Posts Tagged ‘Google’

“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me.’” ― Philip K. Dick

If ever Americans sell their birthright, it will be for the promise of expediency and comfort delivered by way of blazingly fast Internet, cell phone signals that never drop a call, thermostats that keep us at the perfect temperature without our having to raise a finger, and entertainment that can be simultaneously streamed to our TVs, tablets and cell phones.

Likewise, if ever we find ourselves in bondage, we will have only ourselves to blame for having forged the chains through our own lassitude, laziness and abject reliance on internet-connected gadgets and gizmos that render us wholly irrelevant.

Indeed, while most of us are consumed with our selfies and trying to keep up with what our so-called friends are posting on Facebook, the megacorporation Google has been busily partnering with the National Security Agency (NSA), the Pentagon, and other governmental agencies to develop a new “human” species, so to speak.

In other words, Google—a neural network that approximates a global brain—is fusing with the human mind in a phenomenon that is called “singularity,” and they’ve hired transhumanist scientist Ray Kurzweil to do just that. Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it, Kurzweil said. “It will have read every email you will ever have written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself.”

But here’s the catch: the NSA and all other government agencies will also know you better than yourself. As William Binney, one of the highest-level whistleblowers to ever emerge from the NSA said, “The ultimate goal of the NSA is total population control.”

Science fiction, thus, has become fact.

We’re fast approaching Philip K. Dick’s vision of the future as depicted in the film Minority Report. There, police agencies apprehend criminals before they can commit a crime, driverless cars populate the highways, and a person’s biometrics are constantly scanned and used to track their movements, target them for advertising, and keep them under perpetual surveillance.

Cue the dawning of the Age of the Internet of Things, in which internet-connected “things” will monitor your home, your health and your habits in order to keep your pantry stocked, your utilities regulated and your life under control and relatively worry-free.

The key word here, however, is control.

In the not-too-distant future, “just about every device you have — and even products like chairs, that you don’t normally expect to see technology in — will be connected and talking to each other.”

By 2018, it is estimated there will be 112 million wearable devices such as smartwatches, keeping users connected it real time to their phones, emails, text messages and the Internet. By 2020, there will be 152 million cars connected to the Internet and 100 million Internet-connected bulbs and lamps. By 2022, there will be 1.1 billion smart meters installed in homes, reporting real-time usage to utility companies and other interested parties.

This “connected” industry—estimated to add more than $14 trillion to the economy by 2020—is about to be the next big thing in terms of societal transformations, right up there with the Industrial Revolution, a watershed moment in technology and culture.

Between driverless cars that completely lacking a steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedal, and smart pills embedded with computer chips, sensors, cameras and robots, we are poised to outpace the imaginations of science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov. By the way, there is no such thing as a driverless car. Someone or something will be driving, but it won’t be you.

The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is a glittering showcase for such Internet-connected techno gadgets as smart light bulbs that discourage burglars by making your house look occupied, smart thermostats that regulate the temperature of your home based on your activities, and smart doorbells that let you see who is at your front door without leaving the comfort of your couch.

Nest, Google’s $3 billion acquisition, has been at the forefront of the “connected” industry, with such technologically savvy conveniences as a smart lock that tells your thermostat who is home, what temperatures they like, and when your home is unoccupied; a home phone service system that interacts with your connected devices to “learn when you come and go” and alert you if your kids don’t come home; and a sleep system that will monitor when you fall asleep, when you wake up, and keep the house noises and temperature in a sleep-conducive state.

The aim of these internet-connected devices, as Nest proclaims, is to make “your house a more thoughtful and conscious home.” For example, your car can signal ahead that you’re on your way home, while Hue lights can flash on and off to get your attention if Nest Protect senses something’s wrong. Your coffeemaker, relying on data from fitness and sleep sensors, will brew a stronger pot of coffee for you if you’ve had a restless night.

It’s not just our homes that are being reordered and reimagined in this connected age: it’s our workplaces, our health systems, our government and our very bodies that are being plugged into a matrix over which we have no real control.

Moreover, given the speed and trajectory at which these technologies are developing, it won’t be long before these devices are operating entirely independent of their human creators, which poses a whole new set of worries. As technology expert Nicholas Carr notes, “As soon as you allow robots, or software programs, to act freely in the world, they’re going to run up against ethically fraught situations and face hard choices that can’t be resolved through statistical models. That will be true of self-driving cars, self-flying drones, and battlefield robots, just as it’s already true, on a lesser scale, with automated vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers.”

