Next up: The Jamming wars

Our public spaces are bristling with surveillance gear, but Washington can't seem to get around to updating its privacy laws. What's next? Look for citizens to take matters into their own hands.

Credit: Image credit: flickr/Peter Merholz

Our public spaces are bristling with surveillance gear, but Washington can't seem to get around to updating its privacy laws. What's next? Look for citizens to take matters into their own hands. Given the rapid pace of technological change, we don't know exactly what the future holds for us. But one thing is certain: personal privacy is going to turn from a "right" to a "fight" in the next decade, as individuals take up arms against government and private sector snooping on their personal lives.

Scanning the headlines even today tells you as much. Forget about the NSA's wide ranging PRISM surveillance program, which vacuums up cell phone metadata in the name of stopping terrorist attacks- that program has attracted plenty of scrutiny. What about quieter but equally invasive technologies? There's ShotSpotter, a system of distributed acoustic sensors from the California based firm SST that is being used to pinpoint the location of gunfire in cities like Boston. Or how about London's new wi-fi enabled trashcans from Renew Technologies? As the web site ArsTechnica reported, they use embedded technology (dubbed "ORB," interestingly enough) to capture the machine (MAC) address of wi-fi enabled smartphones as pedestrians walk by. The trash cans passively monitor and capture the "footfall" of their owners, telling advertisers who use it about the "entry (and) exit points, dwell times, places of work, places of interest, and affinity to other devices" of pedestrians in public. Without drastic changes to the law to protect individuals from this kind of snooping (well intentioned or not), privacy is on course to be the next, major civil rights battleground, as individuals (at least in countries that extend civil rights to their citizens) look for ways to staunch or at least limit the kinds of tracking that is done of them – either by "opting out" of activities that carry the cost of surveillance or other intrusions, or by taking up (digital) arms against the snoopers. This isn't a hypothetical. Just this week, a local CBS affiliate in New York reported that a New Jersey man was tracked down by federal agents after a portable GPS jamming device he purchased to prevent his employer from tracking his movements interfered with a GPS based guidance system that was being tested at Newark Liberty Airport. The engineer, Gary Bojczak, admitted to buying and installing a portable GPS jammer to prevent his boss from tracking his movements in the company vehicle. Bojczak isn't alone. GPS jammers have become commonplace among truckers and other car-bound employees, and with motorists looking to beat GPS-enabled tolls on roadways. The devices are so common – and troublesome – that police have adopted tools that can spot cars equipped with GPS jamming gear. And, in the wake of revelations about the PRISM program, consumers have been flocking to solutions that promise protection for everything from cell phone conversations to email. The operator of the secure, private email service Lavabit - NSA leaker Edward Snowden's choice of email provider - said that he was ceasing operation after the government issued a subpoena for information on his users. Speaking with me earlier this week, Mike Janke of the firm SilentCircle said that his firm has seen its secure voice, texting and video services grow by 400% in the last two months, as worried consumers and companies look for ways to protect their online communications. Elsewhere, a popular thread on the news aggregation site this week asked for recommendations for "non-us based email providers." "As the scope of its various data gathering programs comes to light, it is apparent to me that the only way to avoid being watched is to use servers based in countries which are unlikely to respond to US requests for information," the author wrote. The more technically adept are also fighting back. At the recent DEFCON hacking conference, researchers unveiled CreepyDOL, a citizen-powered mass surveillance network that used cheap, off the shelf sensors to create a mesh surveillance network on the cheap – spying on the spies, as it were. Absent the protection of the law, citizens should be expected to do what they do elsewhere: take matters into their own hands: latching onto tools and technology to give them the privacy that they aren't afforded by the legal system. Alas, there is also concern that the easy appeal of technology "fixes" for ubiquitous surveillance may be misleading. Writing in Wired, Jathan Sadowski warns that the tendency for individuals to focus on securing their own data and communications and using technology to do may be misleading. "The problem is that focusing on one or both of these approaches distracts from the much-needed political reform and societal pushback necessary to dig up a surveillance state at its root," Sadowski wrote.

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