Future Tech Security

Tomorrow’s Surveillance: Four Technologies The NSA Will Use to Spy on You – Soon

Philip Bates 01-06-2015

The NSA’s plans don’t end with collecting your phone records. Here are just a few of the ways the National Security Agency (NSA) will be keeping tabs on you in the world of tomorrow. Prepare to be shocked, amazed, and a little freaked out.


Surveillance tends to be at the forefront of technology. Among details leaked by whistleblower Hero or Villain? NSA Moderates Its Stance on Snowden Whistleblower Edward Snowden and the NSA's John DeLong appeared on the schedule for a symposium. While there was no debate, it seems the NSA no longer paints Snowden as a traitor. What's changed? Read More  Edward Snowden were plans to build a code-breaking quantum computer How do Optical and Quantum Computers work? The Exascale Age is coming. Do you know how optical and quantum computers work, and will these new technologies become our future? Read More , a technology which could spell the end for cryptography Quantum Computers: The End of Cryptography? Quantum computing as an idea has been around for a while - the theoretical possibility was originally introduced in 1982. Over the last few years, the field has been edging closer to practicality. Read More  and privacy. Worse, a quantum computer is by no means the only way the NSA is trying to crack encryption – or keep tabs on you in general.

Backdooring Encryption


The NSA recently admitted they no longer want to keep tabs on you using a variety of ‘back-door’ approachs. Instead, Michael S. Rogers, director of the NSA, says he wants a “front door. And I want the front door to have multiple locks. Big locks.” Rogers is referring to the notion of split-key encryption, which allows all encryption to be unlocked using special keys owned by the government.

Encryption How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? Read More  lets you turn plaintext data into ciphertext; that is, seemingly random characters unreadable without a key. Under split-key encryption, companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google would be forced into creating a digital key that could unlock any smartphone and tablet – and this key would be available to government agencies. However, this requires trust of the authorities, and poses the risk that a single leak of the master keys could destroy global privacy.

Strong single-key encryption is a nightmare for security agencies because it means only the user can access locked data. This is standard on Apple devices. iOS 7 A Complete Beginner's Guide to iOS 11 for iPhone & iPad Here's everything you need to know to get started with iOS 11. Read More , for instance, introduced Activation Lock, which insists on your ID and passcode before unlocking. It’s a great way to combat thieves hungry to make a profit from stolen devices Five Ways a Thief Can Profit From Your Stolen Hardware Criminals steal your PC, your laptop, your smartphone, either by burglarising your house, or by snatching them from you. But then what happens? What can thieves do with your stolen tech? Read More , as even Apple can’t unlock it.


The NSA is looking into ways to bypass this, including a ‘key escrow’ – essentially multiple agencies owning keys to your data. That’s a big privacy concern, so the front-door solution is perhaps preferable. However, it could be unconstitutional to put those restrictions on companies. Furthermore, if these backdoors are widely known to exist, it could hurt American companies ability to sell their systems overseas.

In the past, Yahoo! has fought for their users’ rights, but security services have overruled them with threats of legal action if they don’t comply, or disclose the information they’re turning over. It remains to be seen if the same strong-arm tactics will be enough to force companies to imbed these backdoors.

Artificial Intelligence?


This idea was raised in connection to the NSA in 2009, but has been an undercurrent in science fiction for decades. Mark Bishop, chair of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour, said that, though he has no proof, he’d be “astonished if [the NSA and GCHQ] weren’t using the best AI they could to scan all electronic communication they could.”


In fact, he goes so far as to say he’s “always believed that they’re not doing their job properly if they’re not using [Artificial Intelligence], regardless of belief of whether that’s right or wrong.” Bishop imagines a scanning system that would pick apart emails and texts and pass them up to human surveillance agents if they contain certain pattern or phrases.

There’s also some suspicion that AI is being used by intelligence agencies to profile and predict the intentions of people deemed to be threats. Facebook can already judge your personality and predict your behavior. What Does Facebook Know About You? Why You Should Delete Facebook What does Facebook really know about you? One thing's for sure: if you want online privacy, Facebook is best avoided. Read More It’s not out of the question that the NSA could do something similar. The Advanced Question Answering for INTelligence (Aquaint) project gathers data about citizens, to be sifted through by so-called “pre-crime” AI, designed to identify future criminals and predict their actions, a thesis that evokes films like Minority Report.

Even more unsettlingly, any interest you take in surveillance agencies Your Interest in Privacy Will Ensure You're Targeted by the NSA Yes, that's right. If you care about privacy, you may be added to a list. Read More – including reading this article – makes you of interest to the NSA!

Getting More Out of Data

Motion magnification has been around for at least 10 years: a way of noting small changes in motion and colour to exaggerate an image and locate a pulse or detect breathing. It means we can identify movements so minute the human eye can’t see them, and could have applications in healthcare, education, and, naturally, surveillance.


Skin changes colour as blood flows through it. This is invisible to the naked eye, but it does leave evidence, even on grainy webcam video. But by running such a video through image processors, breaking it down into pixels, and magnifying each tiny change, we can see the pulse. You can measure heart rates, just as accurately as a polygraph.

This isn’t just magnifying color changes – the motion microscope software can also detect and amplify visual flow – the actual motion of points in the scene, whether that’s lungs filling up with oxygen, blood coursing through arteries, or pupils dilating. It brings a whole new meaning to body language, and means that those with access to this technology can read enormous amounts of information into otherwise uninteresting videos. This technology can even be used to extract audio from silent videos, by picking up tiny vibrations in objects in the scene. That’s right: you can hear speech without the aid of a microphone.

