Connected Big Brother: Are We Being Spied On Online?

Business.com / Technology / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

As our technologic abilities become more advanced, Big Brother's surveillance becomes more streamlined. Are you being watched?

From Facebook to Twitter to smart homes and smart cars, almost everything is online these days.

And because of this, it seems it is only easier for Big Brother to be keeping tabs on us in ways we are not aware of, and maybe just are not comfortable with. And no, we are not panicking because dystopian film after film is being made.

We have read 1984 and we are beginning to realize that we passed that long ago.

It does not take much to uncover any skeptics eyes to the truth that with more and more “smart” items taking over our lives, it is becoming easier and easier for Big Brother to be deeply involved in our private affairs.

Related Article: Coworker Sabotaging Your Office? Maybe She's a CIA Spy

Who Are "They" Watching? 

You do not have to be a major player in a terrorist cell or even an eco-terrorist group for the government to be interested in slinking into your computers, phone conversations, and even cars. We are beginning to see more and more lawsuits surrounding invasions of privacy and more and more apps that are giving people the ability to spy on cell phones (and you don’t have to be a federal agency to have access to them).

A writer recently wrote that when she tried to write a review for a book on Amazon she was denied. After contacting Amazon directly, she received a response stating that they would not post her review “because [her] account activity indicates that [she knows] the author.”

The writer stated that except for a brief interaction on social media, she does not personally know the author. So how did Amazon know this? It may seem like the invasion into her social media world was harmless, but inadequate assumptions can easily be made affecting more than just our desires to write a good book review.

So are we being spied on? Yes. Is it necessarily harmful? We are not quite sure yet.

The Watchful Google Eye

It has long been known that Google takes information from our Google searches and then caters advertisements around this information. (You have heard about cookies — they’re pieces of data that are stored in our browsers that track any website we visit, which is why we are always told to clear our cookies cache.) Aside from maybe being slightly obnoxious, using spyware to give us more personal ads might not seem too harmful.

However, it was recently discovered the Google was also using its street view cars to access and download personal emails and other information from Wi-Fi routers. Senator Blumenthal and many others have heavily focused on “why Google {applied] for a patent to collect personal information over wi-fi as a tool to strengthen their location services system.” To many, this seems unnecessary. What I tell Grandma about my birthday party will not help Google get a better reading on my location in the world.

It is rumored that Google and the NSA have long been in bed together, trading personal information and using each other to gain access to smartphones and operating systems alike. With this discovery, Big Brother’s spying tactics become more personal and harmful. We do not mind if the Al Capone’s of the world have their phones and houses bugged, but suddenly when middle-class Americans’ privacy is raided we are far more up-in-arms over it.

Who Else Is Watching?

It is not just the Google street view cars that are creeping around the fences of our privacy, though. Huffington Post wrote a piece last year that noted several other ways that we’re being spied on. Between public transportation, smartphones, traffic cameras, and televisions, it seems that Big Brother is watching us 24/7. And now, with big data becoming a big business thing, gathering and storing data is becoming easier and easier for governments and businesses alike.

Though it’s illegal for the government to listen to private landline or cell phone conversations, they can still collect metadata, such as date, time, location and phone numbers of each party.

The Windows 10 update has even had customers and users alike in an uproar over spy software that came hidden in the operating system. And don’t forget about the social media apps on our phones and accessed on our computers continually have “suggestions for you” that can only seem to be based off information provided via your tech.

Social Media Is Perfect Spying Grounds

In fact, social media, with all its “connected” wonders, might be the easiest place for Big Brother to access personal information for any of their spying needs. The Atlantic wrote an article in 2011 about a “nondescript building in Virginia” that was being used by the CIA to “track millions of tweets, blog posts, and Facebook updates from around the world.”

Jared Keller wrote that “the CIA facility wasn't built specifically to track the ebb and flow of social media: The program was established in response to a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission with the initial mandate to focus on counterterrorism and counterproliferation.

According to the Associated Press, the center shifted gears and started focusing on social media after watching thousands of Iranian protesters turn to Twitter during the Iranian election protests of 2009, challenging the results of the elections that put Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back in power.”

