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The People Vs the NSA

There is a tablet in my house that blinks whenever my roommate has a message. I know this because for some reason it’s my job to keep it charged for her. It has front and back cameras. The built-in microphone and speakers are capable of holding a conversation in English–probably other languages as well. With what we know now, I must assume that the NSA has the ability to activate the cameras and microphone to run silently in the background, bypassing the light that indicates when the camera is in use.

The same is true of the other computers in my home, but to a lesser degree.

The Day We Fight Back banner

The Day We Fight Back banner.

The desktop I’m using to write this article doesn’t have a camera or a microphone. Nor does the old Dell laptop that gets used occasionally around the house. My other laptop, a newer Gateway, is equipped with a built-in camera and microphone, but I’ve never managed to get the microphone to work under Bodhi Linux. Not that I’ve tried very hard. I don’t Skype or anything, so a microphone is of very little use to me.

This is probably a good thing as it means the NSA can’t watch or listen to me as I use my desktop or Dell and they can’t eavesdrop when I’m on the Gateway. They can only steal my bank passwords, learn where I store data online and what social networking accounts are connected with me.

If you own a computer of any type that connects to the Internet, you too have to assume the NSA is collecting your data–watching you. They are turning your computer against you. It works for them now; it’s no longer your tool. This kind of takes the fun out of visiting Facebook, reading the news and, especially, sending emails.

Tommorrow, February 11th, is The Day We Fight Back. Along with at least 4,000 other sites, we’ll be running a big banner at the bottom of our pages from which U.S. residents can contact their local representative to urge them to enact legislation to stop the NSA’s unconstitutional spying. Those who reside outside the U.S. will be given a petition to sign which will be sent to representatives in their respective countries urging stronger Internet privacy regulations.

No matter how great our win however, it will be a hollow victory. We’re coming very close to living in a police state and the damage that’s already been done may take years to repair–if ever. No backing down by the spy agency or enacting of legislation by our governments will restore our assurance. Lines have been so thoroughly crossed that we can never be sure they won’t be crossed again. Promises and laws are both easily broken–especially by government agencies.

The free software people’s argument really look good right now. This would be the opinion, espoused by Richard Stallman and others, that all software should be totally free and include source code that is open for inspection as protection against spyware, secret back doors and the like.

Alas, even that bastion of computer freedom has been made suspect by the NSA.

As deep as the NSA has dug its tentacles into the likes of industry giants such as Microsoft, why would we assume they haven’t managed to get inside some of our favorite Linux distros and/or free software applications? I would be willing to bet they have. I have no evidence; I figure it’s a numbers game. Somewhere along the line, the NSA has to have been able to make the right threat or the right offer to get some developer to send our right to privacy to storage on a government server.

The only way to be sure that hasn’t happened would be to examine each and every line in a GNU/Linux distro, and then compile from that examined source code. With the Linux kernel alone having over fifteen million lines of code, this task would be impossible even for someone with the technical know-how to pull it off. For humans, time is not an infinite commodity.

I no longer feel like a free citizen. I no longer feel as if this country belongs to me, my friends or my little nieces and nephews. With good reason, I feel as if I’m being watched. I feel as if we’re all being watched.

At present we can find some shelter in the old axiom concerning safety and numbers. Collectively, all of our computer use is being channeled into a river of data that’s too immense for even the NSA to handle, meaning that nothing I write in an email is likely to bring me to the attention of our intelligence agencies. As I write these words, however, the IT guys and gals at the NSA are busy developing better systems for processing megadata more efficiently. Safety in numbers won’t last forever.

Even now, there’s no shelter for those who have already fallen under the suspicious eye of our intelligence folk. All of their data is already sitting on a server somewhere ready to be sifted through. None of us can stand that scrutiny. Every single one of us has written something somewhere, on Facebook or in a private email perhaps, that can be construed as proving us guilty of any crime the government can make up, especially thought crimes that are tied to patriotism. Remember, we’re supposed to love Big Brother.

I am frightened, both for my country and the world. What manner of men do things like these? To what lengths will they go? Who is there to rein them in?

Tommorrow is “The Day We Fight Back.” I expect we will win at least something from our efforts. Again, it will be a hollow victory. I will never again feel safe from the prying eyes of my government when online–no matter what assurances I am given. Remember, to the NSA, the CIA, the CSEC and GCHQ, we are each and every one of us potentially the next Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, every night my roommate brings me the Android tablet she received for Christmas. I dutifully plug it into the charger and leave it overnight on my desk. It’s dark in my room as I sleep and the front camera points up at the ceiling and the back camera is obscured by the top of my desk, so I’m safe from being watched. But the microphone works. Sometimes I wonder if the NSA has audio files of me snoring as I sleep. Do they count the number of times I get up and go to the bathroom each evening?

