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Defending Privacy In The Surveillance State And Fragmenting Internet

By John P. Ruehl

Following the reapproval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) on April 20, 2024, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer proudly declared that “bipartisanship has prevailed here in the Senate." Despite the increasing rarity of bipartisanship in recent years, support for government surveillance continues to unite large majorities across party lines. Established in 1978, FISA allows government surveillance and data collection of individuals suspected of espionage or terrorism within the U.S., marking one of the many mechanisms aiming to ensure total federal oversight of communications.

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Governments ranging from democracies to dictatorships, socialist to capitalist have all developed policies and bureaucracies for maximum data collection and mass surveillance as their populations become digitised. The centralised nature of modern communications grids facilitates many forms of surveillance. As internet services centralise domestically and the internet fragments internationally, countering government and private sector abuse of surveillance or developing alternative systems will require steady public pressure and some ingenuity to attain real enforcement.

One of the takeaways that a review of the history of modern surveillance, from the early days of the telephone to so-called privacy apps like Signal, tells us is that efforts to escape, undermine, and subvert the surveillance efforts of governments tend to be counterproductive. They are often originated by states themselves as part of a dialectic process that enables more comprehensive surveillance in a series of stages or just produces greater surveillance infrastructure in response to the attempt to develop alternative communications systems.

In the pre-internet era, authorities would tap into telegraph and later telephone lines to intercept communications, often requiring access to the physical infrastructure of the networks. Mail sent by post could meanwhile be intercepted and opened. As communication systems evolved, so too did government techniques to surveil them. The switch from copper wire phone systems to fiber optic cables and the spread of the internet initially threatened the NSA’s ability to monitor communications, for example, until the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) in 1994. Communications companies were required to build back doors for the NSA to monitor remotely, while the NSA also clandestinely worked on developing technologies to monitor communications.

U.S. domestic surveillance powers have been routinely updated during the 21st Century, including the enactment of the 2001 PATRIOT Act, the 2015 Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), and the 2018 FISA reauthorization. The 2013 Snowden Leaks revealed the NSA asked for funding to “insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems”, and it is constantly pushing for backdoors into encryption software to access communications and devices. Major mobile carriers acknowledge the inclusion of preinstalled surveillance and data mining technology in devices supported by Google, Apple, and Microsoft, while the NSA’s PRISM program extracts data from all major technology companies with or without their consent.

U.S. companies primarily cooperate with the U.S. government under the banner of “surveillance capitalism,” allowing them to capitalise on their data and surveillance capabilities both for government and private endeavors. Similar to other countries, most of the U.S. internet traffic now flows through a handful of large entities rather than numerous smaller ones. Furthermore, U.S. user data is also more available to the private sector compared to that of EU citizens, with companies like Facebook and Google even compiling dossiers on non-users to enhance targeted advertising.

In addition to ad monetisation, lax privacy laws also play a role in security. Established in 1976, the third-party doctrine allows U.S. law enforcement to access user data without a warrant. The Ring video system, acquired by Amazon in 2018, created hundreds of partnerships with U.S. police departments to help them gain access to user recordings, while numerous other companies actively provide law enforcement agencies with access to user data.

The issue extends beyond monetisation and law enforcement. Political actors have recognised the potential of data to shape politics. In 2018, Facebook faced scrutiny when it was revealed that private company Cambridge Analytica was permitted to access user data and target them with political ads to influence their voting behavior. Moreover, anti-abortion groups have caused controversy by using location data to send ads to those who visited Planned Parenthood centers.

Of similar concern is the abuse of data by employees. In 2017, reports surfaced of employees of Ring doorbell company spying on female users, while Amazon’s Alexa retained recordings of children long after parents requested their deletion. Hackers have also accessed user data and feeds of Ring customer cameras across the U.S.

Alongside extensive domestic surveillance and data collection methods, the expansion of the internet in the 1990s led to a surge in global U.S. surveillance and data collection capabilities. Despite the promotion of a “global multi-stakeholder model of internet governance”, U.S.-based Organisations like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), allowed Washington considerable control over the governance, standards-setting, and the activities of major internet actors. While these advantages for Washington may have declined since the 1990s, the rise of Big Tech and other factors guarantee the U.S. ongoing influence over much of the internet.

The disclosure of ECHELON in the 1990s exposed a global signals intelligence (SIGINT) network operated by the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (Five Eyes), while the Snowden leaks in 2013 uncovered further aspects of the surveillance alliance. Significant data sharing also occurs between the U.S. and European countries, often facilitated through organizations like NATO.

The 2022 interception of a British citizen’s Snapchat message about a potential plane bombing, leading to the escorting of the plane by the Spanish air force, demonstrates strong Western data and surveillance collaboration. Multilateral efforts are supplemented by national measures like France’s.

Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C., and a world affairs correspondent for the Independent Media Institute. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. His book, Budget Superpower: How Russia Challenges the West With an Economy Smaller Than Texas’, was published in December 2022.

Credit Line: This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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