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This new take on what the CIA or any government might be using our social media feeds for might actually give us a little reassurance. CNN reported that law enforcement had begun turning to Facebook as a “crime-fighting tool” back in 2012.

The report stated that “a recent survey of 1,221 federal, state and local law enforcement who use social media, four out of five officials used social media to gather intelligence during investigations.” There have been several other sightings of the use of social media (mainly Facebook) as a way to fight crime across the world.

This raises a huge question about whether or not what law officials can be considered legal as often times it includes creating fake accounts to access information on suspects. And don’t worry that the first amendment is often thrown about during heated discussions surrounding the use of social media in crime fighting. The idea of whispering deep-seeded feelings about the government in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games just might become a bigger reality than we had imagined.

Facebook isn’t the only target of government officials. A recent lawsuit focused on Twitter spying on users’ direct messages. The lawsuit claimed that Twitter was spying on direct messages to boost its advertising. Basically the same thing that Google was attacked for doing previously. It does raise the question again as to whom these social media tycoons are in bed with, especially since the form of PRISM (the National Security Agency program that allows the government to collect just about any information from Internet users, including emails and photos).

The Power of PRISM

Not too long ago, The Guardian and Washington Post were citing a big issue with the government directly asking Google for access to data. By law, Google is “prohibited from disclosing the number of government data requests it receives under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — the controversial law that empowers PRISM — as well as the number of individuals affected by those requests,” according to a Huffington Post article. Rather than denying its relationship with government agencies, Google is already cited as being entrenched with them and giving them access to data they receive and store.

So again, the question of how deviously dangerous all this spying truly is. Because so much of what we own is connected to Wi-Fi or satellites, “smart” hacking is becoming more and more common. And yeah, we do not think too much about “harm” when it is a phone conversation or giving websites access to our Google contacts. But what if it wasn’t just our smart phones and smart computers that were being hacked?

Be Wary of Smart-Everything

With the furthering of smart cars and even smart homes, hacking is becoming a bigger danger.

With the invention of Nest, LG and Samsung smart refrigerators, camera-enabled doorbells and apps galore, hacking into not just our personal information but our physical lives is becoming more and more prevalent in the twenty-first century. And it’s not just for advertising purposes.

Connected-car risks are blatantly more dangerous than the risks from connected phones and computers. With recent experiments done by Jeep, BMW and Webtech Plus, it was found that hackers could access climate control (blast cold air), turn on wipers and spray wiper fluid (potentially blurring a driver’s vision), and they could even take control of the transmission, slowing the car to a complete halt despite the driver flooring the gas.

The sudden idea that someone outside of the government having access to our vehicles is very troublesome. From stalkers, exes, and anyone who might wish us harm, knowing that they can access our vehicles can be a scary thought. We often think of our cars as the getaway vehicle (literally), but now there’s a chance for someone to hack our smart cars, access our location for stalking purposes, and even stop our vehicle if they wish to attack us.

Yes, it might seem a bit outlandish to focus on the extreme, but just google “how to spy on someone” and you will receive a myriad of results that range from how to hack your spouse’s cell phone to spying on someone’s Instagram whether it be your spouse, ex or your own stalker (turning the stalker into the stalkee).

On top of our vehicles being online, our homes are becoming more and more entwined with the internet also. With the ability to control our heating and cooling systems, check who’s knocking on the door, turn on lights and lock the door all from across the state it makes one wonder if we can access it from afar, then who else can too? And maybe all those cameras installed to check who’s at your front door or what’s in your fridge just might be turned back on you. We know this is possible with citings of the NSA remotely turning on camera phones to be used as a microphone or camera.

Related Article: “Secure Cloud” is No Longer an Oxymoron

Although there are very few instances of Big Brother posing a threat to our safety at the moment, we still need to be on the lookout for when black and white is far more gray than we would wish. With the same techniques originally used for “advertising purposes” beginning to spill over into other areas of our lives like our homes and vehicles, we need to be aware of how quickly this can turn into major invasions of privacy.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act is beginning to look better and better these days as it seems almost every area of our lives is scrutinized. With so many opportunities for potential employers, government agencies, and even ex-lovers to have access to our personal information, the question of whether or not this is hazardous or ok for our well-being and safety is looming larger and larger each day.

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