Michael Rubinstein, whose team designed the motion microscope software, believes that it could be used to record audio on other planets, using telescoping photography. However, the applications to surveillance are obvious. We live in a world increasingly saturated with cameras – and, due to generally low standards of computer security, those cameras are an open book to organizations like the NSA, and the motion microscope gives them yet another tool to get more out of it.

Mobile Surveillance

Of course, security agencies won’t always be able to get at the cameras and microphones on our mobile devices. Most of us pay at least a little attention to app permissions – but sometimes, malicious apps can track you in ways you don’t expect.


Your smartphone contains extremely precise gyroscopes, which let them detect the phone’s rotations. These are accurate enough to pick up the vibrations caused by sound, letting them be used as crude microphones, according to Wired. The technology is still in its infancy and needs refinement in conjunction with speech recognition algorithms, yet the potential could be there for the NSA to listen in to select conversations, given only access to the gyroscope, something that few mobile operating systems even count as a “permission” that the user needs to be aware of.

Similarly, a smartphone’s accelerometer is essential for many apps, but could provide a means to track you. Notably, their unique micro- or nano-imperfections could be analysed, thus providing real-time location-based information, bypassing any in-app permissions. A team at the University of Illinois, College of Engineering found they could discriminate between sensor signals with 96% accuracy; combine this with possible fingerprints from other phone sensors and this would likely increase further.

Additional research into accelerometers investigated whether vibrations during login could be used to make accurate guesses at PINs and passcodes, which could be used by criminals and security services alike.

What Does This All Mean For You?


All of these are very real possibilities. Some may even be happening now.

Does it matter that the NSA’s bulk phone data collection has been deemed illegal What Does the NSA Court Ruling Mean for You and The Future of Surveillance? A US appeals court has ruled that bulk collection of phone record metadata by the National Security Agency (NSA) is illegal. But what does this mean for your privacy? Are you still being watched? Read More ? When it comes to security and surveillance, the legal and ethical waters are murky. Security agencies will always be controversial: on one hand, they may be necessary to keep us safe from terrorism; on the other, it is dangerous to give up privacy and liberty for security.

Where do we draw the line? Do these technologies scare you, or put you at ease – to know that the NSA and GCHQ are developing new ways to keep us safe?

Image Credit: NSA by Creative Time Reports; System Lock by Yuri SamoilovHyperion by Junya Ogura; and GCHQ by UK Ministry of Defence.

Related topics: Computer Security, Smartphone Security, Surveillance, Wearable Technology.

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  1. giannafelora
    June 3, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Well, if I had a person following me to work, to the gym, to the grocery, going through my trash, and through my mail, I would call the police. I think stalking is a crime. So I ask you, How is this any different? Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. These rules apply to government officials as well.

    • Anonymous
      June 6, 2015 at 11:35 am

      " I think stalking is a crime."
      Stalking by government minions is not called "stalking", it is called "surveillance".

      "These rules apply to government officials as well."
      One would think so. However, the law enforcement and intelligence communities are either explicitly or implicitly exempt from many laws. Just look at the spate of recent shootings by police officers in the US. In almost every case the officer's actions were declared to be justified.

      Under the pretense of "it's in the interest of national security" any activity is condoned.

  2. Howard A Pearce
    June 2, 2015 at 1:06 am

    In my mind we draw the line when senators and presidents are willing to violate The Bill of Rights like the Fourth Amendment in the name of security ! “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Benjamin Franklin

  3. Mare Petru
    June 1, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    p.s. spacing doesn't work. I wrote different paragraphs.

  4. Mare Petru
    June 1, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    I used to be concerned about privacy but there's no point in it. You say it's dangerous to give up privacy and liberty for security and I know most people agree with you but you only give up liberty if you are actually breaking the law. If what you do is legal there's no reason to be bothered if security agencies are spying on you. Who cares ? We're all really similar anyway and do pretty much the same things. Only those that break the law should be concerned. Since I stopped worrying about privacy I'm able to use a lot more features and products that I could not because they would track me. No one says anything about what you actually give up by not using services that track you. Also, why aren't people happy that agencies got this good at tracking people ? That means a lot less people will be tempted to break the law and if they do they are more likely to get caught.

    • Orville Sleucian
      June 3, 2015 at 10:40 pm

      The problem is that we the people don't really decide what is legal and illegal. Imagine a new federal government comes along and decides to use all of these secret laws, secret courts, and the greatest surveillance system in history against us? Too much power is concentrated in one place. This is an intelligence atom bomb.

    • Philip Bates
      June 30, 2015 at 8:01 pm

      I'm sorry, but I really can't agree with you. I know what you mean, and yes, not caring about your own privacy can open up more possibilities, I guess, but I truly believe we have to fight for our principles. Firstly, it's a slippery slope. If we don't fight for what we believe in, more and more will be taken away. I can't stand "only the guilty have anything to fear" mentality because that's how Governments try to quieten the masses. If you're fighting for privacy, you've clearly got something to hide - that's their attitude, and that's a way to get so many to accept mass surveillance without too much of a fuss.

      I think it's particularly unsettling that sophisticated tech can form a projection of you, ie. what you're like, what you're capable of, if you're likely to fight against a regime. They can know you better than you know yourself.

      And people will always find smarter ways to evade tracking. Nonetheless, it IS amazing how they can track people. I don't always approve, but some surveillance is essential. I have great respect for secret services like MI5 and the NSA. They genuinely do incredible jobs and save us. That doesn't mean carte blanche.

      I love this Winston Churchill quote: "You've got enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something sometime in your life."