Maybe I should start talking to them as I lie in bed waiting for sleep to come.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

10 comments to The People Vs the NSA

  • kjcnsk

    Software and NSA is a Problem right now. Sadly also Hardware is. Support Freedom: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/open-hardware-science-company

  • […] spiega in questo post Christine Hall, dalla mezzanotte dell’11 febbraio e per la durata di tutta la giornata […]

  • Bernard Swiss

    “Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre.”

    Translation:
    If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something therein which will hang him.

    — Cardinal Richelieu

  • ST

    “Somewhere along the line, the NSA has to have been able to make the right threat or the right offer to get some developer to send our right to privacy to storage on a government server.”

    I think the more likely compromise would be in shifting the direction of what gets developed – features never fully implemented, or so hard to set up that people choose closed alternatives.

    The examples I would point to:
    * No Off-the-record encryption support in the Telepathy (or is it Empathy?) messaging library, used in most desktop environments.
    * Non-skype voice and video calling – you can have it with ZRTP point-to-point encryption, but where’s the one-stop signup and setup that Skype offers? (I can download Jitsi, but where do I get a SIP account?)

  • Tony

    “We’re coming very close to living in a police state”
    I hate to break it to you, but you ARE living in a police state. Right now!

  • MDW

    I personally do not believe that the NSA propaganda that they are all knowing is possible. There is no way the NSA can track all the forms of communicaiton in US, know the individual context and what each person means in what they say. NSA is promoting Fear, Uncertianity and Doubt called FUD.

    It is possible that patches could work their way into some Linux Distros to serve the NSA. But I highly doubt it for the BSD Operatings.

    *If there is anything we can do – start encrypting everything. The Linux/BSD Operating Systems have the best chance to fend off the NSA, Governments around the world and Companies from snooping on your networks…

  • risc

    Lucky there is an operating system out there where the code is audited line by line, and has been for years. It’s not for the faint of heart but maybe it’s time to look at OpenBSD. Back in 2010 someone trolled the OpenBSD mailing lists saying there was a backdoor in the OS, all FUD, but it was time for another audit… no back door, but more bugs crushed.

  • txtechdog

    Christine,

    What you are failing to take into account is that the Linux kernel hasn’t always been 15 million lines of code. And additions to the code base are typically a much more manageable size and can be easily audited before addition. And with the intellectual property threats that Linux has received in the past, I think that the code that does make it into the kernel gets a great deal of scrutiny and has for a long time. So I think that the likelihood of the NSA sneaking in some backdoor into Linux is extremely low.

    Even so,

    Do I believe that our government has betrayed our trust? Absolutely.

    Do I think that the open source parts of Linux are compromised?
    Not very likely, because the risk of such a smoking gun being found isn’t worth it.

    Do I think that there could be some proprietary blob that is included with some Linux drivers that could be compromised?
    I think that this scenario is much more likely, which is why I avoid drivers of this nature if at all possible.

    And I agree with the other commenter that the NSA doesn’t really have to do anything to keep people in line as long as the fear of them doing something or having the capability to do something is there.

  • Ha… I got you beat Christine H. I do not have a mic nor a webcam. I also do not use social networks. I am against the idea of facebook or something like google plus, which just makes you a target for some knit wit. Every time I log on, such as now, on this website. I use a random proxy. My email, is my own server. I have old 486 pc running puppylinux as mail server. I also do not use my real name. Maybe if it was stamped and mailed in the box I would. But not digitally.

    Back in the day when pc’s were getting more affordable and popular. We watched Leo Laporte who always said, never use your personal info on the internet. Not even when you sign up a new email account. I still hold those principles today. I miss Leo, liked his black hat hacker challenges. He would setup a computer, some times with windows, or linux. Whoever hacked it first would win a prize. Four times in a row, I won that prize. Four free gaming pc’s. Today those pc’s would be antique piles of junk. But still was fun to get something out of it.

    With all the camera’s today. For instance New York, or Los Angles. The local pd’s have camera’s watching the streets. It’s not hard to hack into the system and watch what they are watching. If you have the equipment, you can also record all the cameras.