Internet Privacy in the Age of Surveillance

State Surveillance and the Right to Privacy in Foreign Countries

Pew Research Center reports that “91% of adults agree or strongly agree that consumers have lost control of how personal information is collected.”

That incredibly-high statistic must describe victims under authoritarian governments like China, Russia, or North Korea, right?


That study was about US citizens. You know, the land of the free.


That’s the percentage of adults living in the US who agree that consumers have lost control of how personal information is collected and used by companies.

The sad truth is that governments of every shape and size are ramping up mass surveillance with little-to-no objection.

We live on the internet. But does that interconnection work in their favor, providing more opportunities to pierce our online privacy?

The simplest way to settle that score is to compare how the espionage efforts of the United States and their allies compare to other oppressive regimes.

How do we measure up to our closest friends and worst enemies? Let’s find out.

State Surveillance and the Right to Privacy in Foreign Countries


The Chinese government has an annual domestic security budget of more than $197 billion.

That’s 13% higher than their allocated budget for external defense.

What does this mean?

China is more concerned with threats coming from inside its borders than with those coming from external forces.

The Chinese government is notorious for limiting what websites its people can access through the use of what has come to be known as the Great Firewall of China. (Which also sounds like a new Michael Bay film.)

The Great Firewall blocks a large number of foreign websites, including everyday Western platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube . China also routinely blocks any content that contradicts the stance of its communist government.

Communists have thin skin, apparently.

You heard it here first.

China ups-the-spying ante by actively encouraging civilian-to-civilian surveillance. They utilize government-controlled whistleblower phone applications that allow citizens to report on any violations that they see. Buzzkill.

The state is also developing a social credit system which assigns a grade to each citizen based on the government’s assessment of their trustworthiness. No, this is not a joke.

It creates this ranking based on social behaviors, government data, and financial information. At the moment, this program is not nation-wide, but enrollment will be mandatory by 2020 for all of China’s 1.379 billion people.

This is nothing, though.

The Chinese government will also impose strict control over entire geographic areas. For example, in the region of Tibet, mobile phone and internet users must identify themselves by name.

The Chinese government cites an attempt to “curb the spread of detrimental information” as the primary catalyst behind this decision.

One group of Chinese citizens have security cameras installed within their homes.

Uh huh.

In response to this mandate, more than 100 Tibetans have chosen to self-immolate themselves (a fancy way for saying 🔥), while others opt to live completely “unplugged” to avoid government oversight.

These dissidents continue to demand more freedom, more rights, and the return of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who has been living in permanent exile since 1959.

In Xinjiang, the Chinese government forces the Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group, to install an application on their phone that monitors all of its content. The government is well known for its poor treatment of this group, going so far as to install security cameras in the homes of these citizens.

When the government feels that it has gathered sufficient evidence of wrongdoing on the part of an Uhgyur, they take them to re-education camps that work to change their political and religious beliefs, effectively erasing their identities.

Nope. Still not making this up.

Throughout the rest of the country, the Chinese government employs the use of more than 20 million security cameras to keep an eye on its citizens. It is the government’s goal to build a massive surveillance network spanning the entirety of China by 2020.

This network would use both public cameras and private ones to accomplish its goals.

The Chinese government proudly touts its success at using mass surveillance techniques to curb the spread of crime throughout the country.

While critics of the government have decried these practices, claiming that it is nothing more than a heavy-handed way to snuff out political foes.

You be the judge.


Can you believe that Russia spies on their own people?

Said no one ever.

The System of Operational-Investigatory Measures (SORM) is a division of the Russian government created, for the most part, to literally just spy on their own people.

Telecom companies throughout the country have been forced by SORM to install hardware designed by the Federal Security Service throughout its systems. This is done to monitor all metadata and content pertaining to communication throughout Russia.

ISPs who refuse to install SORM spying software can be poisoned get in serious legal trouble with the Russian government.

The government collects everything from email correspondence to web browsing activities, and telephone calls.

Take this as a friendly reminder to wipe that browser history from last night real quick.

The Federal Security Service, also known as the FSB, requires a post-collection court warrant to access the records of ordinary citizens, but they can begin surveillance efforts before they request the warrant.

It’s also important to note that the agency does not need a court order to comb through metadata. It is only necessary to access the collected communications information.

SORM has been a regular target of the European Court for Human Rights. This group has declared the Russian agency to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, but this has not halted domestic espionage in the least. They heard the case in 2015 before the European Convention in Zakharov v. Russia.

The international court unanimously agreed that Russia’s surveillance legislation was in stark violation of the convention. However, on that same day, the Russian governmentpassed a lawwhich allows them to overrule any rulings set down by an international court. They cited a need to “protect the interests of Russia” in the event that such orders contradicted the Russian constitution.

They’re nothing if not crafty.

The Russian government can access citizens’ communication records at any time without a court order.