For instance, just as the robotic vacuum, Roomba, “makes no distinction between a dust bunny and an insect,” weaponized drones—poised to take to the skies en masse this year—will be incapable of distinguishing between a fleeing criminal and someone merely jogging down a street. For that matter, how do you defend yourself against a robotic cop—such as the Atlas android being developed by the Pentagon—that has been programmed to respond to any perceived threat with violence?

Unfortunately, in our race to the future, we have failed to consider what such dependence on technology might mean for our humanity, not to mention our freedoms.

Ingestible or implantable chips are a good example of how unprepared we are, morally and otherwise, to navigate this uncharted terrain. Hailed as revolutionary for their ability to access, analyze and manipulate your body from the inside, these smart pills can remind you to take your medication, search for cancer, and even send an alert to your doctor warning of an impending heart attack.

Sure, the technology could save lives, but is that all we need to know? Have we done our due diligence in asking all the questions that need to be asked before unleashing such awesome technology on an unsuspecting populace?

For example, asks Washington Post reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha:

What kind of warnings should users receive about the risks of implanting chip technology inside a body, for instance? How will patients be assured that the technology won’t be used to compel them to take medications they don’t really want to take? Could law enforcement obtain data that would reveal which individuals abuse drugs or sell them on the black market? Could what started as a voluntary experiment be turned into a compulsory government identification program that could erode civil liberties?

Let me put it another way. If you were shocked by Edward Snowden’s revelations about how NSA agents have used surveillance to spy on Americans’ phone calls, emails and text messages, can you imagine what unscrupulous government agents could do with access to your internet-connected car, home and medications? Imagine what a SWAT team could do with the ability to access, monitor and control your internet-connected home—locking you in, turning off the lights, activating alarms, etc.

Thus far, the public response to concerns about government surveillance has amounted to a collective shrug. After all, who cares if the government can track your whereabouts on your GPS-enabled device so long as it helps you find the fastest route from Point A to Point B? Who cares if the NSA is listening in on your phone calls and downloading your emails so long as you can get your phone calls and emails on the go and get lightning fast Internet on the fly? Who cares if the government can monitor your activities in your home by tapping into your internet-connected devices—thermostat, water, lights—so long as you can control those things with the flick of a finger, whether you’re across the house or across the country?

As for those still reeling from a year of police shootings of unarmed citizens, SWAT team raids, and community uprisings, the menace of government surveillance can’t begin to compare to bullet-riddled bodies, devastated survivors and traumatized children. However, both approaches are just as lethal to our freedoms if left unchecked.

A Government of Wolves book coverControl is the key here. As I make clear in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, total control over every aspect of our lives, right down to our inner thoughts, is the objective of any totalitarian regime.

George Orwell understood this. His masterpiece, 1984, portrays a global society of total control in which people are not allowed to have thoughts that in any way disagree with the corporate state. There is no personal freedom, and advanced technology has become the driving force behind a surveillance-driven society. Snitches and cameras are everywhere. And people are subject to the Thought Police, who deal with anyone guilty of thought crimes. The government, or “Party,” is headed by Big Brother, who appears on posters everywhere with the words: “Big Brother is watching you.”

Make no mistake: the Internet of Things is just Big Brother in a more appealing disguise.

Even so, I’m not suggesting we all become Luddites. However, we need to be aware of how quickly a helpful device that makes our lives easier can become a harmful weapon that enslaves us.

This was the underlying lesson of The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers’ futuristic thriller about human beings enslaved by autonomous technological beings that call the shots. As Morpheus, one of the characters in The Matrix, explains:

The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

“What truth?” asks Neo.

Morpheus leans in closer to Neo: “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”

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google-surveillance

“The Google services and apps that we interact with on a daily basis aren’t the company’s main product: They are the harvesting machines that dig up and process the stuff that Google really sells: for-profit intelligence.”—Journalist Yasha Levine

“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”—former Google CEO Eric Schmidt

What would happen if the most powerful technology company in the world and the largest clandestine spying agency in the world joined forces?

No need to wonder. Just look around you. It’s happened already. Thanks to an insidious partnership between Google and the National Security Agency (NSA) that grows more invasive and more subtle with every passing day, “we the people” have become little more than data consumer commodities to be bought, sold and paid for over and over again.

