NSA’s PRISM will be echoing in the tech news for some time yet. It looks like the very same tech companies that were revealed to participate in the spying has recently protested the government’s new monitoring practices. In an open letter directed at the U.S. Senate, these companies, along with several other organizations, urged the government to cease its phone metadata collection activities. These combined forces, making up the Fight 215 coalition, seek to block Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which is scheduled for renewal in a week’s time.
It has been revealed that the U.S. government has been snooping on its own citizens for some time, and the NSA’s practices were just a tip of the iceberg. According to the latest reports, the FBI has been complicit in helping the NSA with its illegal surveillance. The law enforcement agency has also repeatedly criticized tech companies like Google and Apple for providing its users with extra mobile OS security.
Even surrounded by public criticism, U.S. law enforcement agencies continue to manipulate technological devices to collect mobile metadata from all over the country. Many of these departments are utilizing Stingray, a tool originally designed for the military. The U.S. Marshals Service, on the other hand, spies on at least five airports with DRT boxes. These devices collect IMSI numbers, which are basically IDs for mobile devices and give the Marshals Service access to geolocation data of all the mobiles in a certain area (almost the entire U.S. population, according to some reports).
On top of this, the CIA is reported to have made various attempts to try and hack iOS security for years, and the U.S. government has compromised users’ security by forcing companies to include backdoors inside their hardware and software.
The 007 of illegal spies
The NSA surveillance leak made people worry about their personal security, but this is just a small sample of the government’s spying. In fact, there have been recent reports which revealed that billions of U.S. international phone data had been collected by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) over the last 20 years or more, without legal supervision or warrants. According to these reports, DEA looks through more metadata in one day than the NSA does in a whole year.
Reason or no, the agency simply collected metadata from calls made to 116 different countries because they were suspected of being linked to international crime, such as drug trafficking. Most of the data collected was from calls to South and Central America, Mexico, and Canada.
Considering the legalities
The DEA counters any argument against its shady surveillance practices, reasoning that these measures have greatly aided in the capture of numerous drug cartel members. However, in a recent lawsuit against the law enforcement agency, EFF attorney Mark Rumold argued that potential arrests of certain individuals do not give the DEA the right to collect people’s metadata.
ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey points out that the U.S. government’s excuse of trying to pinpoint high-risk criminals isn’t that credible, as it has been using the same techniques to gather information on regular criminal investigations for years.
The U.S. Marshals Service’s metadata collection was also gathered illegally, meaning there were no warrants issued. According to Jackie Bodnar of FreedomWorks, the agency was in direct violation of the 4th amendment.
Currently, the DEA and U.S. Marshals Service have claimed that all metadata collection practices have been ceased, but many have taken the statement with a grain of salt. Jackie Bodnar states that, considering the damage the NSA has already done, it’s highly unlikely that the U.S. Department of Justice has drastically transformed overnight.
Maybe there’s an upside
Among the many downsides of these surveillance practices, there are definitely some factors that might reassure you. According to Professor Darren Hayes of Pace University’s Seidenberg School of CSIS, the metadata collected by the U.S. Marshals Service didn’t contain any content that might compromise personal information (unlike the NSA’s efforts).
Another individual, Jim McGregor of Tirias Research, has come forward to say that it is very likely that the U.S. government did not utilize the collected metadata at all. McGregor claims that the potential dangers against American lives are of higher priority than small sacrifices of data security.
The battle against big brother
No matter what pro-surveillance supporters say, the fight against these illegal practices continues to grow. As mentioned previously, the Fight 215 coalition of tech companies (Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc.) and similar organizations (ACLU, Bill of Rights Defense Committee, CDT, American Library Association, etc.) continue to use the legal platform to cease government spying.
It’s still unclear whether these efforts will make any impact. Last year, Senate republicans voted to shut down the 2013 USA Freedom Act. This legislation would have placed slightly more control on government surveillance.
However, the arguments for metadata collection are definitely weak. Yasha Heidari of Heidari Power Law Group notes that any evidence collected through these practices could not even be legally presented as legitimate proof in any court. The information would have been illegally obtained, and therefore would be suppressed. Heidari claims that forcing citizens to wear ankle monitors would deter criminal activity immensely, but just like illegal surveillance, it’s an illegal practice that should not be done.
What do we do?
It’s difficult to blindly trust that government entities will simply cease their surveillance programs. They might say they’ve stopped their spying, but there’s no way of knowing if they are being completely truthful. As of now, the only way you can ensure your online privacy is to utilize a VPN (Virtual Private Network), which will provide you with secure connections and a new IP.
Remember, your ISP (Internet Service Provider) isn’t exempt from cooperating with the government. The only person you can trust with you Internet security is yourself, so you must make sure to do whatever you can.
There are numerous VPN service providers available today, so the question is which one suits your needs best. On top of choosing the one that will provide you with the privacy you need, you will need to consider various factors that may affect your online activities. If you’re confused about which VPN to choose, take a look at one of our in-depth VPN comparison articles. Once you’ve chosen the best VPN for you, you will start feeling much safer online!