The FSB saw to the upgrading of SORM equipment within Sochi before the start of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. This upgrade ensured that the government could capture all internet traffic within that location throughout the event when many foreign visitors and dignitaries were in attendance.

Another problematic surveillance law within Russia is what has come to be known as “Bloggers Law.” This 2014 law states that all bloggers who have more than 3,000 daily readers cannot be anonymous.

The government must confirm their identities. Any organization that provides a platform to these bloggers has to maintain six months of computer records. These platforms include Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, among other heavy hitters.

As it turns out, 2014 was a rough year for internet surveillance, as that was the year in which the government also decreed that anyone connecting to a public wi-fi network had to do so using their official government ID. They then stored that information for up to six months.

There are no signs of things slowing down either.

In 2016 Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Yarovaya Law into existence. This law requires telecom companies and ISPs throughout Russia to keep a record of all user communications for up to three years.

At any time, the government can demand access to these records without a court order.

And as recently as July 2018, the government demanded that all messaging, social media, and email services that use encryption to protect its data must give the government access on demand without a court order.

North Korea

If you like having any fun online, you should definitely not vacation in North Korea anytime soon.

That’s becauseevery aspect of a North Korean’s existence is monitoredby the oppressive government of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

For starters, outdoor microphones are used to monitor conversations on the street. Someone is always listening when you’re out in public.

Computers, for those lucky enough to have them, must be registered with the government and are subject to random monitoring by the authorities.

Most North Korean computers are only able to access a national intranet called the Kwangmyong. They restrict external sources of the internet to government officials, elite students, and military leaders.

Internet surveillance in North Korea extends beyond the country’s borders. Officials that are stationed abroad have their internet access monitored by staff members.

North Korea is another country that encourages its people to spy on other citizens. The country has even incentivized the process, rewarding informants with gifts.

Freedom is not one of them.

All telephone conversations in North Korea are subject to monitoring by the Ministry of Public Service, one of three major surveillance organizations within the government. The other two are the State Security Department and the Military Security Command.

United Kingdom

Ah, the UK.

Home of good football and terrible food.

It turns out, your late night run to that awful kebab shop down the street wasn’t quite as secretive as you thought.

Because despite being a relatively small area, they have over 1.5 million CCTV cameras that watch your every move.

That’s not even the worst part, though.

Many different legislations outline the legal framework for what the UK considers ‘lawful interception of communications data’ and how they store it.

This is all spelled out in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, and then crystallized in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act of 2014, which allows security services to access phone and internet records of private citizens.

The act swept through parliament at breakneck speed, drawing criticism from some. It cleared the lower chamber in just one day, which was described as “entirely improper” by Conservative MP David Davis.

The UK is a part of the Five Eyes Surveillance Alliance, which is an agreement between the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to pool their collective intelligence information.

These five nations agree to share espionage data collected, so if one government has information on you, it is accessible to the other four (and possibly ten more).

The UK government has the ability to intercept targeted communications. It can collect this data in bulk and store it. A judge is required to review any warrants signed by a minister as it pertains to the interception of information.

In 2016, the government passed the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016, which shone some light on the mass surveillance techniques it once kept secret. It also created an Investigatory Powers Commission that oversees the use of all investigations which utilize mass surveillance tactics.

This commission is made up of serving and former senior judges.

The 2016 act also gave police and intelligence agencies the right to engage in targeted equipment interference, which boils down to hacking into devices remotely to collect data.

When it’s a matter of a ‘foreign investigation,’ police can use bulk equipment interference.

The UK maintains a long list of authorities that are allowed to access internet connection records without first obtaining a warrant. These records show what websites a person visited, but not the particular pages they saw or the full browsing history.

The 2016 act mandated that all communication service providers keep this information for one year.

Mass Surveillance in the United States

The September 11th terrorist attacks unfortunately opened the floodgates of mass surveillance in the US.

After that horrific event, the federal government began tracking the calls of hundreds of millions of Americans, spying on international calls, text messages, email correspondence, and web browsing activity.

All of this was made possible thanks to a number of key laws, including the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, the Patriot Act, and Executive Order 12,333.

FISA passed through the US House of Representatives in 2008 with a vote of 293 to 129. It was momentarily delayed in the Senate thanks to a filibuster by Senators Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd.

Feingold stated that the bill threatened civil liberties, while Dodd argued against a provision that granted retroactive immunity, stating that it would undermine the rule of law.

Dodd requested that they strike the immunity provision, but the Senate soundly rejected him. The bill cleared the Senate with a vote of 69 to 28. It was subsequently signed into law by President George W. Bush on July 10, 2008.

Originally, FISA was set to expire in 2012, but the House and Senate voted to extend the law for another five years. That passed approval from President Barack Obama on December 30, 2012.

In January of 2018, the Senate approved another six-year extension from FISA Section 702, which gives intelligence organizations the right to monitor the communications of non-US citizens abroad.

This decision has come under fire as it can also be used to eavesdrop on the private communications of American citizens.