With every smartphone we buy, every GPS device we install, every Twitter, Facebook, and Google account we open, every frequent buyer card we use for purchases—whether at the grocer’s, the yogurt shop, the airlines or the department store, and every credit and debit card we use to pay for our transactions, we’re helping Corporate America build a dossier for its government counterparts on who we know, what we think, how we spend our money, and how we spend our time.

What’s worse, this for-profit surveillance scheme, far larger than anything the NSA could capture just by tapping into our phone calls, is made possible by our consumer dollars and our cooperation. All those disclaimers you scroll though without reading them, the ones written in minute font, only to quickly click on the “Agree” button at the end so you can get to the next step—downloading software, opening up a social media account, adding a new app to your phone or computer: those signify your written consent to having your activities monitored, recorded and shared.

It’s not just the surveillance you consent to that’s being shared with the government, however. It’s the very technology you happily and unquestioningly use which is being hardwired to give the government easy access to your activities.

In this way, Congress can pass all the legislation it wants—it will have no real effect on the NSA’s activities—because the NSA no longer needs to dirty its hands by spying on Americans’ phone, email and internet activities, and the government can absolve itself of any direct wrongdoing. They can go straight to the source, as evidenced by a Freedom of Information Act request detailing the close relationship between Google higher-ups Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin and NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander. With Google in its hip pocket, the NSA can just bypass any legislative restrictions dreamed up to appease the electorate and buy their way into a surveillance state.

The government’s motives aren’t too difficult to understand—money, power, control—but what do corporate giants like Google stand to gain from colluding with Big Brother? Money, power, control. As privacy and security expert Bruce Schneier observed, “The main focus of massive Internet companies and government agencies both still largely align: to keep us all under constant surveillance. When they bicker, it’s mostly role-playing designed to keep us blasé about what’s really going on.”

While one billion people use Google every day, none of them pay to utilize Google’s services. However, there’s a good reason that Google doesn’t charge for its services, and it has nothing to do with magnanimity, generosity, altruism, or munificence. If as the old adage warns, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, then what does Google get out of the relationship? Simple: Google gets us.

It turns out that we are Soylent Green. The 1973 film of the same name, starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson, is set in 2022 in an overpopulated, polluted, starving New York City whose inhabitants depend on synthetic foods manufactured by the Soylent Corporation for survival. Heston plays a policeman investigating a murder, who then discovers the grisly truth about what the wafer, soylent green—the principal source of nourishment for a starved population—is really made of. “It’s people. Soylent Green is made out of people,” declares Heston’s character. “They’re making our food out of people. Next thing they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food.”

Oh, how right he was. Soylent Green is indeed people, or in our case, Soylent Green is our own personal data, repossessed, repackaged and used by corporations and the government to entrap us. In this way, we’re being bred like cattle but not for food—rather, we’re being bred for our data. That’s the secret to Corporate America’s success.

Google, for example, has long enjoyed a relationship with clandestine agencies such as the CIA and NSA, which use Google’s search-technology for scanning and sharing various intelligence. The technology leviathan turns a profit by processing, trading, and marketing products based upon our personal information, including our relationships, daily activities, personal beliefs, and personalities. Thus, behind the pleasant glow of the computer screen lies a leviathan menace, an intricate system of data collection which transforms all Americans into a string of data, to be added, manipulated, or deleted based upon the whims of those in control.

Take, for example, Google’s Street View program, which gives a fully immersive street level view of towns across the world. The program was constructed by Google Street View cars outfitted with 360 degree cameras, which seemed a neat idea to many people, most of whom didn’t realize that the cars were not only taking pictures of all residential and commercial districts which they drove through, but were also “siphoning loads of personally identifiable data from people’s Wi-Fi connections all across the world,” including emails, medical records, and any other electronic documents that were not encrypted.

Even the most seemingly benign Google program, Gmail, has been one of the most astoundingly successful surveillance programs ever concocted by a state or corporate entity. Journalist Yasha Levine explains:

“All communication was subject to deep linguistic analysis; conversations were parsed for keywords, meaning, and even tone; individuals were matched to real identities using contact information stored in a user’s Gmail address book; attached documents were scraped for intel — that info was then cross-referenced with previous email interactions and combined with stuff gleaned from other Google services, as well as third-party sources…”

Google then creates profiles on Gmail users, based upon “concepts and topics discussed in email, as well as email attachments [including] the content of websites that users have visited; demographic information — including income, sex, race, marital status; geographic information; psychographic information — personality type, values, attitudes, interests, and lifestyle interests; previous searches users have made; information about documents a user viewed and or edited by the users; browsing activity; previous purchases.”

