The Dark Side of Technology

02/08/2012 8:00 am EST

Focus: POLITICS

When tech is working for you it's great, but when it's used against you, it can be a very scary and powerful thing indeed, writes Doug Hornig of Casey Research.

Lovers of liberty have seemingly had a good bit to celebrate recently.

First, there was an unprecedented outpouring of negative public sentiment about the Congressional bills SOPA (House) and PIPA (Senate); they are legislation that would have thrown a large governmental monkey wrench into the relatively smooth-running cogs of the Internet.

Millions of Americans signed online petitions against the bills after seeing Web sites' various protests. Google shrouded its search page in black; Wikipedia and Reddit went dark entirely (although Wikipedia could be accessed if one read the information available via clicking the sole link on its protest page). Facebook and Twitter urged users to contact their representatives, and many other core Internet businesses also raised their voices in opposition.

Such was the outpouring of dissent that even Washington, DC had to listen. The bills, which a week earlier seemed assured of swift passage, suddenly turned to poison. Supporters, forced to concede that the public really was pissed off this time, fled. Leadership in both houses tabled the legislation, pending further review and revision.

But before we get too self-congratulatory, however, it's wise to note that this victory dish is probably best enjoyed with a serving of caution. We can't now go to sleep on this one.

Second, the Supreme Court recently ruled 9-0 that police may not attach a GPS tracking device to a suspect's car without a search warrant. This is a landmark decision to be sure, but one that was carefully circumscribed by the justices.

The placing of the device constituted a physical intrusion on the suspect, they wrote, and thus was impermissible. Left unruled upon was the larger question of tracking someone's movements when there was no physical violation, as would be the case when, say, police access signals from a GPS-enabled smartphone. Though it wasn't directly addressed, the concurring opinions strongly suggest that the justices might be more sharply divided on that issue.

A lapse of vigilance in these matters would be a mistake.

Now let's review how individual freedom fared over the past year vis-à-vis the technology of surveillance in general.

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's...
...a drone.

Remote-controlled drone aircraft, like the famed Predator, have become a staple of the nightly news. We see them launching missiles against terrorists, conducting spy missions over Pakistan, patrolling the borders looking for drug smugglers and alien infiltrators. Now we're going to have to get used to seeing them in the skies over, well, all of us.

Yes, those same Predator drones are being used increasingly by local law enforcement in the US.

That was unknown to most Americans before late last year, when the great North Dakota cattle-rustling incident hit the press. It seems that back in June, six neighbors' cows had the misfortune to wander onto a 3,000-acre farm in eastern North Dakota owned by the Brossart family, whose members allegedly belong to the Sovereign Citizen Movement, an anti-government group that the FBI considers extremist and violent.

When the sheriff attempted to reclaim the cows, the family refused to give them up, ordering him off its property at gunpoint. A 16-hour standoff ensued, with the sheriff requesting the usual reinforcements: state highway patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, and deputy sheriffs from three other counties.

But he also called nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base and asked for help from a $154 million MQ-9 Predator B drone, normally used to secure the Canadian border for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Long story short, the drone silently surveilled the farm from two miles up, relaying information from its sophisticated sensors as to what the Brossarts were doing. When the surveillance showed that the family members had put their weapons down (yes, it can see that well at that distance), the authorities moved in, neutralizing the Brossarts and making the first known drone-assisted arrests of US citizens.

Law enforcement was pleased, perhaps rightly so. No blood was spilled. Another Ruby Ridge was avoided. The cows—street value $6,000, but now rather a bit more costly—were recovered.

But that was just the beginning. Local North Dakota police say they have used the Grand Forks Predators to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since June. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have also used Predators for domestic investigations, officials admit.

And Michael Kostelnik, a retired Air Force general who heads the office that supervises the drones, says that Predators are flown "in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis."

Who knew?

Apparently not Congress, for one. Spokespersons for US Customs, which owns the drones, claim there is legal authorization for this usage because it was clearly indicated in the purchase request for the Predators that one purpose was "interior law enforcement support."

But those four words sailed right by Congresswoman Jane Harman—Chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee at the time the drone purchases were approved—who insists that "no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police."
So this expanded civilian use of military surveillance hardware came about with no new law, no public discussion, not even a written regulation...just a few words buried in a budget request that no one in charge of approving it noticed.

There will be mission creep here, as there always is. Expect drones to gather data on any large political demonstration, for example—only, to be fully accurate, you won't be noticing them above you. They fly too high and are too silent for that.

Internet Surveillance
In addition to SOPA/PIPA, there is PCIP. SOPA/PIPA were about shutting down Internet sites that the federal government deems offensive, but PCIP is about gathering information.

As is so often the case with "well-meaning" legislation, the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 (H.R. 1981, or PCIP) is allegedly aimed at something about which all agree. Nobody argues against shielding kids from pornographers.

The Internet has proven to be a fertile stalking ground for sexual predators. As a society, we have already agreed to a certain level of cyber-entrapment, allowing police to run online sting operations against those who are actively targeting kids. If that catches some innocent people in the net, so be it. The public majority is willing to accept such collateral damage so long as the real bad guys are found and put away.

And yes, H.R. 1981 also contains some non-controversial provisions. Stricter punishment for interstate commerce transactions that promote child porn? Sure. Bolstering laws to protect child witnesses? No problem.

