2013 is the year that proved your ‘paranoid’ friend right

December 28, 2013

(Barton Gellman/The Washington Post)

Most people involved in the tech scene have at least one friend who has been warning everyone they know about protecting their digital trail for years — and have watched that friend get accused of being being a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist. But 2013 is the year that proved your "paranoid" friend right.

It's now a matter of public record that the NSA collects and stores the calling records of domestic phone calls, tracks the location of millions of mobile devices worldwide, infiltrates the data links between the data centers of tech companies used by millions of Americans, piggybacks onto commercial tracking mechanisms, collected potentially sensitive online metadata for years and actively worked to undermine the privacy and security measures that underpin the Internet. And considering the purported size of the Snowden cache, that could be the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.

And while the NSA story alone undoubtedly gives the "paranoid" plenty of reasons to say "I told you so," a slew of other reports from this year gave them even more reasons to retreat into the wilderness and start subsistence farming.

For instance, the ACLU released a cache of documents showing that police around the country are collecting license plate scanner information that could be used to track physical locations of many Americans without consistent retention policies. "Because of the way the technology works – these devices snap photos of every passing car, not just those registered to people suspected of crimes – virtually all of the data license plate readers gather is about people who are completely innocent," explained the ACLU, noting that the hit rates for the data collected by these types of programs was often far below 1 percent. And while one snapshot might seem innocuous, when you pool together huge databases of this type of location information, it can create incredibly intimate portraits of the how an individual lives their life – including where they work, which friends the visit and what doctors they see. The associated report was aptly titled "You Are Being Tracked."

Speaking of being tracked, an enterprising hacker discovered that the E-Z Pass he used to make paying tolls simpler was being read all around New York City. Turns out, the city had been tracking E-Z Passes for years as a way to measure traffic patterns. The city wasn't very willing to reveal how long that data is being retained or just how much information was being collected by these clandestine readers. But the company that provides the RFID readers for the city said it scrambles the tag IDs to make them anonymous and only held it for a few minutes to compare against other traffic. Still, even if there are significant safeguards in place, it's ample evidence that the technology you let into your life that's capable of tracking you might not always be used in the ways you expect.

Speaking of technology with obviously exploitable surveillance capabilities:  Someone might be watching you through your laptop's webcam – without even activating the warning light. Reports say the FBI has had this capability for several years, and researchers at John's Hopkins were able to demonstrate how to covertly spy via webcams in MacBooks. Good thing you can cover up your webcam. Too bad there's not a similarly easy solution for stopping hackers from listening in on your laptop's built-in microphone.

Oh, and to top it all off: There was suspicious aerial activity going on at Area 51. Although no admissions of alien activity have emerged, much to John Podesta's dismay, recently released documents reveal that the CIA tested its first drones at the Nevada military base.

None of this means that we should all give up on modern technology or that we now live in a surveillance-state dystopia. But it just might mean that we live in a world where things that were once considered far-fetched science fiction fantasy are increasingly being revealed as reality.

And that you owe your paranoid friend a beer.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Andrea Peterson · December 27, 2013