In Depth: We Watch the Watchmen - We're Watching You Week


By Timothy Dillon

Photo courtesy of Thibault Milan.

When it comes to internet spying, all eyes are on the NSA, the Obama Administration, and PRISM. The revelation that our government has been compiling a massive amount of data regarding Americans’ online interactions has been nothing short of a victory for all the conspiracy theorists in the nation. But with all this attention on the NSA, we might be forgetting the original Big Brother of federal agencies.

PRISM began in 2007 and with it came the search for how to monitor people’s online interactions. It wasn’t as easy as tapping a phone, since there was no overarching network of cables, switch connectors, or viable eavesdropping points. Instead, in the case of internet communications, especially VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), there was a new challenge. The FBI would have to alter, add, or change existing legislation to accommodate for our digital and social revolution. They needed a better way to gather evidence on a “person of interest,” and since 2008, the FBI has been lobbying lawmakers to help them.

We know that PRISM monitors nine major internet and communications websites, such as Facebook, Google, and Skype — the list goes on. We also know that when this program began, and the FBI and NSA started monitoring online activity, they had also been applying for the right to do so, in a strictly legal fashion.

In 2011, 2012, and 2013, the capital has called for a solution on how and when the FBI can monitor and assess a person. Recently, a bill was proposed that would force internet companies to create “backdoors” (digital access points) to all online activities.

The main backlash against this plan did not stem from companies’ unwillingness to violate the rights of their users. No, they were afraid that it would make their software more vulnerable to hackers, digital attacks, and theft.

Despite this, Google and Facebook reluctantly decided to comply with the FBI’s wishes. They publicly accepted the terms and were planning on installing secure ports through which the government could access their servers. It turns out the effort was not necessary, as PRISM had been hacking these companies for a few years. They just wanted a means to do it legally and use the information obtained.

Interestingly enough, what the FBI and NSA have been doing, is exactly what software engineers and researchers have advocated for instead of creating backdoors.

Earlier this year software researchers published a document entitled, Going Bright: Wiretapping Without Weakening Communications Infrastructure. The controversial paper outlines the reasons for not creating backdoors in major internet companies and suggests that the FBI use traditional hacking methods to wiretap a person of interest instead. Along with conjuring criticism and bringing up questions about where the FBI would obtain such volatile snooping software, the idea has also added validity to the assumption that the backdoors the government was looking to mandate were just a way to use the information they had already mined.

Legally speaking, when it comes to surveillance, what comes first, the technology or the law? The FBI began listening in on Americans through traditional phone wiretaps long before it was legal for them to do so. It was only in 1968 that Congress required a warrant before a wiretap could be place on someone’s phone. And yet, with the first computerized telephone switchboards created in 1965, there was already wiretapping going on of certain individuals.

A famous example is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. He was wiretapped in 1963 by Robert Kennedy, which meant he experienced both the archaic form of installing actual wires to intercept communications, and the more modern computerized taps, starting after 1965 when those switchboards changed.

So it would seem that this is just keeping in line with how the FBI has always operated when it comes to surveillance and wiretapping technology. Create the means to monitor and track someone, lobby congress to give you a legal rights to do it, and then use all the information before and after in the “best interest” of the American people.

That is the supposed intention, right? After all, that is why laws like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) exist, right?

Edward Snowden has changed that conversation. We now have to weigh the value of our online privacy against agencies and laws that have existed to protect us, despite the fact they are founded on the abuse of American liberties. Strangely enough, the public backlash, while definitely present, has not been nearly as severe as one would have expected. People have resigned to a certain amount of their online activity being examined, even violated.

For the time being, the FBI and Director Robert Mueller are on the defense in House panels and Senate committees. He vehemently argues that these programs are justified in the protection of the welfare of America and its people. The question these committees are asking, and rightly so, are, “at what cost?”

So while we may have confirmed the old paranoia that the government is watching us, they now know, we are watching them too.