Even if one isn’t using Gmail themselves, but merely contacting a Gmail user, that person is subject to this mass collection and analysis of personal data. Google has gone so far as to disingenuously argue that “people who used Internet services for communication had ‘no legitimate expectation of privacy’ — and thus anyone who emailed with Gmail users had given ‘implied consent’ for Google to intercept and analyze their email exchange.”

What Google’s vast acquisition and analysis of information indicates is that we are entering what some have called an age of infopolitics, in which the human person is broken down into data sets to be collated and analyzed, and used for a variety of purposes, including marketing, propaganda, and the squelching of dissent. As philosopher Colin Koopman notes, we may soon find ourselves in a more efficient version of the McCarthy era, in which one’s personal beliefs or associations become fodder for the rising corporate surveillance state.

Email, social media, and GPS are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Google has added to its payroll the best and brightest minds in the fields of military defense, robotics (including humanoid robotics), defense, surveillance, machine learning, artificial intelligence, web-controlled household appliances (such as Nest thermostats), and self-driving cars. As journalist Carole Cadwalladr’s predicts, “The future, in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, will be Google’s.”

Toward this end, Google has been working towards what one investor called “a Manhattan project of AI [artificial intelligence].” For those who remember their history, the Manhattan Project was a top-secret, multi-agency, multi-billion-dollar, military-driven government project aimed at building the first atom bombs. This project not only spawned the nuclear bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it also ushered in a nuclear arms race that, to this day, puts humanity on the brink of annihilation.

No less powerful and potentially destructive to the human race are modern-day surveillance and robotic technologies, manufactured by corporations working in tandem with government agencies. These are the building blocks of the global electronic concentration camp encircling us all, and Google, in conjunction with the NSA, has set itself up as a formidable warden.

The question, when all is said and done, is where will all this technology take us? It’s a conundrum I explore at length in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, which looks to film, fiction and art as indicators of the police state that now surrounds us, brought about with the help of the government and its corporate partners.

It won’t be long before we find ourselves, much like Edward G. Robinson’s character in Soylent Green, looking back on the past with longing, back to an age where we could speak to whom we wanted, buy what we wanted, think what we wanted without those thoughts, words and activities being tracked, processed and stored by corporate giants such as Google, sold to government agencies such as the NSA and CIA, and used against us by militarized police with their army of futuristic technologies.

Then again, George Orwell’s description of the world of 1984 is as apt a description of today’s world as I’ve ever seen: “You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

“It’s a future where you don’t forget anything…In this new future you’re never lost…We will know your position down to the foot and down to the inch over time…Your car will drive itself, it’s a bug that cars were invented before computers…you’re never lonely…you’re never bored…you’re never out of ideas… We can suggest where you go next, who to meet, what to read…What’s interesting about this future is that it’s for the average person, not just the elites.”—Google CEO Eric Schmidt on his vision of the future

Time to buckle up your seatbelts, folks. You’re in for a bumpy ride.

We’re hurtling down a one-way road toward the Police State at mind-boggling speeds, the terrain is getting more treacherous by the minute, and we’ve passed all the exit ramps. From this point forward, there is no turning back, and the signpost ahead reads “Danger.”

Indeed, as I document in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, we’re about to enter a Twilight Zone of sorts, one marked by drones, smart phones, GPS devices, smart TVs, social media, smart meters, surveillance cameras, facial recognition software, online banking, license plate readers and driverless cars—all part of the interconnected technological spider’s web that is life in the American police state, and every new gadget pulls us that much deeper into the sticky snare.

In this Brave New World awaiting us, there will be no communication not spied upon, no movement untracked, no thought unheard. In other words, there will be nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

We’re on the losing end of a technological revolution that has already taken hostage our computers, our phones, our finances, our entertainment, our shopping, our appliances, and now, it’s focused its sights on our cars. As if the government wasn’t already able to track our movements on the nation’s highways and byways by way of satellites, GPS devices, and real-time traffic cameras, government officials are now pushing to require that all new vehicles come installed with black box recorders and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, ostensibly to help prevent crashes.

