Why does it always feel like someone’s always watching you?


Since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden released details of government surveillance, the policies of United States and its allies have come under scrutiny. But they are not alone when it comes to watching what their citizens do online.

“Between May 2013 and May 2014, 41 countries passed or proposed legislation to penalize legitimate forms of speech online, increase government powers to control content, or expand government surveillance capabilities,” Freedom House warns in 2014 Freedom on the Net Report.

Of the 65 countries assessed in the fifth such annual survey, 36 showed a negative trajectory in online liberty. You can see if and how your country was rated here. Some glaring examples from 2014 report illuminate how far governments will go to watch citizens and deny an oversight of surveillance.

Turkey passed a law that “insulated” the National Intelligence Organization’s activities from inquires by the press and courts. Uzbekistan and Nigeria now require cybercafes to keep logs of their customers. France included a provision in its military budget that expanded “authorities’ legal powers to access or record telephone conversations, e-mail, internet activity, personal location data, and other electronic communications.”

The trend that worries our Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen most is the urge to “collect it all” then keep it forever.

This urge is fed by fears of terrorism and how cheap it is to store data. It seems harmless now to those who make the “I have nothing to hide argument.” But your digital footprint could be used against you decades from now in ways we can’t even imagine now by governments we cannot conceive.

“Show me your Google search history and I’ll frame you guilty of pretty much any crime,” Mikko told TED Radio.

And the “collect it all” mentality of intelligence community United States and its allies does not seemed to have lessened a bit. The PATRIOT Act, which helped birth online surveillance is likely to be renewed — though legislation to majorly limit surveillance has appeared in the House of Representative.

President Obama had promised to reform intelligence collecting but a federal judge recently threw out a major case brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation stating the program was so secret that “any possible defenses would require impermissible disclosure of state secret information.”

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court that should provide oversight for mass surveillance has not been fundamentally altered at all since the Snowden leaks showed a ruling that suggested Verizon was sharing nearly all of its customer data with the government. All of the Judges are appointed by one man. There’s no privacy advocate arguing on behalf of the U.S. Constitution’s fourth amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure. And the public is still oblivious to all of their rulings that have not been leaked.

While governments have a monopoly on the laws permit surveillance and much of the best technology, they aren’t the only ones watching us. Specialized high-value targets like politicians, executives or even poker players, may face unique threats from online criminals. But we all are being tracked by corporations — who often work in collaboration with governments.

“Data that the U.S. government cannot legally collect, it purchases from corporations,” security expert Bruce Schneier told Mic News. “On the other side, corporations regularly buy personal data from governments, and corporations that get big government surveillance contracts fund lobbying groups that support more surveillance. The problem is surveillance by the powerful over the powerless, and that’s both government and corporate surveillance.”

So what can we do? Despite a “global decline” in Internet freedom, there may be new hope.

“Awareness of the threats to fundamental rights expanded beyond civil society, as ordinary users around the world became more engaged in securing their privacy and freedom of expression online,” Freedom House states in its Key Findings. “In se­lect cases, long-running internet freedom campaigns finally garnered the necessary momentum to succeed.”

The EFF is engaged in a multi-year plan to end mass surveillance. In addition to political pressure on all branches of the U.S. government, it also includes please for technology companies to harden their systems, more public awareness of government activities through whistleblowers and a global movement toward user-side encryption.

“The main change has been Edward Snowden,” Mikko told CNBC. “People realize this matters and there are reasons to encrypt your traffic.”


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