In 2016, activists have more access than ever before to game-changing, high-tech tools to communicate, organize communities and lead political change. Perhaps the most popular is the smartphone, which instantly provides activists and journalists with tools like social media and cameras to quickly communicate and expose government corruption.
But there is a dark side to cyberspace which is particularly dangerous to activists around the globe. It’s more than likely your government is monitoring your work.
Corporations have been using spyware for years to target consumers, but governments have also collaborated with corporations to use state-sponsored spyware to target journalists and activists around the world at an alarming rate.
Governments in the Middle East are using malware to spy on activists, many who end up tortured and even killed. Even here at home, local law enforcement agencies target and spy on activists. In Chicago, local police have used Stingray surveillance technology to eavesdrop on #BlackLivesMatter activists without warrants.
Truth In Media has reported on these issues for years, and more voices are joining in to bring this information to light.
According to an article by Truth In Media’s Derrick Broze, use of Stingray cellphone surveillance technology remains in a gray area, legally speaking. He writes, “Some courts have stated that warrants are not required, while other states have yet to rule on the topic.”
In the article, titled “A Guide to Stingray Cellphone Surveillance Technology,” Broze references a guide produced by the American Civil Liberties Union’s California chapter to help communities “understand law enforcement and government surveillance.” According to the ACLU, the guide offers tips “for grassroots activists across the country who are concerned about the proliferation of drones, automated license plate readers, facial recognition, and more in their community.”
Truth In Media’s Joshua Cook wrote back in 2013 about how the “NSA [National Security Agency] has complete control of your iPhone, [and] can activate your microphone without you knowing.” In the article, Cook cites a leaked government document as evidence of the U.S. government spending taxpayer dollars on developing spyware implants for at least the first generation of Apple iPhones.
From the report: “…This spyware was to make it possible to remotely download or upload files to a mobile phone. It would also, according to the catalog, allow the NSA to divert text messages, browse the user’s address book, intercept voicemails, activate the phone’s microphone and camera at will, determine the current cell site and the user’s current location, ‘etc.’”
And, on Christmas Day in 2013, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden sent out a warning message to all that the government can track anyone with a smartphone. “We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go,” he said. Snowden later verified these claims with leaked documents that included “a product catalog for spies and hackers at the NSA,” Cook reported.
Isn’t your digital life your private property? If your computer or smartphone is your private property, how can the government spy on you without a warrant? Are they violating the Fourth Amendment?
According to Eric Delisle, CEO of anti-surveillance technology company ICloak, the federal courts have not ruled that citizens have legal rights to their digital life because when users go online data has been given to a third party, either to an internet provider or telecommunications company. These companies can justify selling your data to the highest bidder.
“Governments don’t need to break laws because they can just buy it,” Delisle said.
“We have no rights in the digital realm. The best thing I know to do is become informed and use tools that make it hard or impossible for you to be tracked and targeted.”
With slick marketing ads, “spy brokers” and companies like HackingTeam pitch governments by offering out-of-the-box solutions to spy on targets.
Truth In Media’s Joshua Cook spoke with Nizar Nayuf, a Syrian journalist and activist who defected from Syria to Western Europe.
According to Nayuf, the Syrian government successfully used malware to spy on him and his email contacts.
Nayuf told Cook that last year a Skype recording between him and his wife was published on websites stating, “Nizar Nayouf, who gives us lectures on moral values, is talking with one of his harlots!”
“When their action was met with wide disapproval, and they realized that I would legally pursue them, they deleted the recording, but I still keep it,” said Nayuf.
This type of intimidation has a chilling effect on journalists who challenge governments and it’s not uncommon, according to Nayuf.
There are multiple examples of governments using this type of technology to surveil the public, from the U.S. to Morocco, Syria to Bahrain. In an interview with WIRED magazine in 2014, Adriana Edmeades, a legal officer for Privacy International, said “…these companies are making blood money off of the fact that they are selling pernicious technology that has extraordinary capabilities to states they know are repressive, human-rights-abusing states.”
The push against unlimited and ambiguous government surveillance is becoming increasingly widespread as more individuals unite to shed light on surveillance operations. Participant Media recently launched a new investigative documentary series titled Truth and Power, which “unpacks the timely issues of security, surveillance, and profiteering in the digital age.” The show airs on Fridays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Pivot.
Take a look at this week’s episode which focuses on government-sponsored spyware.
Last year Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed into law, the USA Freedom Act. Many believed that this bill would end the unconstitutional surveillance of bulk collection of private data.
But according to Emmy award winning journalist Ben Swann in a recent Reality Check episode, that is not the case.
Swann explained, “the FISA court warrant is not the same as a constitutional court order. A constitutional court order requires that government or policing agencies explain their need for a warrant on probable cause.”
“But a FISA court order doesn’t require that probable cause. Instead, it is based on government need—a much lower standard,” said Swann.
“Bottom line here is that the USA Freedom Act leaves us exactly where we were before Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s spying program. But it does exactly what politicians want it to do—make you feel better about the NSA is doing which, without question, whether we agree with it or not, according to most experts, violates the Fourth Amendment of our constitution,” said Swann.
Dr. Katherine Albrecht, CEO of StartPage and founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, says that it’s possible for activists to protect themselves from data brokers and governments, including private search, encryption and virtual private networks.
There is a call for universal encryption, but governments and the data broker industry are ignoring them for obvious reasons—money and power. So what will it take for activists to survive in the brave new digital world? As new technology is being invented at a breakneck pace, there’s still hope of being able to protect privacy and prevent abuse of power. It remains to be seen if the voices calling for this will garner the support needed before it’s too late.
As a part of Pivot’s “Know Your Rights” campaign, in association with the ACLU of Southern California, you can take action to to prevent unjust use of surveillance tactics. Take the pledge below and learn more.