The NSA’s plans don’t end with collecting your phone records. Here are just a few of the ways the National Security Agency (NSA) will be keeping tabs on you in the world of tomorrow. Prepare to be shocked, amazed, and a little freaked out.
Surveillance tends to be at the forefront of technology. Among details leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden were plans to build a code-breaking quantum computer, a technology which could spell the end for cryptography and privacy. Worse, a quantum computer is by no means the only way the NSA is trying to crack encryption – or keep tabs on you in general.
The NSA recently admitted they no longer want to keep tabs on you using a variety of ‘back-door’ approachs. Instead, Michael S. Rogers, director of the NSA, says he wants a “front door. And I want the front door to have multiple locks. Big locks.” Rogers is referring to the notion of split-key encryption, which allows all encryption to be unlocked using special keys owned by the government.
Encryption lets you turn plaintext data into ciphertext; that is, seemingly random characters unreadable without a key. Under split-key encryption, companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google would be forced into creating a digital key that could unlock any smartphone and tablet – and this key would be available to government agencies. However, this requires trust of the authorities, and poses the risk that a single leak of the master keys could destroy global privacy.
Strong single-key encryption is a nightmare for security agencies because it means only the user can access locked data. This is standard on Apple devices. iOS 7, for instance, introduced Activation Lock, which insists on your ID and passcode before unlocking. It’s a great way to combat thieves hungry to make a profit from stolen devices, as even Apple can’t unlock it.
The NSA is looking into ways to bypass this, including a ‘key escrow’ – essentially multiple agencies owning keys to your data. That’s a big privacy concern, so the front-door solution is perhaps preferable. However, it could be unconstitutional to put those restrictions on companies. Furthermore, if these backdoors are widely known to exist, it could hurt American companies ability to sell their systems overseas.
There’s also some suspicion that AI is being used by intelligence agencies to profile and predict the intentions of people deemed to be threats. Facebook can already judge your personality and predict your behavior. It’s not out of the question that the NSA could do something similar. The Advanced Question Answering for INTelligence (Aquaint) project gathers data about citizens, to be sifted through by so-called “pre-crime” AI, designed to identify future criminals and predict their actions, a thesis that evokes films like Minority Report.
Your smartphone contains extremely precise gyroscopes, which let them detect the phone’s rotations. These are accurate enough to pick up the vibrations caused by sound, letting them be used as crude microphones, according to Wired. The technology is still in its infancy and needs refinement in conjunction with speech recognition algorithms, yet the potential could be there for the NSA to listen in to select conversations, given only access to the gyroscope, something that few mobile operating systems even count as a “permission” that the user needs to be aware of.
Similarly, a smartphone’s accelerometer is essential for many apps, but could provide a means to track you. Notably, their unique micro- or nano-imperfections could be analysed, thus providing real-time location-based information, bypassing any in-app permissions. A team at the University of Illinois, College of Engineering found they could discriminate between sensor signals with 96% accuracy; combine this with possible fingerprints from other phone sensors and this would likely increase further.
All of these are very real possibilities. Some may even be happening now.