were subpoenas directed to Sprint alone that had never been put before a judge or independent review.

Traditionally the courts have viewed the home as a protected space. Your home is your castle, the government needs a warrant before coming inside your home. However, technology has allowed them to peer inside the home without entering it themselves.

Geocoding technology in phones can allow the government to determine your location without the classic image of a stakeout with stale donuts and bad coffee. Although smart phones have privacy settings that will allow a  user to keep their location private, Soghoian explained that even this feature doesn’t actually disable the phone company’s ability to locate the phone unless the phone is turned completely off. These privacy settings only relate to the apps used on the phone.

One of the problems here is that most people never learn when the government obtains their information so it’s very difficult as a society to have a reasonable debate about surveillance. These are truly invasive powers when the government can listen to what you are saying, track your movements in real time, look at your emails; it’s important if we are going to evaluate the use of these powers that we know how they are being used.

Soghoian explained that in the current system, those who are being prosecuted for crimes have the right to know what the government has seen and heard. However, a person who is not prosecuted may never learn that they were the target of an investigation or that the government was looking through their private data.

When well-intentioned technology companies build features into their products, the government can come later and ask them to reuse them in interesting or troubling ways.

Hacking is an international issue as well as a domestic one. Governments, including the United States, have launched cyber attacks against each other.

Security is a tough industry because you have to always be on the lookout. There are always new attacks, you’ll always have software updates, you always have to install the updates so you can never really sit still. Certainly there are threats that exist. We do need to remain vigilant and the government should be directing resources towards making our Internet secure, but I think that can be done in a way that protects civil liberties.

Soghoian cited a few instances of concerns with the Obama Administrations handling of technological privacy concerns, such as an oversight board created towards the end of the Bush administration that went unfilled until recently and many cases that have been tossed out on state secrets grounds – meaning the case cannot be tried due to a possible risk to national security.

Legislation is on the table now that would replace outdated cell phone policies and tackle other security concerns, and Soghoian has hope they will pass based on the aisle-crossing nature of these issues.