Is Big Brother Listening In?

In General Articles

There have been hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of words written over the last few weeks about the leaked information that claims the National Security Agency (NSA) had made arrangements with major telephone service providers in the United States and Great Britain in order to sift through communications records in the name of anti-terrorist efforts. The man responsible for the leaks, former NSA tech analyst Edward Snowden, has been called everything from a hero to a traitor, and is the center of a worldwide manhunt at the time of this writing (late June 2013).

This situation has taken on a tremendous political charge, and there doesn't seem to be a single person in the public eye who hasn't expressed an opinion on it. Various news outlets around the world have presented their own set of facts as they see them, and they've varied so wildly that it's no surprise that there's a lot of confusion swirling around what's taken place. The translations of this information range from business as usual to the utter end of privacy, at least as far as our telephone conversations and text messages are concerned. When you have that broad a spectrum of varying information, the truth lies somewhere in the middle—and right now, there are enough puzzle pieces missing to make it even more confusing. Frankly, it's a mess.

Since the work we do at AppsAustin is directly linked to mobile devices and communications, we'd like to take a look at how this situation realistically affects smartphone owners. What we won't do, however, is take any political stance on this issue. It simply isn't our place, and this article is meant to inform, not to inflame.

This article on Mother Jones asks the question that's on the minds of practically every smartphone owner in the country: Does the NSA record everything about everyone, all the time? Their answer is as follows:

No. The NSA routinely obtains and stores as much as it can of certain types of information, such as the metadata from telephone calls made in the US (but not their content) and some fraction of the massive amount of raw data flowing through major internet cables.

The “metadata” referred to includes the phone numbers of the sender and receiver, the locations of both, and the length of the call made. NBC News goes further into the metadata question by quoting NSA Director General Keith Alexander:

[Alexander] said the government can only go into the "virtual lock box" of metadata on a "selector" — or target — if there is reasonable suspicion that the individual or group is related to terrorism. He added that, in 2012, fewer than 300 selectors' lock boxes were approved for query. The numbers show, however, that there was no where near 300 disrupted terrorist activities.

In other words, the NSA claims that only in fewer than 300 cases out of hundreds of millions of phone calls made were the actual contents of the calls accessed and reviewed. Even so, NBC seems to be implying that even this tiny fraction is too many. A recent Politico article notes that the NSA's removal of their fact sheets on the surveillance programs has added some fuel to the fire for the agency's naysayers. Be that as it may, after researching dozens of articles on the subject, we've reached the educated conclusion that the NSA is “listening in” on some communications, but not all of them. We're not saying it's wrong or right either way, but that the number of calls where the content is actually being reviewed is quite small.

So, you might well ask, whether it's 300 calls a year or 300 million, can a smartphone owner do anything to protect their privacy, short of turning off their device permanently and resorting to smoke signals? The answer is...sorta. ZDNet and Refinery 29 offer their recommendations for applications that can encrypt the ingoing and outgoing information between senders and receivers for phone calls and text messages. This, however, is where the “sorta” comes in. Even though these apps protect the content of your calls and messages, they may not necessarily do anything to cloak your metadata, such as phone numbers and locational information. So the NSA can still gather some information, if not all of it, without your consent or knowledge.

One parting note: keep in mind this is still a story in progress, and court cases and legislation could change the NSA communications surveillance landscape in the future.


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