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Our Govt. Is Turning into a Surveillance State That's Almost Impossible to Stop

The US government extensively monitors its citizens' internet activities, with dangerous effects on personal liberties.

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Earlier this year, Google released its semi-annual report on online transparency and specifically cited the US government as  among the worst culprits for its requests to view the private data of internet users. While theoretically law enforcement and other government agencies should require warrants to search through sensitive private information such as emails, recent investigations by the ACLU suggest that the FBI has been circumventing these requirements and reading individuals' email accounts without specific legal authorisation.

Furthermore, companies such as Facebook and Google may now face  monetary fines if they refuse to share client data and consent to wiretaps requested by government agencies. In a world where people increasingly use the ample cloud-memory space afforded by services such as Gmail as a storage locker for information, the apparent belief on the part of government that individuals' email accounts do not qualify as "private" is deeply troubling.

Big data, big brother

A glimpse into what the future of domestic surveillance may entail can be seen in a new type of software developed by the defence firm  Raytheon. Better known in the public imagination for its production of cruise missiles and air warfare simulators, Raytheon has begun to branch out into the creation of surveillance products as well with the development of its new "Riot" software.

The programme - demonstrated in a  report by The Guardian's Ryan Gallagher - mines individuals' social media usage in order to track their movement and even predict their future behaviour. In a  video with Raytheon's "principal investigator" Brian Urch, he demonstrates in amazing detail how the programme can be used to track and predict the future location of one of the company's own employees.

As Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre told Gallagher regarding the implications of the programme:

Users may be posting information that they believe will be viewed only by their friends, but instead, it is being viewed by government officials or pulled in by data collection services like the Riot search.

It is unlikely that any individual operating a Twitter and Facebook account to connect with loved ones would imagine their posts could one day be used by the employees of a government defence contractor to predict their future behaviour; but incredibly enough, such a scenario is becoming increasingly possible.

Another sign of increasing government commitment to the use of " Big Data" to keep tabs on online and telephone communication is the creation of a  massive $2bn data centre in Utah under the aegis of the National Security Agency (NSA). The sprawling complex built in the remote Utah desert is intended to capture and store all types of online data, including  "private emails, mobile phone calls, Google searches, travel itineraries and purchases ", towards the goal of achieving " total information awareness".

What this will mean in the long-term for the average citizen - whose personal privacy has already been hopelessly compromised by technological monitoring, and who will now be subject to a massive and open-ended programme of Big Data analytics - is as yet unclear. What is clear, however, is that the post-9/11 environment of fear has allowed huge amounts of resources to be committed to projects such as this, which will empower the US government with a level of information about its citizens unprecedented in human history.

The human impact of surveillance

When considering the implications of the massive digital  Panopticon being developed today, it is important to reflect upon the impact upon individual liberty which even crude, old-fashioned surveillance causes. With the revelation that the New York Police Department had been conducting  blanket-spying on Muslimsliving in New York City and its environs - using methods such as paid informants, wiretapping, detailed cataloguing of Muslim neighbourhoods, documentation of Muslim-owned businesses, infiltration of houses of worship, and many other invasive tactics, it can be observed what effects intensive monitoring can have on ordinary individuals. 

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