The technology, called ultrasonic cross-device tracking, embeds high-frequency tones that are inaudible to humans in advertisements, web pages, and even physical locations like retail stores. These ultrasound “beacons” emit their audio sequences with speakers, and almost any device microphone—like those accessed by an app on a smartphone or tablet—can detect the signal and start to put together a picture of what ads you’ve seen, what sites you’ve perused, and even where you’ve been. Now that you’re sufficiently concerned, the good news is that at the Black Hat Europe security conference on Thursday, a group based at University of California, Santa Barbara will present an Android patch and a Chrome extension that give consumers more control over the transmission and receipt of ultrasonic pitches on their devices.
If you live in Baltimore, you may have the feeling that you’re being watched. You are. Baltimore Police track your cellphone use without a warrant. They secretly film the entire city from the air. And as concerns about the uses and privacy implications of that next-generation surveillance tech have mounted, these domestic spying scandals also raise another question: Why Baltimore?
It turns out that Baltimore checks off all the requirements to build a modern American urban panopticon: High crime rates, racially biased policing, strained community-police relations, and lack of police oversight have turned Baltimore into a laboratory of emerging surveillance techniques.
On August 23, Bloomberg exposed the details of an aerial surveillance program that Baltimore Police have been using to track cars and criminal suspects. A company called Persistent Surveillance Systems has been flying a Cessna over the city throughout 2016, totaling 300 hours of recorded, real-time video.
Meanwhile, an April appeals court upheld a lower-court decision that BPD can’t use stingray devices—tools that surveil calls and track cell phones by impersonating cell towers—without a warrant. It had been a common practice for the department.
And on August 16, the Center for Media Justice, ColorOfChange.org, and New America’s Open Technology Institute filed an FCC complaint alleging that BPD’s use of stingrays harms Baltimore’s citizens by causing interference on public radio spectrum without authorization. The complaint alleges that stingrays have been used so frequently that they reduce the availability of local cellular networks. “This interference with calls extends to emergency calls. In this way, these devices disrupt the cellular telephone network and emergency services,” the complaint reads. “Worse, the harms that stem from BPD’s use of CS simulator equipment fall disproportionately on Baltimore’s Black residents.”
International Relations Without Secrets
Transparency has long been a rare commodity in international affairs. But today, the forces of technology are ushering in a new age of openness that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Governments, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can now harness a flood of open-source information, drawn from commercial surveillance satellites, drones, smartphones, and computers, to reveal hidden activities in contested areas—from Ukraine to Syria to the South China Sea.
Over the next decade, the market-driven explosion of surveillance sensors and data analytics will bring an unprecedented level of transparency to global affairs. Commercial satellites will capture daily images of the entire globe, offering inexpensive and automated reports on everything from crop yields to military activity. Journalists, NGOs, and bloggers will increasingly use crowdsourced data to uncover wartime atrocities and expose government hypocrisy. Private security companies will discover the sources of cyberattacks and data theft. Biometric systems will expose the identities of clandestine operatives, and government agencies will struggle to contain leakers and whistleblowers.
Can reformers score another big win on the government’s collection of personal data?
When internet surveillance experts gather for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, it will be one of the first public battles in the next stage of the war over the United States government’s surveillance of its own citizens.
The hearing will focus on what’s called “702 surveillance”—a reference to the section of the 1978 law that authorizes the National Security Agency to collect the Internet traffic of foreigners and underpins two major NSA mass surveillance programs: one that allows the government to get data from Internet companies, and the other for the “upstream collection” program that siphons directly from the Internet’s basic infrastructure. Privacy and civil liberties groups say Section 702 is far too broad, enabling the NSA to “incidentally” collect intelligence on many American citizens as well. “We have every reason to believe that there’s a massive amount of Americans’ data being pulled in by Section 702,” says Elizabeth Goitein, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. The NSA also allows other federal agencies to search its section 702 database to help investigate crimes unrelated to terrorism, which Goitein calls “an end-run around the Fourth Amendment.”
Section 702 is due to expire at the end of 2017, and privacy advocates hope to force changes to the law that will narrow its scope and cut down on the amount of data the NSA collects from Americans.
