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1984 in 2016

“…if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.”

– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four


On January 26, 2016, The Economist published an article titled The StingRay’s tale addressing some the concerns regarding the Government’s surveillance capabilities.[1] The article addressed two specific devices – StingRay and Hailstorm. Both devices operate “by mimicking a cellular tower, forcing all nearby mobile phones to reveal their unique identifying codes, known as IMSI numbers.” The full capabilities of these devices are still unknown. What is known is that they can locate individuals with precision using the information being transmitted by your phone through these “cell-site simulators.” Furthermore, these devices spy on “thousands of phones in a targeted area, tracking their location and even intercepting calls, messages, and data. They are supposed to help identify serious criminals, but cannot operate without monitoring innocent people too.”[2] According to American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) there are at least 58 agencies in 23 states that possess these devices. The city of Baltimore alone has conceded to using these devices at least 4,300 times between 2007 and 2015.

In a recent case in Baltimore, it came to light that the Baltimore police were under orders from the U.S. government to withhold information about these devices and prosecutors were encouraged to allow the suppression of the evidence rather complying with judicial orders to disclose details about how these devices work.[3] Think about that for a second: the purpose of these devices is to obtain evidence to catch criminals. But, when it is discovered that these devices were used to collect that evidence, the Government would rather sabotage the evidence than explain how the device works. What does that say about this technology? What does that say about our Government?

For generations, conspiracy theorists and defense attorneys (one group is not mutually exclusive of the other) have argued that our Government has evolved into an Orwellian “Big Brother.”[4] Not long ago it was impossible to conceive that our Government had “Thought Police” capabilities to surveille its citizens “like beetle[s] under a magnifying glass.” But times have changed and so has technology. Rather searching your mind for “thought crimes” the Government need only tap into that secondary cerebral unit you’re probably using to read this article. It can tell anyone who cares to take a peek at your data what you’re currently thinking, seeing, and doing. Third parties can even turn on your phone’s recording devices without you knowing. The information stored on your mobile device can tell those curious spectators what you’ve done. Sometimes, it can tell them what you’re going to do. Obviously, this is all incredibly valuable information.

These capabilities are scary given the historical indictments against our Government’s unlawful surveillance and Constitutional violations. From COINTELPRO to the NSA, there is ample information available for a prudent researcher to make an educated hypothesis regarding the current status of Government surveillance capabilities. If history repeats itself, it would be unwise to assume the Government can be trusted with such amazing power and access to your personal life. If you disagree, ask yourself if there is anything on your phone that you’d prefer not to have to explain to someone. Maybe it’s harmless. Maybe not. But just because you’re not doing anything illegal in the bathroom doesn’t mean it’s ok for the Government to watch you while you’re in there.

“War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is strength.”

– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

[1] http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21689244-courts-take-aim-technology-beloved-countrys-police-forces-secretive

[2] https://news.vice.com/video/phone-hackers-britains-secret-surveillance

[3] http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-stingray-challenge-20150904-story.html

[4] Orwell, George. Nineteen Eight-four. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972. Print.

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