But, as always, the details are alive with devils. PCIP is also about pre-crimes—i.e., it entails gathering evidence before any crime is committed...perhaps even before said crime is contemplated. The goal is that, in the event of an arrest, supporting online records can quickly and easily be subpoenaed.

In order to accomplish that, everyone must be considered a potential criminal. Everyone.

What PCIP will mandate is that Internet providers keep detailed records about each one of us, including: name, address, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, all Internet activity for the previous 12 months (something sure to be extended after the first successful busts), and any IP addresses assigned to you—without a search warrant, court order, or even the slightest suspicion of criminal activity.

In other words, the government is proposing to expand the ranks of de facto private-sector cops, the same way that banks are now forced to report any "suspicious financial activity." The legislation would enlist—nay, require—ISPs to compile detailed dossiers on every citizen, and to have them readily accessible for whatever "crime-fighting" or other purposes authorities want them. This thereby saves federal government officials the trouble and expense of doing it themselves.

It's breathtaking. You almost have to admire the elegance of their solution to the universal 'Net surveillance problem that's vexed them for some time.

No wonder the Electronic Frontier Foundation has scornfully tabbed this the "Data Retention Bill," warning that the stored data "could become available to civil litigants in private lawsuits—whether it's the RIAA trying to identify downloaders, a company trying to uncover and retaliate against an anonymous critic, or a divorce lawyer looking for dirty laundry."

And in a grotesque illustration of the law of unintended consequences, the EFF adds: "These databases would also be a new and valuable target for black-hat hackers, be they criminals trying to steal identities or foreign governments trying to unmask anonymous dissidents."

H.R. 1981 sailed through the House Judiciary Committee in late July of last year, but has yet to be voted on (although it was slated for "expedited consideration" in mid-December).

Will it provoke the kind of public outcry directed against SOPA? Don't count on it. What politician in his or her right mind would dare oppose legislation that "protects kids from pornographers?"

Reverse Surveillance
Meaning: when we turn the cameras on the government.

In a sense, we are all now street journalists. Most famously, the name "Rodney King" would mean nothing to anyone today but for a bystander with a cell phone camera. As these devices have become all but ubiquitous, we ordinary citizens now have an unprecedented ability to record crimes in progress, regardless of what side of the law the perpetrators are on.

Or do we?

While police understandably have welcomed citizen recordings that help them with their cases, they are again understandably not so sanguine when they themselves are the potential lawbreakers. And they're hitting back. People filming unfolding events are routinely ordered away from the scene by the police, even if they happen to be standing on their own private property—and threatened with arrest if they don't put the camera away.

Considering the First Amendment to the Constitution, that's been a bluff...at least until recently. Now authorities are asserting their right to charge video- or audiographers of police events with crimes ranging from obstruction of justice to eavesdropping to illegal wiretapping.

So far, to their credit, the courts have been mostly unsympathetic. In August, a jury acquitted a Chicago woman who used her cell phone to secretly record a conversation with police investigators about a sexual harassment complaint she was filing against the department. Also in August, the US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled in favor of the defendant in a case involving a complaint filed by a Boston man who filmed the scene of an October 2007 arrest on his cell phone, only to be arrested himself and charged with a violation of Massachusetts wiretapping laws.

In Illinois in September, a judge threw out five eavesdropping indictments—which carried maximum penalties of 15 years in prison on each count—against a man who had recorded conversations with local police officers who he claimed were harassing him on his own property.

In a stinging rebuke to the prosecution, the judge wrote, "A statute intended to prevent unwarranted intrusions into a citizen's privacy cannot be used as a shield for public officials who cannot assert a comparable right of privacy in their public duties. Such action impedes the free flow of information concerning public officials and violates the First Amendment right to gather such information."

So far, so good. Still, these kinds of busts are on the rise nationwide. Even if they're all laughed out of court, the mere threat of arrest (and the potential concomitant bodily harm) is often enough to make most people think twice about the wisdom of challenging a police order.

And, truthfully, would you trust the current Supreme Court—a majority of which has consistently supported government rights over that of citizens—to rule correctly on this?

Investing
These few examples, winnowed from hundreds of others I could cite, testify to a mushrooming new industry in the US, what some have called the cyber-industrial complex.

It's big business. How big we don't know, because much of it is shrouded in either government or corporate secrecy.

The Washington Post's Dana Priest, twice a Pulitzer winner and one of the few true investigative journalists in America still working inside the mainstream media, published some groundbreaking work on the subject in the summer of 2010. If you haven't read it already, you should. The Web site is dynamic, with regular updates posted on the subject and reader input invited.

Several other recent probes also have opened the shadowy surveillance world to a little more light. You can check out some of the latest techniques, and which companies are implementing them, at The Surveillance Catalog published by The Wall Street Journal and The State of Surveillance: The Data, published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Perhaps in your browsing you'll find some publicly traded companies that will attract your investment interest. For our part, we prefer to seek out companies that are engaged in changing our world for the better rather than the worse. Those are the ones you'll find in our portfolio.

In the end, we must acknowledge that technological advancement—especially at the rate we're experiencing it in the present era—is bound to spawn evil applications along with the good. But we're optimists here. We believe humanity is in a long-term uptrend, with technology setting torches on the path to a better life.

But that all depends on keeping people free. That's why we will continue to expose—and oppose—government efforts to stifle innovation, creativity, and personal liberty. I'm not holding my breath, but perhaps eventually Washington, DC will get the point, and follow our lead.

Read more from Casey Research here...

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