Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) went on Meet the Press back in 1975 and said: "The [CIA and National Security Agency's] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy leftI know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in AmericaThat is the abyss from which there is no return."
That was 40 years ago. Today, while we've not quite reached that point, local tech experts point to news headlines about electronic intrusions by governments and say the abyss is clearly visible in the distance.
Welcome to the virtual Panopticon. Panopticon is a term, and type of building, conceived and designed by the 18th century British philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. It's the concept of a perfect prison that permits a single jailer to watch over everyone held there, without the inmates knowing whether or not they are being observed at any given time.
That last part is critical, because while a lone jailer obviously can't watch all of the imprisoned at once, the fact that none of the jailed ever knows when they are being watched means each one has to act as if they are being watched. Which means everyone generally acts the way the jailer wants everybody to act. Every individual's behavior is controlled, because no one knows when he or she is being monitored.
"Right now, they can't watch everybody all the time," says Matthew Strebe, a former hacker and founder/CEO of the San Diego information technology and cybersecurity firm Connetic. "But if they decide they want to watch what you're doing, they can watch everything you're doing."
That's the Panopticon in a nutshell. They may not be watching you, but maybe they are, so you'd better reconsider what you say and do on social media and everywhere else.
That's why some experts say all the pumped-up drama over the Patriot Act sunset, and the bright new day of the USA Freedom Act (the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act of 2015"), is more than half-garbage, and that the NSA is not really being reined in.
As Strebe points out, none of this back and forth over phone call metadata—who you called, when you called, compiled from every single American—has anything to do with broader digital surveillance. It merely takes into consideration "telecommunications; only phone calls. That's separate and distinct from the Internet. None of it touches the Internet," Strebe says.
Moreover, the ruling against government accumulation of your telecom metadata is just that: The government can't do it. That doesn't mean the NSA has to end its agreements and contracts with corporations that are "voluntarily" surrendering your information (for a price, of course).
Much of what's playing out in the media is theater, stagecraft and the magic of misdirection. Some say the mega drama coming out of Washington is propaganda, and that privacy is going to decrease, on both a surveillance level and the societal perception of that surveillance, unless citizens initiate some kind of serious pushback.
"The government ultimately wants to make privacy look criminal," Strebe says, and notes that the next generation of adults are "growing up in a world where their parents are observing them all the time, and they're already inculcated with it. They're growing up without privacy, and they're not going to demand it from their government.
"The desire for privacy is going to be creepy for them," he concludes.
But it still exists. Jim McArthur, founder of the La Jolla-based connected technology consultancy Cmd+Cntrl, offers a few relatively easy ways an individual can protect him or herself online:
1. Toughen up your password(s). As whistleblower Edward Snowden told John Oliver, this is the easiest, fastest and simplest thing you can do to make your Web existence safer. Chances are your password is too easy. Make it longer, mix up words that are unrelated to each other or you, use upper- and lower-case letters, add some numbers and characters. Password managers like Dashlane are easy to use and very helpful in creating a near-impenetrable wall between you and hackers seeking to break in using your personal credentials.
2. Encrypt your data. This is just as important as password security. Popular products like Apple's FileVault allow you to easily protect your data should your files, or even your actual computer, ever be stolen. It's still retrievable by outsiders, but now we're talking a serious investment of time and money for them to get to it.
3. Consider a Virtual Private Network (VPN). If you use the Internet—and duh, who doesn't—a VPN will help obscure who and where you are. A VPN morphs your IP address (basically your Internet fingerprint) and re-routes your Web use.
4. Change your browser to TOR, Freenet, I2P or another anonymous web surfing network. The only thing about VPNs is that the VPN provider knows your IP address. When you use an anonymous downloadable browser like TOR—no different from downloading Firefox or Chrome—your Web use is re-routed through a series of different servers. It's slower than a VPN, unfortunately. But to put it in human terms, it's like spreading a secret from person to person; I tell you, then a day later you tell somebody else, but that somebody else doesn't know where the original information came from, just the information itself. TOR was the gold standard for anonymous Internet use, but was recently revealed to have some flaws, however.
5. Cover your webcam. At some digital marketing shops in San Diego, the staff in the tech department has electrical tape over their webcams. They can be hacked, and you can be observed without your knowledge.
6. Remove the battery from your phone if you don't want to be followed or eavesdropped. Like your webcam, your smartphone is even smarter than you think. One of the many Snowden revelations showed that your smartphone can be used as a monitor, even when it's been shut off. Conversations can be recorded; the camera can capture images. The only thing that works to stop it is removing the battery. Of course, the latest iPhones make it nearly impossible to remove the battery. And as Strebe points out, "They'll know the moment you remove the battery."
Strebe, however, suggests that "Privacy isn't coming back, and people are going to have to adjust to that whether they want to or not." He says that there is "no hope of the genie going back into to the bottle."
"The only way to fight against the Panopticon is to be open, unafraid and unashamed," he says, and to demand the same from governments and corporations that they demand of the public.
As the late Frank Church warned, the abyss beckons, and it's easy to fall when the temptations along its edge are so appealing. Recall the chilling and ominous words of Michael Hayden, the former director of both the CIA and the NSA: "We kill people based on metadata."