WebRTC World Feature Article

May 07, 2014

Is Big Brother Listening in on You?


Whatever your personal opinions about the morality of Edward Snowden's actions, his whistleblowing has monumentally shifted what the public knows about government surveillance in and by the United States. Parsing through the windfall of information is increasingly difficult. We know the U.S. government, through the NSA, is monitoring our communications, but modern day communications networks are complex behemoths constituted of a wide variety of technologies. Even a "phone call" is no longer a simple concept in the face of VoIP and mobile technology. Here's what the leaked documents tell us about what and how the NSA is collecting information across these different technologies.


One of the first documents Snowden leaked was a classified court order, approved on April 25, 2013, that compelled Verizon to turn over "telephony metadata" held by the company on calls within the United States or between the United States and a foreign nation. This document showed that the NSA was collecting information on phone calls - though the document prohibits the collection of the contents of the communications - that includes "session identifying information" such as phone numbers and International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) numbers, when the calls where made, and how long those calls lasted.

While the original order only approved 90 days of surveillance, these orders are routinely renewed. A recent court ruling approved the production of metadata to the FBI on October 11, 2013, though the entity compelled to turn over that information in this instance has been classified.

These documents cover your more traditional communications means -- landlines and mobile phones. Moreover, metadata does not divulge the contents of the communications.

Beyond phone calls and metadata on them, the leaked information on NSA's PRISM program has shown that the NSA is not above collecting content. PRISM is a program that compels nine major Internet companies -- including Microsoft, Google, and Apple -- to hand over communications data in a variety of forms, from emails, chats (including video and voice chats), VoIP and data stored by these companies. So is the NSA collecting information on your communication through *insert form of communication here*? Probably. The NSA collects data on anyone who uses services from any of these nine companies or on anyone who sends communications to someone who uses these services.

These revelations have been largely U.S.-centric, but other revelations have shown that surveillance is not limited to communications in the United States. Even as someone who neither lives in the United States full-time nor is a U.S. citizen, I cannot be fully sure if the NSA is dumping information about my communications into their databases -- though the evidence suggests that it's likely.

What you'll notice is that the collection of information is striated by business entities and not technologies. The NSA seems indiscriminate on the means of communication, which is understandable. The national security risks they are tasked with rooting out won't restrict themselves to one form of technology. With the way the NSA is collecting information, so long as your communications are being routed through a third party that either is cooperating with the NSA or is being tapped by the NSA without their knowledge (because that's happening, too), either your communications are being collected or information about your communications is being collected. 

Maybe you care that you're being surveilled. Maybe you're okay with it for the sake of the United States’ national security. What's clear is that no technology is safe from the all-seeing eye of the NSA. The way to avoid the NSA is not through particular technologies -- using only VoIP for instance -- but by using communications platforms not cooperating with the NSA and only communicating with people using communications platforms not cooperating with the NSA. Which is probably not a viable option. So all of us must be okay with being surveilled at least some of the time or the NSA must be compelled to change the terms of its surveillance. 

Alexey Aylarov is the CEO of Zingaya, which enables online calls from Web pages. Alexey is also the founder of VoxImplant, a communications cloud platform for mobile and web app developers.




Edited by Rachel Ramsey



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