First, it was wiretaps and men in black sedans. Assassinations, “democratic” coups. Then came television and radio, and manipulating the press via cleverly inserted news items.
It was all tinfoil hat stuff at first, but disclosures and declassifications have proved that the old conspiracy “theories” were anything but (and it seems tinfoil is actually useful). And now we have Vault 7 (a vast collection of data being released by WikiLeaks), which demonstrates the immense reach of the surveillance state across North America and Europe. Frankly, it’s an apparatus that the Nazis, Stasi, and KGB would have sold their souls for.
So, what can you do about it? Or has the surveillance state finally won?
Separate Truth From Fiction
The first thing to do is know the facts. Do some reading, and make a judgement. You need to separate the fiction from the reality.
For example, every single mobile app is not tracking you or recording you. However, that doesn’t mean that they cannot be hacked, or rewritten, to do just that. Similarly, most Smart TV sets will not be recording audio (or video) from your home. But some of them can.
It’s not a great situation. But hysteria can make matters worse. For example, there is currently no evidence that smart TVs are being used for blanket surveillance. It is more likely these devices can be employed as observation points in a targeted operation.
Who is doing the targeting and why might they be interested?
Understand Who Is Listening (And Why)
Many security agencies can operate surveillance. It’s not just those in the U.S. Thanks to the “Five Eyes” arrangement, agencies from the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — the anglosphere — can share surveillance with each other and the U.S.
In short, anyone could be listening to you, observing you on Facebook, reading your emails, and monitoring your phone calls. But why?
While the technology is in place across Western civilization for a panopticon approach to surveillance, it lacks focus. There is no Minority Report-style prediction in place to help find criminals and terrorists.
Instead, security agency employees must make decisions, based on intelligence, and resources. In short, if you’re not up to no good, you’re not a risk, and you’re not being surveilled. Nice, right?
Well, no, not really. For starters, someone you’re associated with might be identified as a risk. Meanwhile, a vehicle you own may have been involved in a criminal incident linked to a person of interest. Any number of things can flag you up. It will take an intelligent security analyst with adequate research time to safely discount you. If they’re busy looking for a terror suspect, this might be time they don’t have.
And that’s really where it stops. While there might be some operational hierarchy, there’s no oversight. Regulations are not applied to surveillance. In short, if you’re a suspect, it’s open season on you.
Protect Your Online Transactions as Best You Can
It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying something online, or you’re simply engaging in a chat room. Transactions — the exchange of data, whether that be thoughts or money — take place online all the time. It’s the very nature of communication.
So, when we say to “protect your online transactions,” what we mean is “Use a VPN” (specifically, one of these — and pay using Bitcoin if you’re seriously concerned about privacy). Virtual Private Networks are the ideal way to obfuscate your online activity, away from prying security agencies. And while many VPN services will divulge your activity when subpoenaed, if it gets to that stage then you’re probably already a dangerous criminal.
However, it goes further than using a VPN. Every single online account you create can be traced to you. To your IP address, which means all the way back to your PC, your smartphone, your tablet, your Kodi box. When you buy online from Amazon, you use an account with your name and address. If a security agency needs to find out what you’ve been buying, and where from, they can.
Short of creating a completely separate online identity (which if uncovered would immediately look suspicious), there is little you can do. If you wish to avoid this type of surveillance, it might be time to go completely off the grid.
Support Whistleblowers and Digital Rights Advocates
The fear of overt surveillance can be a massive problem. Psychologically, it has been considered to affect delusions of those incapable of accepting the truth.
(That truth being that your government is paranoid.)
However, the fear should not be internalized. Instead, it should be acted upon. There are several ways in which you can contribute to the push towards less surveillance.
You can begin by unlearning what you think you know about Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) and Edward Snowden. These people were not motivated by greed or affection to a foreign power. Instead, they were motivated by concern that the apparatus they were part of was working to the detriment of the American people. Other privacy advocates are available, however — you’ll find many of them on Twitter.
And then there’s the divisive Julian Assange. Ignore him totally, if it helps, but understand that WikiLeaks is merely a repository for whistleblowers. Publicly it may seem more political than previously, but look beyond the spin and read the materials wherever possible.
While we’re here, it’s time to show some respect for whistleblowers. Without people breaking ranks, the situation concerning the massive surveillance across North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand would remain a secret. We know more now, and that is a good thing. Citizens should not be lied to by the people they elect to govern.
Finally, give your support to anti-surveillance advocacy groups. Two groups in particular are doing some good work:
- The Open Rights Group — Based in the U.K. but operating internationally, this group aims to fight for your digital rights.
- Stop Watching Us — This American group is actively campaigning for the end of NSA spying and other surveillance, and regularly organizes protests and rallies.
Don’t Let This Be the End of Privacy
Gaining understanding is the most important thing you can do. It is the foundation upon which every future privacy-related decision you make should be built.
You’re not helpless. It might seem as though your every move is being recorded by security services, but it’s largely useless data unless you become “of interest.” Even then, there are steps you can take to obfuscate your online activity.
Supporting groups who want to put an end to this surveillance is a good tactic. Going offline entirely is another. It’s extreme, and it’s a step you might not want to take, but it is possible. As long as you have that right, they haven’t won yet.
Freedom and privacy can be regained.
But what do you think? Do these revelations surprise you, or have you given up on the notion of privacy online? Let us know what you think below.
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