As many of us band together to figure out how to minimize the damage our new president-elect can cause, I want to pass on some useful cautionary information about government surveillance. Much of the opposition research and connection is happening online. Given that reality, let’s understand the frightening extent of government/law enforcement surveillance and the need to secure your technology.
From local police departments to federal agencies like the ideologically-tainted FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Agency, the government has effective systems in place already for scrutinizing our private communications. Data bases can track any “suspicious activities,” which could mean anything. That tracking has all been in place (and deeply troubling) since before Trump. But now, with all of Trump’s micro-managing, paranoia, conspiracy theories, and revenge talk, it’s safe to assume that the government and law enforcement will have the green light to consider any political opposition to be “suspicious activity.” Trump has already suggested that he would direct his attorney general to investigate the Black Lives Matter movement, so apparently (as we all might have guessed) standing up for civil rights will count as suspicious with the new government.
A recent suit against the government by Microsoft should give you a better feel for what government surveillance looks like. In April, Microsoft filed suit arguing that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act lets the government force the company to reveal customers’ private cloud information and private emails, but forbids Microsoft from notifying customers that their emails and stored data are being read. According to Microsoft, all the government has to do is assert that it has “a reason to believe” that telling the person would hinder an investigation. That’s it, and then they can secretly read all of your stuff. The suit asks the court to declare the statute unconstitutional, in violation of Fourth Amendment protections (people should know if the government searches or seizes their property) and the First Amendment (Microsoft should be allowed to tell customers about the violation of their privacy). Trial is set for December 2017. Imagine how many emails each of us might share and documents we might store until then.
There is also law enforcement use of Stingrays — powerful surveillance equipment typically hidden in mobile units that act as fake cellphone towers and capture cellphone data from anyone who happens to be within a several block radius. A victorious Loevy & Loevy Freedom of Information Act suit uncovered records from the Chicago Police Department showing Stingrays secretly being used by CPD without a warrant and with little oversight. The black-colored police trucks that activists suspect house the equipment have been fixtures at many protests. Again, we can only assume the spying on protesters will get worse.
So, what can you do to protect yourself? In just past week, the New York Times and the Guardian published articles about how to protect your digital life, breaking it down into simple steps. The Intercept also recently published an article called Surveillance Self-Defense Against the Trump Administration. The article talks about how to encrypt your phone and, in particular, how to protect your phone while protesting. It also has ideas about encrypting group communications and protecting your computer and data. So be safe, protect yourself, and make sure your voice is heard (but your private communications are not).