The phrase “warrantless wiretapping” became a household term in 2005, thanks to an article published by the New York Times. The piece shed light on the government’s actions, including the unwarranted spying on phone communications of American citizens. They supposedly discontinued the practice in 2007.

Yup. Suuuuuuuure.

Following the Times article, more than 40 Americans attempted to fight back against telecom companies, claiming that the Bush administration was illegally monitoring their calls and emails.

The largest single revelation regarding mass surveillance by the US government came from former CIA employee Edward Snowden who leaked classified information detailing the surveillance programs run by the NSA in 2013.

Snowden released over 1.7 million US intelligence files, and thousands from Australian and British agencies as well, which he obtained through the Five Eyes Surveillance Alliance.

Snowden’s revelation detailed an advanced spying program undertaken by the NSA that monitors internet and telephone conversations from over a billion people throughout the world.

We also learned that an automated program for suspicious keywords scans just about every email that is sent from the US overseas.

“They (the NSA) can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer. I cannot imagine a more indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval. Surely such a program infringes on that degree of privacy that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. Indeed I have little doubt that the author of our Constitution, James Madison, who cautioned us to beware ‘the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power,’ would be aghast.”

Edward Snowden

You’d think after the Snowden leak that US intelligence agencies would lie low for a while.

Unfortunately, you couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since then, the US has lightened the intensity of its data collection efforts. In 2015, the USA Freedom Act ended the bulk collection of phone metadata by the NSA but called for the retention of data by phone companies, which the government could obtain on a case by case basis if need be.

The frightening thing about US mass surveillance is how incredibly advanced it is.

I bet you laughed earlier at North Korea, rolling old school with a bunch of microphones everywhere.

Well, you’ll wish a junky Radio Shack mic was the worst thing to watch out for.

Speech to text programs allow computers to monitor phone correspondence instead of human beings, which allows for a far higher volume.

Facial recognition software can identify an individual through their facial features and their walking gait.

Magic Lantern and CIPV systems can be used to remotely monitor a person’s computer activity.

Like, real James Bond crap.

They even use social networks in their espionage efforts. Facebook alone has turned over the private information of almost 19,000 users to law enforcement.

This doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. By 2020, it is expected that there will be 300,000 unmanned drones deployed throughout the US for the purposes of surveillance.

Mass Surveillance on a City Level

Not all mass surveillance comes from large, shadowy government organizations.

The birth of “smart cities” throughout the world opens us up to more threats against our right to privacy.

In a smart city, governments can monitor citizens using a series of sensors. Data gathered there can then be transmitted and analyzed by law enforcement of government agencies. This leads to a rise in what’s known as predictive policing, wherein crime prevention information is analyzed to make a police force more effective.

Also, the cheesy plot to Minority Report.

Data collected within a smart city can have other uses as well, such as management of traffic issues, use of energy, and the reduction of waste products.

But all of this data transmission has people worried that “big brother” is getting a lot bigger.

City governments are continuing to use advanced technology to gather intel on citizens. Take an instance in Memphis TN, for example. The Memphis Police Department was creating fictitious social media accounts to spy on the whereabouts and private posts of noted Black Lives Matter activists.

The California DMV, without a doubt the least likely place for any tech innovation, is unveiling digital Driver’s Licenses and digital license plates. You couldn’t think of a better GPS to track your whereabouts.

And this is not a uniquely American issue, either.

Smart city advances in Amsterdam compile vast amounts of data. With more than 70 smart city projects collecting information throughout the city, the local government has a massive collection of data stored on its common IP infrastructure.

While this data is being used to improve city life, many are worried that it could also be a threat to their personal privacy. That’s why many Canadian citizens are opposing Google plans to build a smart city in Toronto.

But this question ultimately boils down to the trade-off.

The Big Question
Do the benefits of such advanced technology outweigh the potential for privacy invasion?

One example on US soil dates back to 1996 in Montgomery County, Maryland. At that time, they were looking to integrate their health and human services departments by sharing data between them. This would make the departments far more efficient, as patients would no longer have to waste time writing out the same information from scratch.

Despite privacy laws initially preventing them from sharing this data, they were eventually able to find a solution by basing their goals on four criteria to preserve the privacy of citizens.

  1. The use of shared data was for the purposes of treatment only.
  2. The use of data was limited to only what is necessary for treatment.
  3. Only specific people could access shared data.
  4. No one involved could be asked to violate their rules of professional ethics.

Whether or not that happens on a large scale is up for debate. And unfortunately, the signs aren’t encouraging.

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Our interconnected world is both good and bad.

It only takes a few keystrokes to holler at ‘Ye.

But those same tweets are being gathered and compiled by just about every big corporation and government, every single day.

The only thing we do know about mass surveillance, based on where the last few years have been trending, is that it’s only going to get worse.

A lot worse.

When governments and corporations are actively working against you, doing everything in their power to steal your private data, you can only trust yourself.

And that starts by locking down your internet connection before they ever get a chance.

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