Computing Applications

From the President: Building Big Brother

"It seemed to him that he knew exactly what it felt like to sit in a room like this, in an armchair beside an open fire with your feet in the fender and a kettle on the hob, utterly alone, utterly secure, with nobody watching you, no voice pursuing you, no sound except the singing of the kettle and the friendly ticking of the clock."
—George Orwell, 1984
  1. Article
  2. Author

Numerous articles were written in 1984 boasting about how the world had escaped Orwell’s dire predictions of governmental surveillance and the elimination of privacy. Many people rejoiced about the lack of omnipresent telescreens and the Thought Police, but far fewer people paid attention to the development of technologies that facilitate Big Brother-style surveillance. Most U.S. citizens believe they are protected by the Bill of Rights from secret governmental surveillance. Historically, this has not always been the case nor is it necessarily true today. Worse, it may be even less true in the future if we fail to be continually on guard against creeping governmental intrusion into our private lives.

One doesn’t have to go very far back in U.S. history to find disturbing examples of privacy violations or secret surveillance by governmental organizations. In 1940, the government used U.S. Census information, which by law is confidential, to locate Japanese-Americans for incarceration during World War II, resulting in massive economic loss and human suffering. Possibly even more egregious were the activities of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency that investigated individuals because of their race and/or political stance. The MSC spied on thousands of civil rights activists in the 1960s (www2.msaclu.org/ ma/sover/SOVREG.html) and may have been indirectly responsible for the deaths of some activists. There are many other historical examples of surveillance, ranging from the extensive bugging of Martin Luther King, Jr. to files maintained by the U.S. Army on prominent anti-Vietnam War activists, including Benjamin Spock and Senator Adlai Stevenson III. (Privacy on the Line, by Diffie and Landau, contains an excellent overview of wiretapping and surveillance).

Wiretapping without adequate court oversight occurred in Los Angeles in 1998, after some public defenders discovered the Los Angeles Police Department had been using secret wiretaps, possibly since 1989, to obtain convictions. By law a defendant must be told if a wiretap has been used, even if none of the evidence against the defendant was obtained from that wiretap; defendants in Los Angeles were not informed. As a result of police misconduct, hundreds of criminal convictions are likely to be retried or dismissed.

A Web site maintained by the L.A. County Public Defender’s office (pd.co.la.ca.us) has numerous examples of the enthusiastic use—but actually misplaced abuse—of wiretaps. For example, L.A. County Judge Robert Perry issued five wiretap orders for public telephones. The four-month result of wiretapping: "131,202 individuals’ conversations [were] intercepted, taped, and will be kept by the DA for 10 years; 10 incriminating conversations were obtained as result of violating the privacy of 131,202 people; 0 arrests were made." The cost to taxpayers was more than $625,000.

Given past and ongoing revelations, it is not surprising that a recent U.S. governmental proposal called the Federal Intrusion Detection Network (FIDNet) is controversial. The initial version of the proposal, leaked in July, called for monitoring of all government computer networks to protect against unauthorized intrusions. The information was to be given to the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center, some other federal agencies, and some private sector businesses. Because of public concern, the government has made reassuring statements. "As envisioned, FIDNet is being designed to monitor federal executive branch computer networks for intrusions, not private networks or the Internet in general," Jon Jennings, acting assistant attorney general, wrote in September 1999. Jenning’s comment did not, however, satisfy House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who asked for a guarantee that "… neither FIDNet nor any similar administration program will ever be expanded to monitor private networks or the Internet in general." Even if such a guarantee were provided, it is impossible for the current administration to guarantee the actions of all future administrations. And while proponents describe FIDNet as a "monitoring" system, with few exceptions we are unable to monitor a network to determine if it is under attack without also conducting surveillance.

The granddaddy of all surveillance efforts is Echelon, an automated global interception and relay system operated by the intelligence agencies of five nations—the Australia, Canada, New Zealand, U.K., and the U.S.—by which a vast spectrum of private and corporate communications is allegedly capable of being intercepted. Duncan Campbell is a journalist who first uncovered a large mysterious site in the U.K. that was subsequently associated with Echelon. He later authored a document for the European Parliament entitled, "An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control" (www.europarl.eu.int/dg4/stoa/ en/publi/166499/execsum.htm). Quoting from the European Parliament study: "The interim study set out in detail the global surveillance systems which facilitate the mass supervision of all telecommunications including telephone, email, and fax transmissions of private citizens, politicians, trade unionists, and companies alike. There has been a political shift in targeting in recent years. Instead of investigating crime (which is reactive) law enforcement agencies are increasingly tracking certain social classes and races of people living in red-lined areas before crime is committed—a form of pre-emptive policing deemed dataveillance which is based on military models of gathering huge quantities of low-grade intelligence."

Europeans are especially concerned about possible commercial espionage in which information obtained from the covert interception of corporate communications is used to benefit U.S. corporations to the detriment of their European rivals.

Europeans are not the only ones disturbed by Echelon. When the House of Representative’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence requested documents relating to Echelon, the NSA cited attorney-client privilege in refusing to produce these documents. Consequently, Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2000 Intelligence Authorization Act requiring the directors of the CIA and the NSA and Attorney General Janet Reno to submit a report outlining the legal standards being employed within project Echelon in order to safeguard the privacy of U.S. citizens. As of this writing, no report has been submitted. If you are concerned, you might call on Congress to maintain its vigilance and to insist on being given the report.

History has shown that governments do not need high-tech equipment to conduct surveillance of citizens. However, technology has provided new surveillance tools and facilitated surveillance of a magnitude that could only be dreamed of in the past. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1928: "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding [of the long-term effects and cumulative consequences of their individual actions]…"

Back to Top

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More