Yet strip away the glib Orwellian doublespeak, and what you will find is that these black boxes and V2V transmitters, which will not only track a variety of data, including speed, direction, location, the number of miles traveled, and seatbelt use, but will also transmit this data to other drivers, including the police, are little more than Trojan Horses, stealth attacks on our last shreds of privacy, sold to us as safety measures for the sake of the greater good, all the while poised to wreak havoc on our lives.

Black boxes and V2V transmitters are just the tip of the iceberg, though. The 2015 Corvette Stingray will be outfitted with a performance data recorder which “uses a camera mounted on the windshield and a global positioning receiver to record speed, gear selection and brake force,” but also provides a recording of the driver’s point of view as well as recording noises made inside the car. As journalist Jaclyn Trop reports for the New York Times, “Drivers can barely make a left turn, put on their seatbelts or push 80 miles an hour without their actions somehow, somewhere being tracked or recorded.” Indeed, as Jim Farley, Vice President of Marketing and Sales for Ford Motor Company all but admitted, corporations and government officials already have a pretty good sense of where you are at all times: “We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing.”

Now that the government and its corporate partners-in-crime know where you’re going and how fast you’re going when in your car, the next big hurdle will be to know how many passengers are in your car, what contraband might be in your car (and that will largely depend on whatever is outlawed at the moment, which could be anything from Sudafed cold medicine to goat cheese), what you’re saying and exactly what you’re doing within the fiberglass and steel walls of your vehicle. That’s where drones come in.

Once drones take to the skies en masse in 2015, there will literally be no place where government agencies and private companies cannot track your movements. These drones will be equipped with cameras that provide a live video feed, as well as heat sensors, radar and thermal imaging devices capable of seeing through the walls of your car. Some will be capable of peering at figures from 20,000 feet up and 25 miles away. They will be outfitted with infrared cameras and radar which will pierce through the darkness. They can also keep track of 65 persons of interest at once. Some drones are already capable of hijacking Wi-Fi networks and intercepting electronic communications such as text messages. The Army has developed drones with facial recognition software, as well as drones that can complete a target-and-kill mission without any human instruction or interaction. These are the ultimate killing and spying machines. There will also be drones armed with “less-lethal” weaponry, including bean bag guns and tasers.

And of course all of this information, your every movement—whether you make a wrong move, or appear to be doing something suspicious, even if you don’t do anything suspicious, the information of your whereabouts, including what stores and offices you visit, what political rallies you attend, and what people you meet—will be tracked, recorded and streamed to a government command center, where it will be saved and easily accessed at a later date.

By the time you add self-driving cars into the futuristic mix, equipped with computers that know where you want to go before you do, you’ll be so far down the road to Steven Spielberg’s vision of the future as depicted in Minority Report that privacy and autonomy will be little more than distant mirages in your rearview mirror. The film, set in 2054 and based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, offered movie audiences a special effect-laden techno-vision of a futuristic world in which the government is all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful. And if you dare to step out of line, dark-clad police SWAT teams will bring you under control.

Mind you, while critics were dazzled by the technological wonders displayed in Minority Report, few dared to consider the consequences of a world in which Big Brother is, literally and figuratively, in the driver’s seat. Even the driverless cars in Minority Report answer to the government’s (and its corporate cohorts’) bidding.

Likewise, we are no longer autonomous in our own cars. Rather, we are captive passengers being chauffeured about by a robotic mind which answers to the government and its corporate henchmen. Soon it won’t even matter whether we are seated behind the wheel of our own vehicles, because it will be advertisers and government agents calling the shots.

Case in point: devices are now being developed for European cars that would allow police to stop a car remotely, ostensibly to end police chases. Google is partnering with car manufacturers in order to integrate apps and other smartphone-like technology into vehicles, in order to alert drivers to deals and offers at nearby businesses. As Patrick Lin, professor of Stanford’s School of Engineering, warns, in a world where third-party advertisers and data collectors control a good deal of the content we see on a daily basis, we may one day literally be driven to businesses not because we wanted to go there, but because someone paid for us to be taken there.

Rod Serling, creator of the beloved sci fi series Twilight Zone and one of the most insightful commentators on human nature, once observed, “We’re developing a new citizenry. One that will be very selective about cereals and automobiles, but won’t be able to think.”

Indeed, not only are we developing a new citizenry incapable of thinking for themselves, we’re also instilling in them a complete and utter reliance on the government and its corporate partners to do everything for them—tell them what to eat, what to wear, how to think, what to believe, how long to sleep, who to vote for, whom to associate with, and on and on.

