ITHACA, NEW YORK – The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming! Coming for your devices. Not just big things like TVs and automobiles, but things you keep in your pocket, things that you keep by your pillow at night. But rest assured, if the Russians are looking to invade your privacy, the Americans are already there.
Wikileak’s release of Vault7 documents, though neither confirmed nor denied by the CIA, indicates that the people that America pays to keep America safe have the ability to reach into the darkest corner of private lives; the living room, the bedroom, confidential chats, private photos.
What’s more, if Wikileaks’ Julian Assange is to be believed, the CIA, in self-goal of bureaucratic bungling, has misplaced the crown jewels of U.S. surveillance, putting at risk secret state-of-the-art hacking tools.
Initial media reports compared Wikileaks latest information coup with Edward Snowden’s monumental hack of the National Security Agency, but it’s really apples and oranges.
Snowden’s revelations were seismic in terms of the sheer global scale of surveillance, pointing to the indiscriminate electronic vacuuming up of mind-boggling volumes of information, whereas Assange’s leaks provide corroboration about the secret tools that can carry out focused, pinprick attacks on personal electronic devices.
They can reach into your pocket, the phone by your ear, the living room couch and the computer chips that guide your car.
Infiltration is everywhere, and even if the CIA’s claim of not spying on Americans in America can be taken at face value (the legal loopholes used by the U.S. intelligence community are legendary, especially when you leave U.S. territory) the day of Big Brother is here.
Not only do phone-sized devices and TV’s bombard the user with commercial propaganda and fake news, but they can observe the user in real time.
The ability to log keystrokes and remotely manipulate the most cherished of electronic devices is no longer Orwellian nightmare but documented reality.
The idea that cars, indeed even airplanes, can be hacked and remote controlled is almost too scary to contemplate, though no evidence has been provided that suggests this spine-tingling capability has actually been put to use.
U.S. intelligence, which President Donald Trump and his supporters have accused of playing politics through surveillance and selected leaks, has itself been on the receiving end of massive leaks. The old canard that people need not be afraid of surveillance if they are not doing anything wrong obviously does not apply to the government itself.
It was the hubris, illegality and lack of internal discipline on the part of the NSA that drove Snowden, by his own account, to expose NSA perfidy to the world, a convolutedly patriotic act by his own lights.
Facebook and Google, Apple and Samsung collect private information with a rapacious zeal that makes even intelligence professionals blush, especially since the privately held firms are subject to no democratic oversight and are quick to exploit and monetize their information troves. Yet now they assail the NSA and CIA for not sharing the zero-day exploit flaws in their own products. Kettle meets pot.
Trump famously made the nasty aside that “there is still a thing called execution” when he learned of Snowden’s leak, but when the Democratic National Committee hack exposed his political opponent during the campaign he loudly proclaimed “I love Wikileaks!”
The populist billionaire has a clownish persona, and is rather quick to flip-flop on the issues. “The Donald” seems to lack a coherent personality, let alone a coherent ideology, other than to be of service to himself. When it comes to “the cyber” as he calls it, it’s been a series of back flips and somersaults. He wants to empower the security state but is incensed that Trump Tower might have been bugged.
But think about it. If every phone call, email, text message and ambient conversation made in the vicinity of the pocket device of an ordinary citizen is subject to being scooped up in the name of national security, how could the giant, gold-tinted Trump Tower in the heart of Manhattan escape the jaded gaze of the surveillance state?
In a sharp violation of Beltway protocol, Trump has doubled down on his doubts, accusing his predecessor of tapping his phones, and while Obama almost certainly didn’t personally authorize the intrusion, it doesn’t mean such an intrusion did not take place.
Does anyone, let alone Trump, the most-watched man in the world, have any reasonable expectation of privacy in today’s electronic Panopticon?
Even supposing the CIA is scrupulous in not looking at American’s data, their cavalier attitude about sharing the same with British snoops who operate under lax rules with no constitutional restraints means that no one in America is really immune to the X-ray vision of the state. And that’s the good news.
What’s really worrisome about Assange’s latest shot across the bow is that non-state actors with even fewer scruples than the British elite can utilize tools and exploits pioneered by the CIA.
It’s tempting for knee-jerk patriots to blame the damaging leaks on the Russians, but it is equally plausible that the leaks come from the belly of the beast, well within the Beltway, where insiders, acting in the tradition of Snowden, want to expose the risks posed by those who are empowered to protect.
Electronic inter-connectedness brings convenience and instant communication but at what cost? In its wake comes manipulative malware, undetected infiltration and loss of personal privacy.
Whether wittingly or unwittingly, the latest information dump seems to favor the paranoid vision of Trump and his Republican libertarian supporters rather than the deep state business-as-usual outlook of the Democratic Party candidate he defeated, Hillary Clinton.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and consultant.