It’s surprising how ill-protected the communications back channels of the great and powerful are. For example, the private Hillary Clinton email server was first publicly unearthed by an unemployed Romanian taxi driver alias Guccifer. Armed with nothing but persistence, the Romanian attacked “AOL, Yahoo, Flickr and Facebook accounts” and manually traced out the the network correspondents and by following them stumbled upon the Clinton email server.
His hacking tools consisted of a desktop computer, a cellphone, an internet connection and lots of patience and persistence. He used the simple technique of finding personal information about his victims online and then using this to guess the correct answers to security questions. At the time of his arrest, Guccifer was an unemployed taxi driver … Guccifer had successfully hacked the e-mail account of former aide to president Bill Clinton, Sidney Blumenthal. He distributed private memos sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton involving recent events in Libya, including the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attack.
The sitting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David Petraeus entrusted his secret with Paula Broadwell to a back channel that was almost comically insecure. “Petraeus and Broadwell used fake names to create free webmail accounts exchanging messages without encryption tools. They would share an email account, with one saving a message in the drafts folder and the other deleting it after reading it. “The FBI, using electronic metadata that pinpointed the times, places and IP addresses, identified Paula Broadwell as the source” and conducted a security investigation that led to Petraeus’ removal.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was charged with corruption in 2014after being caught using a burner cell phone (a throwaway cell phone, often prepaid) to make a dirty deal. “Parisian investigative judges began tapping Sarkozy’s phone in 2013 as part of an probe into allegations of illegal funding by the regime of Libya’s former leader Muammar Qaddafi … Sarkozy was then found to be using a cell phone under the name of Paul Bismuth.”
None of these exalted public figures were any better protected against mass surveillance than the average Joe. Whether the sitting president of Brazil, Dilma Roussef, who trooped to the UN to denounce the NSA wiretap of her phones, or the hundreds of politicians and celebrities exposed by the Panama Papers, to the thousands of ordinary people whose pictures are stolen from social media accounts for blackmail or revenge porn, few are safe .
Ironically, the only people not worried about the collapse of privacy are authoritarians like Vladimir Putin. Putin is one of those mentioned in the Panama Papers but he’s not sweating bullets since the last whistleblower to go up against him died of polonium poisoning in a British hospital. Before he died,Alexander Litvinenko named Putin as his murderer in print. The result? Nothing. Litvinenko is still dead and Putin is still president of Russia. The Chinese took a lesson from the Russian playbook “pursuing critics, China reaches across borders,” the Washington Post writes. The Chinese regime is kidnapping dissidents in the streets of foreign countries says “and nobody is stopping it.”
Nobody dares. How could they when the Russians and Chinese can ruin the reputation of a Western politician by blackmail? In the days before the information age and its byproduct, mass surveillance was a trademark of the Eastern bloc. Everyone who was anyone could assume he had a dossier. It was in the West where people were free of such things. They had anonymity, places they could go without papers. Today everyone in the West has a dossier compiled by Google, social media and their own phones. Moreover they’ve agreed to it.
Commercial mass surveillance often makes use of copyright laws and “user agreements” to obtain (typically uninformed) ‘consent’ to surveillance from consumers who use their software or other related materials. This allows gathering of information which would be technically illegal if performed by government agencies. This data is then often shared with government agencies – thereby – in practice – defeating the purpose of such privacy protections.
Data knows where you’ve gone, what you buy, what you eat, what you say. With artificial intelligence it can even deduce if you have a gun and how many rounds of ammunition you’ve stocked. Twitter, for example, has been providing US government intelligence with every Tweet ever made on the planet. The tech revolution has in a fit of absentmindedness removed all obstacles to surveillance except the one tyrants have: the the absence of consequences. What protects 21st century tyrants from political exposure is legal impunity.
It is a power that Western politicians are beginning to envy and emulate. In the Clinton email server saga, the defense has disturbingly evolved from “I never sent or received classified email from my private server” to “I never sent or received email marked as classified at the time they were sent” to ‘nobody can jail me because I am too powerful’. Former New Jersey Superior Court Judge Andrew Napolitano argued on television that while “the evidence of her guilt is overwhelming … there is not even the remotest chance that is going to happen.” The real mark of privilege today is not that they don’t know but you don’t care.