In the late 1990s, Hollywood fave Will Smith starred in a high-octane techno-thriller with Gene Hackman. Though a box-office success, the film seemed a bit outlandish at the time. Smith played a liberal lawyer who inadvertently ended up in possession of a bit of electronica that was desired by a group of shady government rogues, who quickly used their National Security Agency (NSA) tech wizardry, plus gun-wielding goons, to pursue the innocent barrister. The movie, Enemy of the State, seems far less outlandish today.
It turns out that Uncle Sam may have far greater tech surveillance (and possibly sabotage) skills than the general public has assumed. WikiLeaks has just released a new trove of documents taken from the Central Intelligence Agency, which it is calling “Vault 7.” The documents, allegedly given to WikiLeaks by a former government “hacker” or “contractor,” cover the years 2013 to 2016 and reveal tremendous government hacking ability.
From iPhone to Android to most computers, and even televisions, nothing is apparently safe from the CIA’s growing tech wizardry. The intelligence community can allegedly remotely control digital devices like cell phones and turn on their cameras and microphones, allowing government agents to spy on the owners of those phones. More outrageously, documents claim that the U.S. government also explored the ability to control automobiles remotely and crash them, allowing for the “undetectable” assassination of foreign baddies.
Sadly, it doesn’t seem that it is all that difficult anymore for someone to hack your brand-new car and disable it: In 2015, hackers managed to wreak havoc on a new Jeep Cherokee in an authorized experiment. The possibility of intelligence or law enforcement agencies accessing our vehicles’ data, or surreptitiously implanting hidden devices to control our cars, raises lots of troubling questions. While most would consider it gross overreach for the government to try to access physical data ports on cars, what about pulling cars’ digital signals from the air?
We citizens should be alarmed by the increasing ability for our government to learn about our lives from streaming digital data and insist upon firmer limits established by legislatures and courts. Although gleaning our cars’ mileage data and engine records from servers or the airwaves may not seem particularly scary, all that data becomes part of our known profiles. The government can learn tremendous amounts about us, and our daily lives, by processing the seemingly-innocuous data from our many devices.
It is 2017, but 1984 is almost upon us… and in a far more dangerous package. While the famous dystopian novel depicted government surveillance and control as constantly visible, the reality may turn out to be that omnipresent government surveillance and control is practically invisible. Instead of television cameras staring down at us from every rooftop, our own cell phones become cameras staring up at us from every pocket.
Our most intimate thoughts are sent via text, email, and social media message. How easy would it be for the CIA, NSA, and FBI to begin building files on everyone’s Internet and cell phone communication, learning all of our secrets for future use against us? It sounds radical and outlandish, but we have seen fanciful fiction become a reality in 20 years’ time with Enemy of the State. And there are historical examples of governments being able to intricately control citizens’ lives: The East German Stasi maintained files on up to six million citizens, one-third of the total population!
And the Stasi, which dissolved in 1990, primarily worked with paper… how much more surveillance and control could they have accomplished with today’s technology?
The Vault 7 hack comes at a delicate time politically, with incumbent president Donald Trump accusing predecessor Barack Obama of wiretapping his phones prior to the 2016 presidential election. Although most leading government figures have scoffed at the notion that Obama ordered Trump’s phones tapped, the WikiLeaks release provides Trump some backup: The technology to surreptitiously surveil just about anyone does exist.
Who can say, definitively, that president Barack Obama, desperate to avoid a noxious fellow like Donald Trump from becoming president, did not take advantage of his government’s full range of digital wizardry? Perhaps Trump was wiretapped (or hacked), but nothing of use was gleaned before Election Day or Obama’s team thought it was too risky to go public with the dirt. After Vault 7, it is harder for Trump’s critics to say that lack of evidence means no wrongdoing occurred.
With government surveillance growing ever more sophisticated, it becomes increasingly unlikely that private citizens will ever be able to uncover evidence of illegal hacking or wiretapping. If we cannot find evidence that we are being spied upon, we cannot win in court and force the various law enforcement and intelligence agencies to back off. An added complication occurs when you factor in that much of our digital lives occur on free websites: It is harder to claim your due process rights are being violated when you have no ownership.
If free social media sites allow government surveillance to occur, do private citizens have much recourse if they began using such sites after they were made aware that the government had a “surveillance agreement” with the company? While some citizens would log off in protest, how many more would continue to post and share, assuming that nothing they did would ever warrant the gaze of Uncle Sam?