In this way, we have created a welfare state, a nanny state, a police state, a surveillance state, an electronic concentration camp—call it what you will, the meaning is the same: in our quest for less personal responsibility, a greater sense of security, and no burdensome obligations to each other or to future generations, we have created a society in which we have no true freedom.

Pandora’s Box has been opened and there’s no way to close it. As Rod Serling prophesied in a Commencement Address at the University of Southern California in March 17, 1970:

“It’s simply a national acknowledgement that in any kind of priority, the needs of human beings must come first. Poverty is here and now. Hunger is here and now. Racial tension is here and now. Pollution is here and now. These are the things that scream for a response. And if we don’t listen to that scream – and if we don’t respond to it – we may well wind up sitting amidst our own rubble, looking for the truck that hit us – or the bomb that pulverized us. Get the license number of whatever it was that destroyed the dream. And I think we will find that the vehicle was registered in our own name.”

You can add the following to that list of needs requiring an urgent response: Police abuse is here and now. Surveillance is here and now. Imperial government is here and now. Yet while the vehicle bearing down upon us is indeed registered in our own name, we’ve allowed Big Brother to get behind the wheel, and there’s no way to put the brakes on this runaway car. — John W. Whitehead

“If you’re not a terrorist, if you’re not a threat, prove it. This is the price you pay to live in free society right now. It’s just the way it is.”—Sergeant Ed Mullins of the New York Police Department

Immediately following the devastating 9/11 attacks, which destroyed the illusion of invulnerability which had defined American society since the end of the Cold War, many Americans willingly ceded their rights and liberties to government officials who promised them that the feeling of absolute safety could be restored.

In the 12 years since, we have been subjected to a series of deceptions, subterfuges and scare tactics by the government, all largely aimed at amassing more power for the federal agencies and extending their control over the populace. Starting with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, continuing with the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and coming to a head with the assassination of American citizens abroad, the importing of drones and other weapons of compliance, and the rise in domestic surveillance, we have witnessed the onslaught of a full-blown crisis in government.

Still Americans have gone along with these assaults on their freedoms unquestioningly.

Even with our freedoms in shambles, our country in debt, our so-called “justice” system weighted in favor of corporations and the police state, our government officials dancing to the tune of corporate oligarchs, and a growing intolerance on the part of the government for anyone who challenges the status quo, Americans have yet to say “enough is enough.”

Now, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, we are once again being assured that if we only give up a few more liberties and what little remains of our privacy, we will achieve that elusive sense of security we’ve yet to attain. This is the same song and dance that comes after every tragedy, and it’s that same song and dance which has left us buying into the illusion that we are a free, safe society.

The reality of life in America tells a different tale, however. For example, in a May 2013 interview with CNN, former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente disclosed that the federal government is keeping track of all digital communications that occur within the United States, whether or not those communicating are American citizens, and whether or not they have a warrant to do so.

As revelatory as the disclosure was, it caused barely a ripple of dismay among Americans, easily distracted by the torrent of what passes for entertainment news today. Yet it confirms what has become increasingly apparent in the years after 9/11: the federal government is literally tracking any and all communications occurring within the United States, without concern for the legal limitations of such activity, and without informing the American people that they are doing so.

Clemente dropped his bombshell during a CNN interview about authorities’ attempts to determine the nature of communications between deceased Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his widow Katherine Russell. In the course of that conversation, Clemente revealed that federal officials will not only be able to access any voicemails that may have been left by either party, but that the entirety of the phone conversations they had will be at federal agents’ finger tips.

“We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation,” stated Clemente. “All of that stuff [meaning phone conversations occurring in America] is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.” A few days later, Clemente was asked to clarify his comments, at which point he said, “There is a way to look at all digital communications in the past. No digital communication is secure.”

In other words, there is no form of digital communication that the government cannot and does not monitor—phone calls, emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, internet video chats, etc., are all accessible, trackable and downloadable by federal agents.

At one time, such actions by the government would not only have been viewed as unacceptable, they would also have been considered illegal. However, government officials have been engaged in an ongoing attempt to legitimize these actions by passing laws that make the lives of all Americans an open book for government agents. For example, while the nation was caught up in the drama of the Boston bombing and the ensuing military-style occupation of the city by local and federal police, Congress passed a little-noticed piece of legislation known as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). The legislation, which the House of Representatives approved by an overwhelming margin of 288-127, will allow internet companies to share their users’ private data with the federal government and other private companies in order to combat so-called “cyber threats.”

