The letters NSA form one acronym that has barely been out of the news over the last few months. Since the exposés of Edward Snowden began in June, 2013, the National Security Agency has understandably and rightly been the focus of a lot of negative attention. With the former CIA employee and NSA contractor Snowden having released documents that prove conclusively that the NSA has been engaging in completely unconstitutional activity, on a massive scale, and in order to collect information that cannot conceivably be described as related to national security, it has been a damning time for the image of agencies of US government.
In Britain, The Guardian newspaper has printed a significant amount of the information released by Snowden, yet this is apparently only a trivial proportion of all the files that Snowden has in his possession. According to statements made by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, before the British Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee, the newspaper has in fact published only 1 percent of the documents provided by Snowden.
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Thus, one can expect more revelations to come. It perhaps shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise then that in the last twenty-four hours another story has broken which clearly demonstrates the lengths to which the National Security Agency has gone to collect personal data. Not for the first time, the NSA has demonstrably teamed up with British intelligence to collect information which will raise more than an eyebrow from many members of the public.
NSA monitors “dozens of smartphone apps”
Over the past few years, the National Security Agency and British intelligence collaborated to collect and store user data generated by what has been described as “dozens of smartphone apps”. There are many popular applications involved, but the trivial nature of these apps has been underlined by the media with reference to the fact that one of them was the popular video game Angry Birds.
This information has been confirmed by The New York Times – usually a pretty conservative publication – which has seen documents confirming this. The newspaper has also outlined that it was carried out as part of a wider program involving the monitoring of smartphone applications. According to the information published by The New York Times, the agencies targeted “leaky apps”, which apparently includes some of the most popular mobile phone applications, operated by millions of smartphone users.
While the Obama administration has responded to the revelations regarding the NSA, the general consensus of critical observers has been that the response has been extremely modest and insignificant. Meanwhile, this latest story will dismay those who are passionate about privacy and recognize that it is a basic right enshrined in the US constitution.
The extent of the collaborated efforts of the NSA and GCHQ to acquire and collate this information has huge implications. Not merely for the present, although that is true enough, but technological developments that are just around the corner will make this even more significant.
The Internet of Things
By now, many readers will be well aware of the so-called ‘Internet of Things’. This concept refers to a future point where virtually every household object is connected to the Internet. This is still a mooted concept rather than a physical reality, but already we are seeing electricity meters that can be operated manually from outside the home via mobile phone applications. CES 2014 showcased similarly ‘intelligent’ washing machines, and eventually is it proposed that even lightbulbs will be connected to this Internet of Things.
This may sound like something from a Philip K. Dick short story, but the reality is that it’s just around the corner. It is hard to say precisely how long it will take to build the Internet of Things, but certainly it would be a reasonable assumption to suggest that there will be significant developments towards it by the end of this decade. By 2020, given that we’re already seeing prototypes appear now, the concept of the ‘smart’ household appliance should be a commonly understood one, and by then many of us, if not quite most, will have at least some of them in our homes. I consider that to be a conservative estimate.
We can now quite reasonably suspect that the British and United States governments will try to obtain massive amounts of information from the Internet of Things. Of course, there is a certain broadcast media tendency to dismiss such notions as paranoia. The government wouldn’t want to bother collecting data on how often you turn your lightbulbs on, don’t be ridiculous…of course, they almost certainly would, and the media could have said exactly the same thing about collecting data from Angry Birds…
The latest revelations really indicate the incredible extent to which this program has been implemented. This has been a systematic attempt to ‘hoover up’ as much data as is physically possible. Nothing has been sacrosanct, nothing too trivial, and certainly nothing too private.
There must now be a push from Americans in particular to ensure that the government respects the constitutional rights which have been enshrined as the basis of the nation for generations. As a Briton, I can assure you that we don’t have any such constitutional rights, but US citizens do and it should be considered essential for them to ensure that their government respects these sacred rights in the medium to long-term. Otherwise, a few years down the line it may be impossible to do anything in your own home and for it to remain truly private.
That might sound alarmist, but that is simply the reality of the situation.