If you were worried during the aftermath of 9/11 about innocent citizens being spied on, having their reputations trampled via false accusations, and restrictions on freedom of political speech, the news these days might lead you to a nervous breakdown–especially since the Big Brother coming after you with weaponized communications technology might be private business rather than government, or company and state working together.
Most prominently, it was revealed that the FBI bought, but apparently didn’t use in the field, the now-infamous Pegasus cellphone spyware from its Israeli proprietor, the NSO Group. The software was used for political surveillance within Israel.
On Feb. 7, the Internal Revenue Service backtracked on forcing taxpayers to submit to the private firm ID.me’s facial recognition software before accessing its website.
Also in the news: a secret CIA mass surveillance program gathered records of an as-yet-unknown nature belonging to Americans, according to an April 2021 letter to the CIA from Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, which was partially declassified on Feb. 10. This until-now-unknown program is in addition to the CIA’s database of international financial transactions encompassing the financial data of millions of Americans, gleaned from Western Union and other private firms, authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court.
Add to that that the Biden administration is replacing the detention of large numbers of illegal aliens with the alternative of expanded electronic monitoring, including GPS anklets, bracelets, cellphones, and smartwatches. Advocate groups for illegal aliens condemned the “funneling millions of federal dollars to private companies to provide the surveillance devices” this entails.
Meanwhile, late last month, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) inspector general found the agency to be sloppy in following both court-approved and its own internal procedures designed to prevent the illegal monitoring of Americans’ communications. Palantir, co-founded by PayPal’s politically libertarian co-founder Peter Thiel, reportedly counts among its customers not only the NSA but the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the U.S. Marine Corps, and Air Force, and British intelligence. Palantir’s “Kite” and “XKEYSCORE Helper” programs are apparently invaluable in governmental surveillance.
But Thiel himself not long ago warned about “surveillance artificial intelligence,” calling it a “communist totalitarian technology” that governments will use—in particular, AI-powered facial recognition technology—to control people. Thiel knows of what he speaks. A 2018 Bloomberg investigative report titled “Palantir Knows Everything About You,” claimed that Palantir software sifts through financial documents, airline bookings, cellphone bills, and social media comments and discovers connections that a mere human observer would miss.
Electronic spying is supposed to be what government does, but it’s private companies—not at all limited to within the United States—that produce the tools that spy beyond any snoop or spook’s wildest dreams of a few years ago. And today, tech companies bow to no one in being woker than thou. Whether it’s Bill Gates complaining that “The world today has 6.8 billion people … headed up to about nine billion,” but “if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by, perhaps, 10 or 15 percent”; or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey canceling former President Donald Trump and suppressing the readership of new stories about Hunter Biden’s alleged corruption and its connection to his father that could have swayed the 2020 election.
Consider the recent observation from White House press secretary Jen Psaki, commenting on Spotify attaching disclaimers to speech such as podcast superstar Joe Rogan’s, who noted the now-documented fact of masks not protecting against COVID transmission. According to Psaki, “we want every platform to continue doing more to call out mis- and disinformation while also uplifting accurate information.”
Control of the propagation of information and the ability to know by electronic means the activities of the populace are two powerful tools that become unstoppable weapons when paired.
Concerns about new technologies making surveillance easier are far from novel, and were more often to be heard from the left than the right. For instance, in 1979, dissenting in the narrow 5-to-3 Smith v. Maryland case on telephone privacy, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by fellow liberal William Brennan, warned that “Many individuals, including members of unpopular political organizations or journalists with confidential sources, may legitimately wish to avoid disclosure of their personal contacts. Permitting governmental access to telephone records on less than probable cause may thus impede certain forms of political affiliation and journalistic endeavor that are the hallmark of a truly free society.”
Governmental access, however, may no longer be the main issue. As Justice Clarence Thomas notes in his dissent in Carpenter v. United States (pdf) in 2018, cellphone location records aren’t a cellphone user’s property.
“He did not create the records, he does not maintain them, he cannot control them, and he cannot destroy them. Neither the terms of his contracts nor any provision of law makes the records his. The records belong to MetroPCS and Sprint.”
And yet, as Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out in his decision in Carpenter, “a cell phone—almost a ‘feature of human anatomy,’—tracks nearly exactly the movements of its owner … faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into private residences, doctor’s offices, political headquarters, and other potentially revealing locales. … Accordingly, when the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near-perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user … the Government can now travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts, subject only to the retention policies of the wireless carriers, which currently maintain records for up to five years.”
Combining Thomas’s and Roberts’s points, the records of “near-perfect surveillance” belong to the tech companies. They already use them for marketing and other business purposes. In the future, especially if Silicon Valley and those in power in Washington share political enemies, they could use them to suppress opposition.
Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter all already have used their technological muscle against those who would drain the Washington swamp. Yet no one elected their CEOs to anything. They helped prevent President Donald Trump’s reelection; they can destroy a candidate, a movement, and a political party if the American people allow them to.
Despite the People’s Republic of China’s genocide, regulation of motherhood, and quashing of political dissent, corporate giants within the free world such as Coca-Cola, Intel, Procter & Gamble, and Visa are willing to sponsor the Beijing Winter Olympics; why would they automatically be disposed against tyranny and oppression when it rears its head at home? If we think that high-tech surveillance, disinformation, and character assassination are only the stuff of the corporate puppets of communist China, such as Huawei, and not our own ideologically driven powerful businesses, we will pay dearly for our naivete.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.