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Whether we accept it or not, we live in a surveillance state. We’re being tracked all of the time. Google tracks us both on its pages an on other pages it has access to. Facebook does the same; it even tracks non-Facebook users. Apple monitors us on our iPhones and iPads.

More alarming, however, is that what we do on the Internet is being combined with other data about us.

Everything we do now involves computers, and companies produce data as a natural by-product of this modern-day convenience. Everything is being saved and correlated, any many big-data companies make money by building up intimate profiles of our lives from a variety of sources.

‘Do you have a (your name here) card?’

For instance, how often have you been at a checkout line at the supermarket and have been asked: “Do you have your (your name here) card?” That little card actually informs the entire grocery chain of your past shopping habits going back years. Facebook, for example, creates online behavior with your “offline” purchasing habits. There’s more in the form of “location data” from your cell phone because there is a record of your movements via the store’s closed-circuit TV monitor which is then transferred to your cell phone thereby making it practically impossible to escape daily surveillance and monitoring. Effectively, our information can be used to identify shopping habits to help companies understand their customers, or it could be filtered through a system to ensure that we are not criminally active.

With all of us being watched—and that data being stored forever—many people may believe that this is what a surveillance state looks like, far more efficient than anything George Orwell could have imagined. There are so many ways we are being tracked each day. The Internet, e-mail, cell phones, web browsers, social networking sites, search engines etc. are monitoring us at a rate that is increasingly difficult to comprehend. The full extent of such spying is deliberately hidden from us and there are few alternatives being marketed by companies that don’t practice spying.

Be careful what you click

The major companies that provide us with Internet services are interested in where we are at any given moment, what we’re doing, why we’re there, and where we’re going next. Visit any website and they’ll certainly know who you are. Click on the wrong link or type in the wrong thing, and you’ve permanently attached your name to whatever anonymous service you’re using.

As online surveillance allows information to be monitored, it means that if any dangerous data is encountered (terrorist acts or violent crimes), it can be immediately identified and dealt with. This tends to provide the average citizen with a form of security and safety as it can help to prevent crime. However, this monitoring—whether it be online, making a purchase (or window shopping) at a “brick-and-mortar” establishment, walking down the street, or motoring down the highway—is not without the ubiquitous “big brother/eye-in-the-sky” aspect which tends to leave the individual with little or no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Because information can be hacked or used, this may demonstrate that surveillance can be untrustworthy and although you may not be a criminal, your private information may be exploited for nefarious purposes ranging from anything from cyber hacking of our most trusted financial or business institutions, down to identifying petty theft among the individual citizenry.

‘It’s Orwellian…it’s spying!’

Shouts from civil libertarians say “It’s Orwellian, this Internet spying!” Those charged with protecting our security each day may ask: “What about terrorists and pedophiles?” While the opposition camp is not composed of people who admire terrorists or pedophiles, those that argue that since governments have a history of misusing power and because that oversight and scrutiny never really does a decent job of limiting possible overreach, they may point to the fact that surveillance only increases and that once government obtains a powerful capability, they rarely discontinue it. Further, many people suspect that if the government forces companies to collect more data on the individual, it will invariably interest hackers and others of ill intent.

While law enforcement doesn’t want to read innocent e-mails, they would prefer doing the job people are asking of them, particularly in the days of terrorist attacks at home and abroad. Privacy groups, of course, don’t want to assist terrorists and they know that eternal vigilance is necessary to keep us safe but they are increasingly concerned that the proliferation intrusive spying may place all of our private lives in the cross-hairs of a surveillance state.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has been accused of subverting the Internet at every level to make it a vast, multi-layered surveillance platform, effectively undermining the basic social contract of free and unfettered communication between private citizens. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has gone as far to suggest the agency is deliberately orchestrating a campaign of unlawful encryption that is “making the Internet less secure” and exposing Web users to “criminal hacking, foreign espionage and unlawful surveillance.”

ACLU vs. NSA

While the ACLU’s claims against the NSA suggests that the Internet should be immune from any form of government surveillance, their legal argument is similar to what was once said about the telephone many years ago, especially when organized crime started using it to conduct its “business.” Much like the terrorist threats of today, the ACLU contends that this provision allowed by the Justice Department to deny the average citizen a portion of their reasonable expectation of privacy to be able to track the Mafia with wiretaps.

In most parts of the world—democratic or not—the communications infrastructure is mostly government owned or operated, similar to how the U.S. Postal Service operates. Also, in most of the developed world, there is “content surveillance” and monitoring of Internet traffic by one or more government intelligence or law enforcement agencies usually done with no threshold showing or any requirement for probable cause or reasonable belief to look at the substance of the communication. A prime example of this scenario would be to check into any European hotel where you must present your passport (or for locals a required identity card such as a driver’s license) and your personal data is immediately sent to the national police or internal security service for whatever inquiries they have have about you. The most extreme extreme examples of government online surveillance may take place in China where all Internet activity is constantly monitored because all dissent is considered a threat to the regime in power.

A reasonable expectation of privacy

The ACLU has for the past 17 years have said all of us—including suspected spies, terrorists and/or criminals—have a reasonable expectation of privacy when we surf the Web, and also to what extent, if any, has the United States government betrayed the modern day realities of the Internet by their various degrees of monitoring? Further, in relation to a reasonable expectation of privacy, what effect should efforts to encrypt the Internet have on ordinary citizens who pose no threat to national security or to their respective communities? The NSA has posed the question that when it encrypts an individual’s Internet communications, is that person “entitled to more privacy or does it make the Internet less secure because of the government’s need to access information?” Fundamentally, according to the NSA argument, should spies, terrorists, pedophiles and kidnappers be able to encrypt their communications with the expectation of privacy?

In New York City, law enforcement agencies 2013 were prohibited from using the “stop-and-frisk” method of crime fighting. Since then, logged instances of this unconstitutional procedure have fallen from 685,000 in in 2011 to only 46,000 by 2015. The NYPD decided to move off the street and go online to continue its war on gangs across the city with something called “Operation Crew Cut” which became a key aspect of the department’s sweeping online surveillance of kids as young as 10 years old deemed to be members of “crews” or gangs.

NYPD off streets and online

The “crews” and/or gang members continue to be monitored on the street, of course, but the department has turned to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, You Tube and other social media platforms. Apparently, when online accounts of suspected gang members are set to “private,” police officers sometimes gain access to them by sending friend requests posing as young women or club promoters. Those persons added to the department’s “crew” or gang list are not notified, nor are they given an opportunity to have their names removed from the list. Accordingly, adult officers seeking to watch alleged crew members can pose as “tweens” or teens and are legally able to do so.

Rutgers University conducted a study of this practice a few years ago and revealed that 48 percent of the evidence used in seven separate gang indictments between February 2011 and June 2014 in Harlem were related to online social media activity collected through police online surveillance. While the individuals arrested as being a member of a “crew”–and not a gang member—when their names appear on a criminal indictment, they are henceforth referred to as a member of a gang which has dire consequences in both practical and legal terms, specifically in relation bail which usually skyrockets to impossible levels. These persons can later be charged as co-conspirators in cases involving, at worst, murder of which they had no knowledge of and no direct involvement in.