The revelations of Edward Snowden shone fresh light on NSA spying targeting the American people, but what has gone largely unnoticed is the fact that a network of different spy systems which can record real time conversations are already in place throughout many urban areas of the United States, as well as in the technology products we buy and use on a regular basis.
These systems are no secret – they are hiding in plain view – and yet concerns about the monolithic potential for their abuse have been muted.
That lack of discussion represents a massive lost opportunity for the privacy community because whereas polls have shown apathy, indifference, or even support for NSA spying, anecdotal evidence suggests that people would be up in arms if they knew the content of their daily conversations were under surveillance.
The dystopian movie V for Vendetta features a scene in which goons working for the totalitarian government drive down residential streets with spy technology listening to people’s conversations to detect the vehemence of criticism against the state.
Such technology already exists or is rapidly being introduced through a number of different guises in America and numerous other developed countries.
The Washington Post recently published a feature length article on gunshot detectors, known as ShotSpotter, which detailed how in Washington DC there are now, “at least 300 acoustic sensors across 20 square miles of the city,” microphones wrapped in a weather-proof shell that can detect the location of a sound down to a few yards and analyze the audio using a computer program.
While the systems are touted as “gunshot detectors,” as the New York Times reported in May 2012, similar technology is already installed in over 70 cities around the country, and in some cases it is being used to listen to conversations.
“In at least one city, New Bedford, Mass., where sensors recorded a loud street argument that accompanied a fatal shooting in December, the system has raised questions about privacy and the reach of police surveillance, even in the service of reducing gun violence,” states the report.
Frank Camera, the lawyer for Jonathan Flores, a man charged with murder, complained that the technology is “opening up a whole can of worms.”
“If the police are utilizing these conversations, then the issue is, where does it stop?” he said.
This led the ACLU to warn that the technology could represent a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment if misused.
The ACLU’s Jay Stanley asked, “whether microphones can be remotely activated by police who want to listen to nearby conversations,” noting that it was illegal for police “to make audio recordings of conversations in which they are not a participant without a warrant.”
“If the courts start allowing recordings of conversations picked up by these devices to be admitted as evidence, then it will provide an additional incentive to the police to install microphones in our public spaces, over and above what is justified by the level of effectiveness the technology proves to have in pinpointing gun shots,” wrote Stanley.
Eventually, if indeed it is not already happening in some major metropolitan areas, voices will be linked to biometric facial profiles via the Trapwire system, which allows the government to monitor citizens via public and private CCTV networks.
As we have also previously highlighted, numerous major cities in the Unites States are currently being fitted with Intellistreets ‘smart’ street lighting systems that also have the capability of recording conversations and sending them directly to authorities via wi-fi.
As we reported on Sunday, the Las Vegas Public Works Department has begun testing the devices, which act as surveillance cameras, Minority Report-style advertising hubs, and Homeland Security alert systems. As ABC 7 reported in 2011, they are “also capable of recording conversations.”
Televisions, computers and cellphones are already utilizing technology that records conversations in order to bombard users with invasive targeted advertising. Last year, Verizon followed Google’s lead and officially filed a patent for a set-top box that will actively spy on Americans in their own homes by turning TVs into wiretaps.
The patent application says that the technology will be capable of detecting “ambient action” including “cuddling, fighting and talking” in people’s living rooms.
The box will even listen to your conversations, according to the communication giant’s patent.
“If detection facility detects one or more words spoken by a user (e.g., while talking to another user within the same room or on the telephone), advertising facility may utilize the one or more words spoken by the user to search for and/or select an advertisement associated with the one or more words,” the document states.
In an article we published back in 2006, we highlighted the fact that, “Digital cable TV boxes, such as Scientific Atlanta, have had secret in-built microphones inside them since their inception in the late 1990?s.”
This technology is now commonplace, with products like the Xbox utilizing in-built microphones to allow voice control. Microsoft promises that it won’t use the microphones to record your conversations, which is a fairly hollow guarantee given that Microsoft collaborated with the NSA to allow the federal agency to bypass its encryption services in order to spy on people.
App providers on the Android network also now require users to agree to a condition that, “Allows the app to record audio with the microphone,” on cellphones and other ‘smart’ devices. “This permission allows the app to record audio at any time without your confirmation,” states the text of the agreement.
Virtually every new technological device now being manufactured that is linked to the Internet has the capability to record conversations and send them back to a central hub. Is it really any wonder therefore that former CIA director David Petraeus heralded the arrival of the “smart home” as a boon for “clandestine statecraft”?
Whistleblowers such as William Binney have warned that the NSA has virtually every US citizen under surveillance, with the ability to record all of their communications. The agency recently completed construction of a monolithic heavily fortified $2 billion facility deep in the Utah desert to process and analyze all of the information collected.
If the revelations of Edward Snowden taught us one thing then it’s that if the NSA has the capability to use a technology to spy on its primary target – the American people – then it is already doing so.
The state has already had blanket access to phone records since at least 1987 under the Hemisphere program, under which AT&T gave the Drug Enforcement Agency access to call logs.
This network of computer programs, urban wi-fi infrastructure and technological products inside our homes that all have the capability of recording our conversations represents an even more invasive and Orwellian prospect than anything Edward Snowden brought to light, and yet discussion of its threat to fundamental privacy has been virtually non-existent.