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iSpy?

Could we be heading for a 1984-style dystopia?

In 1984, a pervasive, tyrannical government controls a dystopian society – something, surely, that could never happen today. But how deep does the rabbit hole go?

Some plans for similarly invasive programs have already come and supposedly gone. America’s ADVISE program was officially scrapped after infringing innocent people’s privacy in the pilot study. The activities of the Information Awareness Office (IAO), including biometric technologies operating at a distance (of CCTV), are another project to go underground. The UK Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) is in hibernation, not because it plans to record all internet communication it could capture and save every piece of “raw data”, but because the (memory) technology doesn’t yet exist to make it possible.

The newly developed EU-funded system dubbed the Sea Horse Network, hailed the “most sophisticated in Europe”, is being used to track even the smallest boat from space, in case of illegal immigration, making Google Earth’s privacy invasions look archaic. It seems SatComms are the future.

The surveillances by governing bodies are gaining legal power, as Article 8(1) of the European Convention of Human Rights gives the right to respect for private life and correspondence, 8(2) states interference is acceptable not only for security reasons, but also to prevent disorder and “protect morals”. Speaking as a former law student, I’d say that’s a rather large loophole!

At a local level, how much information is the Government “pulling up”? Through the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), 504,073 total phone and internet data files in 2008 that could “pose a threat to national security” and 1,756 from local authorities in 2009. All 475 local authorities are assigned the ability to “acquire communications data”, according to the 2009 report, although the Act was only passed due to terrorism fears. When was the last time a local council turned into an intelligence agency fighting terrorism? What are they really using all that data for? There have been confirmed cases in which RIPA powers were abused for trivial reasons, such as not recycling. The well-publicised stories of lost health and financial data come to mind for similar recklessness with our confidential details.

The biggest player in spying has been around for decades, and if any computer system were comparable to Skynet, it’s this one. The ECHELON network, based in SatComms, is a mainly UK/USA system and intercepts all available channels for keywords. Every word of every message is scanned; from email, IM, VOIP, SMS to mobile phone conversations. Multi-lingual voice recognition software identifies speakers, saved on database. No wonder layers of security in operations centre outposts across the globe guard the supercomputers responsible – it’s already uncovered plenty of terrorism plots. However, it’s been knowingly used against innocent (American) citizens and other cases remain unproven so far.

Google, with their unofficial slogan “Don’t Be Evil”, are another faceless corporation, although Apple comes a close second in controlling users – with file formats, for example. Even Google comply with government requests of individual user data, although they never release the request statistics and have taken to editing engine results.

UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF) gained support this December from the Commission on Science and Technology for Development Bureau (CSTD) to police the internet, only accepting governments, thereby leaving out all other groups, such as those for civil liberties.

It appears that in the 21st Century, the surveillance organisations of spy novels and political fictions have become a reality. Who’s reading your texts and Google searches? To finish on a positive note, it’s not all bad. As I heard one guy say the other day, I wonder how much Angelina Jolie’s full body scan will go for on eBay?

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