Are our governments spying on us? How much?


(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Are our governments spying on us? How much?

It depends on what you mean by spying. Governments have always had, for example, the possibility of intercepting traditional phone calls. There are even official specifications like, in the USA, CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) which define the technical requirements that any telecom equipment must satisfy to make wiretapping possible. Recently, there have also been requests to do the same with phone calls made over the Internet, but there’s more to worry about.

Echelon and friends

In the late 1990s, a system called “Echelon”, used by several secret agencies, caused quite a stir in hi-tech circles. The purpose of Echelon was mass eavesdropping on communications worldwide. Some people also floated the hypothesis that Echelon was used for economic espionage to the advantage of USA corporations. As of the late 1990s/early 2000s, Echelon intercepted telephone calls and other communications on satellite links and transoceanic cables. The best source of information about it are two reports, of which one is available online, commissioned by the European Parliament.

Whatever its actual power is or was, Echelon is simply one network and one of the possible methods for mass interception. There are plenty of other countries that perform, or have evaluated, the same activities. Regardless of the country, today there is also a strong push to monitor all communications in the same way. Technology is only making it harder to resist to this temptation. In June 2006, for example, the F.B.I dropped demands for Library Patron Records only after a long legal battle.

Both individuals and businesses are exposed in the same way. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (Swift) maintains a common database of billions of financial transactions in 200 countries. The USA Treasury Department had unlimited access to that database for several years after 2001, before Swift was able to restrict their operations, leading to official complaints from the European Community.

A law proposed in USA in February 2007 demands that all Internet service providers track their customers’ online activities just to aid police in future investigations. Similar laws already exist or are under discussion in most other countries. A wiretapping program proposed in Sweden in March 2007, for example, would enable the interception of “millions of telephone calls, email and text messages”. Another bill in the United Kingdom would allow both widespread data sharing and comparisons between public and private databases and the range of purposes for which these analyses can be carried out.

Digital mines

Data mining is the activity of analyzing huge quantities of digital data to discover which ones are related, how and why. Corporations and Government Agencies routinely perform data mining, in order to discover consumer habits and terrorist activities.

The Narus software company makes a traffic analysis software able to intercept all e-mail messages (complete with attachments), see what web pages are visited and reconstruct phone calls made through the Internet. There have been rumors of Narus being installed inside several switching offices of the AT&T; phone company.

One may believe that, since the amount of textual information flowing across the Internet in any second is really huge and constantly growing, the probability of being personally watched through data mining is almost non-existent, but this could become an illusion pretty quickly.

It is true that Internet traffic is growing so fast that no software program, no matter how fast, could keep pace with it: at least another company, however, goes one step further than Narus to solve this problem. Exegy sells a small specialized integrated circuit, called the TextMiner. Once it’s mounted on a small computer extension board, the TextMiner is capable of scanning in real time up to one billion characters per second, to find, up to 260 times faster than any normal computer, specific words or phone numbers in a data stream.

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