Reformers have had already had success in stopping one of the NSA’s bulk surveillance programs. A year ago, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which ended the NSA’s mass collection of phone metadata—records that included people’s phone numbers and the length of their calls. Privacy advocates hailed the end of that program as perhaps the biggest civil liberties victory of the post-9/11 era.
Privacy and civil liberty reformers had a strong argument against bulk metadata collection. Before the USA Freedom Act was passed, Richard Leon, a judge who sits on the federal court that approves surveillance programs, had already ruled that the phone records program was unconstitutional. The government also provided essentially no examples in which metadata collection had stopped any plots or attacks. In his ruling, Leon pointed to the “utter lack of evidence that a terrorist attack has ever been prevented because searching the NSA database was faster than other investigative tactics.”
Laura Poitras has a talent for disappearing. In her early documentaries like My Country, My Country and The Oath, her camera seems to float invisibly in rooms where subjects carry on intimate conversations as if they’re not being observed. Even in Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning film that tracks her personal journey from first contact with Edward Snowden to releasing his top secret NSA leaks to the world, she rarely offers a word of narration. She appears in that film exactly once, caught as if by accident in the mirror of Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room.
Now, with the opening of her multi-media solo exhibit, Astro Noise, at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art this week, Snowden’s chronicler has finally turned her lens onto herself. And she’s given us a glimpse into one of the darkest stretches of her life, when she wasn’t yet the revelator of modern American surveillance but instead its target.
The exhibit is vast and unsettling, ranging from films to documents that can be viewed only through wooden slits to a video expanse of Yemeni sky which visitors are invited to lie beneath. But the most personal parts of the show are documents that lay bare how excruciating life was for Poitras as a target of government surveillance—and how her subsequent paranoia made her the ideal collaborator in Snowden’s mission to expose America’s surveillance state. First, she’s installed a wall of papers that she received in response to an ongoing Freedom of Information lawsuit the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed on her behalf against the FBI. The documents definitively show why Poitras was tracked and repeatedly searched at the US border for years, and even that she was the subject of a grand jury investigation. And second, a book she’s publishing to accompany the exhibit includes her journal from the height of that surveillance, recording her first-person experience of becoming a spying subject, along with her inner monologue as she first corresponded with the secret NSA leaker she then knew only as “Citizenfour.”
Poitras says she initially intended to use only a few quotes from her journal in that book. But as she was transcribing it, she “realized that it was a primary source document about navigating a certain reality,” she says. The finished book, which includes a biographical piece by Guantanamo detainee Lakhdar Boumediene, a photo collection from Ai Weiwei, and a short essay by Snowden on using radio waves from stars to generate random data for encryption, is subtitled “A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance.” It will be published widely on February 23.
“I’ve asked people for a long time to reveal a lot in my films,” Poitras says. But telling her own story, even in limited glimpses, “provides a concrete example of how the process works we don’t usually see.”
That process, for Poitras, is the experience of being unwittingly ingested into the American surveillance system.
Super Bowl 50 will be big in every way. A hundred million people will watch the game on TV. Over the next ten days, 1 million people are expected to descend on the San Francisco Bay Area for the festivities. And, according to the FBI, 60 federal, state, and local agencies are working together to coordinate surveillance and security at what is the biggest national security event of the year.
The Department of Homeland Security, the agency coordinating the Herculean effort, classifies every Super Bowl as a special event assignment rating (SEAR) 1 event, with the exception of the 2002 Super Bowl, which got the highest ranking because it followed the September 11 terror attacks—an assignment usually reserved for only the Presidential Inauguration. A who’s-who of agencies, ranging from the DEA and TSA to the US Secret Service to state and local law enforcement and even the Coast Guard has spent more than two years planning for the event.
All of which means that if you’re attending the game, or just happen to be in the general vicinity of the myriad events leading up to the Super Bowl, you will be watched. Closely. The festivities started Saturday and run through February 7, when the Carolina Panthers meet the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Here’s a sampling of the technology Big Brother can use to surveil you during the Super Bowl in the Bay Area.