Shut the door, close the blinds, pull the covers over your head—it doesn’t really matter—because you’re never completely protected from the digital eyes around you. If this assertion sound outlandish or downright impossible, just consider the Internet of Things (IoT) and how it has changed the ongoing state of our privacy. As you sit in your office or kitchen or bedroom, there are endless devices surrounding you, the majority of which have the capacity to record just about everything you do. If you ask Alexa who she works for, she will quickly say, “I work for Amazon.” But the truth is, she has the ability to turn on automatically, document everything she hears, and send it straight to the cloud—all she needs is the right directive.
So, despite our endless efforts to protect ourselves and our personal data from the big eye in the sky, anyone with enough resources, manpower, and money can maneuver around those obstacles. And sadly for us, the most powerful of these watchful entities is precisely the same one tasked with keeping us safe—namely, the federal government. It would seem the Orwellian prophesies we once laughed off have, in fact, come true—the big brother of our own nation now has the ability to spy on anyone, anywhere, at any time. And as a result, all facets of our privacy have been whittled away to nothing more than a splinter, susceptible to breakage without a moment’s hesitation—and with very little effort.
While some people have thrown up their hands in resignation, claiming they don’t really care what the government does with their personal information, others have clung desperately to ignorance. But there are still plenty of people in the world who understand the magnitude of this privacy shift and what it means for the security of all citizens. And more importantly, they have accepted what is now an undeniable fact—the government is always watching.
The U.S. Government Is A Major Offender
While it’s true many, many governments around the world spy on their citizens, the U.S. is arguably one of the most advanced. In fact, their technological capabilities are so comprehensive and so effective, the majority of Americans have no idea how widespread their monitoring has become. As a result of their spying efforts, our personal electronic devices now have the ability to do much more than make life convenient—they can make it transparent, a fact that is only exacerbated by our love of social media and rampant oversharing.
While many of us have always considered ourselves patriots, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to trust a government who takes punitive action against whistleblowers who seek the truth, regardless how ugly and revealing it may be. Televisions, smartphones, even software—all of these things are now vulnerable to CIA and NSA hacking, offering the government access to our sounds, images, communications, private information, and yes—our very lives. In order to truly accept this reality, we need to look more closely at how exactly these regulatory agencies have turned trust into transgression.
Personal Computer (PC) Monitoring
How can a nation filled with intelligent, resilient, and independent people fall victim to government spying? Honestly, it’s not that hard. If you haven’t noticed, the majority of Americans are positively addicted to their personal devices. This technology has become the lifeblood of a sophisticated and highly digitized nation. As a result, these devices also pose the biggest risk to our personal security. From built-in OS backdoors to vulnerabilities deliberately created by vendors, any brand new PC off the shelf is likely already outfitted with a government monitor. Recent online leaks regarding the latest batch of NSA spy tools have been a glaring reminder of just how commonplace the practice has become.
Because Windows is by far the most popular OS, it’s no surprise the system has become rife with remote surveillance possibilities. Even without government interference, there are a staggering number of tracking and monitoring tools in Windows 10, from recorded keystrokes to automatic user images to unauthorized sharing of your private Wifi network. Couple this with NSA and CIA tools like the DOUBLEPULSAR backdoor malware loader, and you have a whole new breed of OS that couldn’t be more exposed. While Microsoft has thankfully patched the vulnerability that once allowed this software to run, there are undoubtedly plenty more of these hidden programs operating behind the scenes. Yes, Macs are slightly better but still not entirely safe. Last year, when Apple demonstrated a strong pro-consumer move by refusing to unlock an iPhone involved in a government investigation, a glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon for some level of influential advocacy. But as it stands, Mac’s OS is ultimately built on a Linux platform, which invariably means all Apple computers share the same degree of security risk.
Granted, no OS is perfect; however, hardened versions of Linux are probably the most private and secure. Safety-focused distros like Arch and Kali are smart choices for discreet users, but because Linux is notorious for being complex and unintuitive, they require significantly more effort to reach the same protection level of a Windows or Mac device. So when it comes to maintaining complete control over your PC—and having the utmost confidence that no secret backdoors have been planted on your device—that complexity can work in your favor.
Smart Phone Monitoring
If you have spent any time out in public recently, you understand just how desperately people cling to their personal devices. Even individuals who struggle with poverty have managed to nab themselves a top-tier iPhone, mostly because living in this modern world without one seems utterly impossible. The government may be sneaky, but they’re not stupid; they know the average person is wildly attached to their phone, and they seek to exploit this relationship at every turn.
