Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
The train to constant surveillance isn’t a direct route – it makes all kinds of stops before arriving at the final destination. It’s easier to convince passengers to board the vehicle if they think they can disembark after one or two stations. But that doesn’t mean the driver isn’t heading all the way to the end of the line, regardless.
All Aboard Google and Apple’s Exposure Notification Express
Not to ponder in a world of pure imagination, Google and Apple have kindly provided us with an example of how one stop leads to another. When the Coronavirus pandemic broke out, these two Big Tech behemoths sought a way to measure social interactions; tracking through apps developed by public health authorities and downloaded by the public.
As the weeks went by, it became apparent the public wasn’t keen on this level of surveillance or found it unnecessary for dealing with the virus, as few people decided to download these tracking apps. They had, however, accepted the presence of the software on their phones and gotten used to the concept of contact tracing. Time for Phase Two.
At the end of August, Google and Apple announced the next stage of their plan. Their software uses Bluetooth to detect when phones come within close proximity of each other for a prolonged period – around 15 minutes. The software itself initially didn’t do much with that information. It would enable associated apps to analyze that data and notify users if and when they come into contact with a Coronavirus carrier. Now, the two companies are skipping the middleman and enacting “Exposure Notifications Express.”
That means the Google and Apple software will be active in the next updates of Android and iOS operating systems with an added notification method, bypassing the need to download an app and merely allowing users to receive the announcements through their phone.
Many regions across the country and the world have declined or failed to develop contact tracing apps. Other areas have seen the public ultimately refuse to download available apps in significant numbers. That’s not to say the public health authorities won’t have a role to play in the new phase; they will still play an essential part. To use the scheme, officials will upload a “configuration file,” which will dictate the notifications and advice that people receive in their geographical location. Washington D.C., Maryland, Nevada, and Virginia are the first regions planning to implement the express system.
According to Apple and Google, the move was designed to allow for widespread contact tracing without pressuring public health authorities that may be unable to implement apps; only six U.S. states have successfully launched apps, and only around 20 countries worldwide.
Then there is the issue of public reluctance. People haven’t cooperated with contact tracing, so Silicon Valley is making it more “convenient” to comply. If people didn’t download the apps, will they sign-up for the express notification network?
Users will still need to opt-in to receive notifications at this stage – but with one hurdle out of the way, is it that unrealistic to predict a future scenario where all obstacles to social surveillance are removed? What could phase three comprise?
Amazon Networks with NSA Big Brother
Last week, we reported on the mood surrounding the Edward Snowden whistleblower case. Only a few days later, Snowden’s revelations have been in the news again, with a story that highlights the uncomfortable relationship between government and private surveillance.
Keith Alexander, who served as head of the National Security Agency (NSA) at the time when Snowden exposed the agency’s mass spying on the public, has been appointed to Amazon’s board of directors. Alexander served as director of the NSA from 2005 to March 2014. His retirement was announced in Oct. 2013, just a couple of months after Snowden’s revelations were made public – including the PRISM and XKeyscore programs that gave the NSA access to Americans’ online accounts, as well as mass trawling of phone and internet records.
Reporter – and Snowden’s one-time conduit – Glenn Greenwald neatly summarized the situation on Twitter:
“Gen. Keith Alexander was head of NSA when it secretly built a massive domestic surveillance system aimed at Americans – the one an appellate court just ruled likely illegal. Amazon just appointed him to its Board of Directors, again showing who they are …”
Complete with red alarm bell icons, Snowden himself tweeted:
“It turns out ‘Hey Alexa’ is short for ‘Hey Keith Alexander.’ Yes, the Keith Alexander personally responsible for the unlawful mass surveillance programs that caused a global scandal. And Amazon Web Services (AWS) host ~6% of all websites.”
Snowden is referring to Amazon’s AWS cloud computing service, which dominates a third of the cloud market. AWS provides connectivity with smart devices, database storage, and a wide range of other services – in short, it hosts and analyzes vast amounts of data. So, is that information safe from prying eyes? To say that Alexander has a bad reputation when it comes to violating public privacy is an understatement.
Some have suggested the appointment is an Amazon strategy to open doors within the U.S. government and attain lucrative federal contracts – such as the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud technology contract awarded to Microsoft by the Department of Defense in 2019. Amazon was among other Big Tech providers vying for the deal, and it has legally protested the DoD’s decision multiple times, claiming the selection process was biased. On Sept. 4, 2020, the DoD stated it had completed an investigation and would be standing by its choice; Amazon responded that it would continue to seek review and blamed President Trump for an alleged personal vendetta against Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Amazon has long provided the CIA with cloud-computing services. Still, the intelligence agency in 2019 said it would be upgrading its system and working with multiple providers – Amazon may indeed be feeling insecure about its government influence. The former NSA director could be a useful addition in this sphere.
In 2016, Alexander worked on the Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity, which, in its final report to the incoming Trump administration, recommended a “national public-private initiative to achieve major security and privacy improvements” among other measures. It called such partnerships “a powerful tool for encouraging the technology, policies, and practices we need to secure and grow the digital economy.”
Observers have complained of “revolving doors” between high-level government offices and private corporations in industries from finance to agriculture. It looks like Big Tech may be no exception to this effective method of gaining influence in the halls of power – especially when the data of millions of people are up for grabs.
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.