In short, the law dismantles any notion of privacy on the internet, opening every action one undertakes online, whether emailing, shopping, banking, or just browsing, to scrutiny by government agents. While CISPA has yet to clear the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the spirit of it is alive and well. In fact, officials in the Obama administration have for some time now been authorizing corporate information sharing and spying in secret through the use of executive orders and other tactics.

The Justice Department, for instance, has been issuing so-called “2511 letters” to various internet service providers like AT&T, which immunize them from being prosecuted under federal wiretapping laws for providing the federal government with private information. Despite federal court rulings to the contrary, the Department of Justice continues to assert that it does not require a warrant to access Americans’ emails, Facebook chats, and other forms of digital communication.

NSA Surveillance Octopus

While it may be tempting to lay the full blame for these erosions of our privacy on the Obama administration, they are simply continuing a system of mass surveillance, the seeds of which were planted in the weeks after 9/11, when the National Security Agency (NSA) began illegally tracking the communications of American citizens. According to a Washington Post article published in 2010, the NSA continues to collect 1.7 billion communications, whether telephone, email or otherwise, every single day.

The NSA and Department of Justice are just two pieces of a vast surveillance network which encompasses and implicates most of the federal government, as well as the majority of technology and telecommunications companies in the United States. For the past two years, the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has approved literally every single request by the federal government to spy on people within the United States. There have been some 4,000 applications rubberstamped by the court in the past two years, applications which allow federal officials to monitor the communications of any person in the United States, including American citizens, if they are believed to be in contact with someone overseas.

These government-initiated spying programs depend in large part on the willingness of corporations to hand over personal information about their customers to government officials. Sometimes the government purchases the information outright. At other times, the government issues National Security Letters, which allow the government to force companies to hand over personal information without a warrant or probable cause.

Some web companies, such as Skype, have already altered their products to allow government access to personal information. In fact, government agents can now determine the credit card information and addresses of Skype users under suspicion of criminal activity. Aside from allowing government agents backdoor access to American communications, corporations are also working on technologies to allow government agents even easier access to Americans’ communications.

For example, Google has filed a patent for a “Policy Violation Checker,” software which would monitor an individual’s communications as they type them out, whether in an email, an Excel spreadsheet or some other digital document, then alert the individual, and potentially their employer or a government agent, if they type any “problematic phrases” which “present policy violations, have legal implications, or are otherwise troublesome to a company, business, or individual.” The software would work by comparing the text being typed to a pre-defined database of “problematic phrases,” which would presumably be defined on a company-by-company basis.

The emergence of this technology fits in well with Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s view on privacy, which is that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Unfortunately, this is not just the attitude of corporate benefactors who stand to profit from creating spy technology and software but government officials as well.

Additionally, police officials throughout the country have become increasingly keen on monitoring social media websites in real time. Rob D’Ovido, a criminal justice professor at Drexel University, has noted that, “The danger of this in light of the tragedy in Boston is that law enforcement is being so risk-averse they are in danger of crossing that line and going after what courts would ultimately deem as free speech.”

Cameron Dambrosio

For example, Cameron Dambrosio, a teenager and self-styled rap artist living in Metheun, Massachusetts, posted a video of one of his original songs on the internet which included references to the White House and the Boston bombing. While the song’s lyrics may well have been crude and ill-advised in the wake of the Boston bombing, police officers exacerbated the situation by arresting Dambrosio and charging him with communicating terrorist threats, a felony charge which could land him in prison for twenty years.

Unfortunately, cases like Dambrosio’s may soon become the norm, as the FBI’s Next Generation Cyber Initiative has announced that its “top legislative priority” this year is to get social media giants like Facebook and Google to comply with requests for access to real-time updates of social media websites. The proposed method of encouraging compliance is legal inquiries and hefty fines leveled at these companies. The Obama administration is expected to support the proposal.

The reality is this:  we no longer live in a free society. Having traded our freedoms for a phantom promise of security, we now find ourselves imprisoned in a virtual cage of cameras, wiretaps and watchful government eyes. All the while, the world around us is no safer than when we started on this journey more than a decade ago. Indeed, it well may be that we are living in a far more dangerous world, not so much because the terrorist threat is any greater but because the government itself has become the greater threat to our freedoms. — John W. Whitehead