Mobile OSes on Android phones have the dubious distinction of working in extremes—they are either supremely secure or infested with vulnerabilities. This is because Android is not centrally maintained or regulated by a specific company like that of an iOS. Phone manufacturers are free to develop their own versions of the Android, which can contain a lot or a little security risk, depending on the design. And then there are some Android versions that are so riddled with weaknesses, the White House goes insane every time President Trump picks ups his trusty pre-election Android device. That said, iOS phones also have a number of vulnerabilities, like fake government-created apps in the App Store and remote monitoring through Find My iPhone, along with other management tools. The only reassuring aspect of this scenario is Apple’s visible commitment to protecting consumer privacy, despite the government’s best efforts to breach it.
The Internet of Things (IoT)
This catchphrase-turned-concept illustrates our basic human desire for connection. We are social animals who seek out the warmth and communication of others, and we have enlisted our devices to help us in this pursuit. As a result, we are more socially and technologically linked together than ever before, a reality that can both enrich and threaten our livelihood in equal measure. In our enthusiasm to sync up our devices, our information, and our lives, we have pursued that goal with abandon, often leaving security as an afterthought. But in recent days, it has become increasingly obvious that our privacy and our safety are, in fact, on the line when we blindly enjoy the convenience of IoT without considering the risks.
Recently, the nation (and much of the world) shared a moment of communal astonishment when Samsung TVs were discovered to be capable of listening to users through their microphones, even when the voice feature was not in use. Given the government’s close ties to virtually every electronics manufacturer out there, a finding like this leaves little room for speculation. As we know, wireless security systems can be remotely accessed or disabled from the outside. If cameras are an option in these systems, it becomes entirely possible for anyone to capture and expose private images to the larger internet, allowing them to be viewed and used around the world.
Further, any “smart” appliance with Bluetooth ability is ready at all times to pair with outside devices, which means everyday things like refrigerators, microwaves, or car stereos—with sub-par security in the form of predictable passwords and outdated Wifi protocols—have the power to access their surroundings. While visualizing your refrigerator as a spy tool may seem amusing, the truth is any system on your network is just one jump away from your router. And if an attacker can connect to that, they can access any other device in your home, including the smartphone next to your bed.
How To Protect Yourself
Proving our government’s ability to spy doesn’t take much effort these days. It’s real and it’s happening all the time. But is it happening to you? You’ll likely never know. That’s why this is the perfect time to start thinking about how we can protect ourselves from what is sure to be a growing threat of governmental monitoring. As just one lowly citizen trying to safeguard yourself against rampant surveillance, how can it be done? Can it even be done? The answer is yes. Although the technological landscape is always changing, there are still some effective ways to retain your privacy and ward off the threat of invasive monitoring.
- PC Protection: consider learning how to install and use a Linux OS, as they definitely offer the most security. Also, utilizing a VPN with protected communication channels and encrypted email whenever possible is highly recommended, as these practices will create a private tunnel in cyberspace where your information can travel from place to place in encrypted form. It goes without saying, never install any unknown or questionable software, as they may contain remote monitoring vulnerabilities. And for those of us who demand the utmost security, it is possible to wipe, format, and reinstall your OS on a regular schedule to ensure no backdoors or malware have covertly crept onto your system.
- Mobile Device Protection: This is a bit tricker because they typically don’t permit extensive customization like PCs do. Mobile VPNs which allow for encrypted communication through cell towers and Wi-Fi are available, as well as smart uninstallers able to remove built-in apps with vulnerabilities. For Android, conscientious users would do well to check out OSes like CopperheadOS or UnaOS for increased privacy. But because these are non-standard ROMs, some effort will be required to properly install and use them. Options are greatly limited for iOS phones, as there is essentially no customization to be found for these devices. The only truly effective method would involve flashing a custom ROM on your iPhone and completely removing the iOS platform. It’s important to note, however, you will lose almost every functionality that makes an iPhone unique, at which point you might as well just choose an Android.
- IoT Protection: When it comes to security, these devices are the most challenging because there is almost nothing to them. The product is what it is, with no option for OS configuration or programming. At a minimum, keep these devices off your network unless absolutely necessary, in which case they should be placed on a separate VLAN that cannot access your regular network. And of course, turn off Bluetooth and any recording devices, physically disconnecting them from the circuit board if necessary.
While it would be pleasant to think our government is primarily concerned with balancing the budget, taking care of our educational needs, providing critical healthcare options, and looking towards a brighter tomorrow, the fact is they are more preoccupied with gathering intelligence to be used as they see fit. They function largely outside the visibility and accountability of their citizens, regularly making independent decisions that affect us all. And as a result, they feel it is entirely appropriate to watch, monitor, and spy on the very people they are supposed to protect.
Every time there is a new story about how the government is compromising our privacy and our safety through their self-serving need for surveillance, another precious ounce of trust is lost between citizens and the nation. And while this duplicitous relationship may never really change, it’s reassuring to know it’s still possible for users to resist such privacy infringement and regain control of the robust tools out there being used to monitor them. Because in this new day of growing technology, it is more important than ever to put down the physical weapons and pick up something far more powerful— knowledge.