Can the US Government Spy on its Citizens?
In most US citizens’ minds, there is little to no doubt that the government is spying on them. In two separate polls, 7 in 10 (Pew Research Center, 2017) and 8 in 10 (Monmouth University, 2018) people in the United States believe that the US government is tracking their emails, phone calls and other communication surveillance of them.
There were always people who believed that the government was violating their privacy. Until a few years ago they were in the “crazy conspirator” minority. However, after 2013 and Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA’s spying, many who until that point paid no mind to their data privacy and protection, started to think differently.
The opinion on the government’s surveillance changed so much that two years later in 2015, Today Amnesty International’s #UnfollowMe campaign showed that less than ¼ of US citizens approved of the government tracking them.
It’s Not “If”, It’s How the Government is Stepping on Your Data Privacy and Protection
Although the US government has dozens of agencies that can in one way or another monitor and track citizens and see who they communicate with, when we talk about communication surveillance, the first acronym that comes to mind is the NSA.
The National Security Agency has a very long reach and it’s able to spy on someone in a number of ways.
- It can exploit security vulnerabilities on your devices.
Every device or software has some kind of a security flaw that a skilled hacker can exploit and the NSA’s Tailored Hacking Operations certainly has an abundance of skilled hackers.
What’s worse, they sometimes put those backdoors in consumer electronics, including computers and cellphones, themselves, or have the manufacturers build vulnerabilities into their products.
- The NSA monitors your shopping cart
If you’re thinking of buying a surprise gift for your girlfriend or boyfriend, it’s going to be very hard keeping that a secret from them, if they have a connection in the NSA, as the agency can see your credit card payments, wire transfers or if you are using a payment gateway.
- They can get your data from Google, Apple, Facebook…
The NSA doesn’t even have to do anything to get your data. All it needs to do is give a call to the people at Google or Apple and they have to hand over all the data, including emails they have of you.
Don’t forget, Google, Apple, Facebook and other big online services you are using are privately owned and their choice is basically “give the government what they want, or get shut down”.
- Your phone can be used against you
Now, when we talk about data privacy and protection in 2020, we usually think of online data like emails, cloud and such. But day-to-day, people still mostly communicate via their phones.
The NSA has always been spying on your phone calls, but now that you are carrying it everywhere with you in your pocket, things have become much easier for the agency.
They can use your cellphone in two ways to spy on you.
Number one, the NSA can use data from cellphone towers to see where you’ve been and where you are. This data is usually provided to them by cell phone providers.
Number two, the NSA can look at your phone records. Although in 2015, the USA Freedom Act limited the agency’s access to this kind of data, in 2018 the NSA obtained data from over 214,800 phone calls and SMS messages.
- Working with foreign intelligence agencies and governments
Of course, the US government is not the only one that spies on people. Sometimes the NSA works with local intel agencies to tap into Internet communications or they exchange information they have collected.
The United States, for example, together with the United Kingdom, formed a “collaborative surveillance agreement”, called the UKUSA Agreement back in the 1940s. Just a few years later, Canada, Australia and New Zealand joined to form the Five Eyes. With the addition of four more countries, France, Holland, Denmark and Norway, the Five Eyes grew into Nine Eyes. Finally, when five more countries, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Sweden, joined in, we got the Fourteen Eyes (14EY).
Wherever you are in the 14 EYs, your data is not safe from prying eyes.
When it comes to their data, most people are concerned about cybercriminals. While that is definitely a legitimate and valid concern (take a look at how much is your data worth on the Dark Web), you should keep in mind that your own government is also spying on you.
What’s more, they could be doing it much more than some blackhat hackers. They have the manpower, the tools and the power to do so.
There is some good news.
On 2nd September, this year, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the NSA’s communication surveillance program that Snowden exposed was illegal.
Shortly after the ruling, Snowden tweeted the following:
“I never imagined that I would live to see our courts condemn the NSA’s activities as unlawful and in the same ruling credit me for exposing them.”
That’s finally a victory for our privacy rights!
But don’t think that this will stop the NSA and the government from spying on your email and other data. They’ll just be doing it more overtly.
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