Governments have always spied on other governments, but as technology has spread, their efforts have spread out to include individuals. The ongoing Snowden revelations of the NSA / GCHQ corrupting encryption systems, tapping data centers and accessing your personal meta data show just how deeply various government agencies have penetrated infrastructure world wide. This activity can be broken down into three distinct stages.
Stage One - Accessing Information:
This is fairly straightforward. Government departments access your Facebook, Twitter, phone, email, on-line banking, credit history, contact list, etc. They try to gain information about you, where you go and the people you associate / communicate with. Typically, this information is protected by privacy law or the Constitution in the US. If you live outside of the US then you are a viable target to US intelligence agencies. Traditionally in most countries, for law enforcement to access your private info, they need to go in front of a judge, present a prima facie case demonstrating your culpability in a crime and receive a court order allowing them to gather more evidence. It is a system that has worked for many decades.
However, recent changes to the law no longer involve a judge. Today, as one example, several major cities in the US have police cameras mounted on patrol cars to routinely record license plate information on the millions of people they pass on the road daily. The cars are photographed, their position and time / date noted along with the occupants. That information goes into massive databases to be used in the case of kidnapping, or some other form of crime. This warrant less surveillance monitors regular people who have not done anything wrong. They are being monitored, just in case something happens. The same collection is occurring with cell phones and their GPS locations. Facial recognition is being implemented in airports, public buildings and city streets to track people.
Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and many other public companies have been forced to reveal your personal information through secret government orders then been banned from speaking about it.
This began in the late 1990's and continues largely unchecked. Indeed the demand for this information is growing with billions of dollars being spent to collect and store more data annually.
Stage Two - Relating Information:
Everyone understand relationships in real life. By following your ancestors back in time you get an overall picture of your family, its history and origins. Relating data is no different. Individual databases such as your phones GPS location, email and contact list are related to build an overall picture of where you were, who you were with and when. Governments track your finances, stock holdings, credit score, and purchases. There are thousands of individual databases and relating them gives government bureaucracy unprecedented access to you and your life. Where you shop, where you go on vacation, what you write to your friends, what you watch on cable, who you date, your political views, etc. All of this is now available online at the press of a button. There have already been many abuses of this system as there are few checks and balances as most of this activity is classified.
Governments use security classifications to protect sensitive information. A militaries communication codes are top secret for good reason. However, making things secret is also the way bureaucracies cover over incompetence and abuses of the system. The Pentagon Papers, Sibel Edmonds, abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the killing of unarmed Reuters reporters by US troops in Iraq are a few examples of cover-up by security. This is where we are today.
"So what?" Many people object, "I've done nothing wrong and I have nothing to hide." I hear this from many people, but it's not the real issue.
Stage Three - Manipulating Information:
Today, governments are at the point where integration of databases is well along the road. This system is supposed to work in a read only mode. An analyst types in search criteria and out comes the subset of information he/she desires. However, at some point, someone in authority will want to modify information in those databases. The motivation will be chock full of good intentions I'm sure and the changes they want will be initially minor, but in doing so they are setting down a road that can only lead to terrible consequences; let me explain.
Consider a dollar bill in your pocket. When you received it, you trust that piece of paper had a value of one dollar. The actual physical value of that piece of paper is negligible. The bill is nothing but cellulose and ink, in and of itself it has little inherent value. Yet, you accepted it in the assumption that when you give it to someone they'll also accept it as being worth one dollar. That inherent trust is key to everyone's daily life in the modern world.
Most currency today exists purely in digital form. Your bank balance is not sitting on a shelf in the local branch vault in an equivalent amount in bills or gold. It is a simple number stored in a financial database. Your stock holdings, retirement funds, credit card balance, and savings are all just fields in databases. There is little physical money given our electronic society. We simply trust that when we go to the cash machine or online banking, the balance will be correct and available. We place trust into the database that holds our money.
Now we return to the people making changes to the databases. With all of these datastores being connected, someone can change data for either some sort of beneficial gain or to mitigate a perceived loss. It may be state sponsored, where an agency modifies financial information to mask (or expose) a countries weak currency position or undermine a corporation. It could be as simple as an intelligence analyst trying to wipe out his girlfriends college loans. Other possibilities include police officers amending data to reinforce otherwise weak evidence against a suspect.
I can imagine the roars of "That could never happen," but in today's world where government agencies both lie to each other and their oversight committees in Congress without any prosecution, I state it is not only possible, but inevitable. Twenty years ago this would be extremely difficult because of the supporting paper trail and legal protections, if not impossible. Today with classified intercept programs and secret backdoors into multiple data stores modifying information is a matter of a few keystrokes. In my opinion, it's not a matter of if, but when this will occur; if it has not already. Nor will it stop with just one occurrence and these changes will be classified to hide it from public view, of course.
When those modifications come to light, trust in all digital systems will be severely degraded. Not knowing what has been changed casts doubts over the entire infrastructure. We will no longer be able to trust any database's integrity. Stock prices, your bank balance, personal info, credit history, etc. will have huge question marks over them. It may trigger a financial meltdown as everyone tries to get their cash out of the corrupt system.
Legal protections against unwarranted search and seizure are in effect in every major country on the face of the earth. They have been in place for decades and are proven to be effective against crime. This is part of a public system where the press and regular citizens can review individual cases and make informed political decisions. If they disagree with the process, the courts can be used to determine legal validity. New laws, often kept secret from the public, override this system of checks and balances. The government asks us to trust them as this is for our protection, but I don't agree.
The government works for us. We elect politicians, we pay the taxes that finance them and they are supposed to represent us. When someone does something wrong, we look to the government (the police) to arrest, charge and prosecute the law breaker. However, when government officials break the law and not are charged, who do we turn to? Director of National Intelligence - James Clapper lied during an open hearing of Congress. He subsequently admitted it, but will probably not face charges and indeed will probably get a high paying job when he leaves government service. The chances of anyone in government being prosecuted for rights and constitutional violations is slim because the same members of government decide who gets charged. Edward Snowden, who brought most of the crimes into the light, would spend the rest of his life in jail if he ever returned to the United States. The people who created the hidden surveillance and courts that breached the law in the first place will never even see the inside of a jail cell under current attitudes. They simply slap a security classification over the abuses and ignore them because they can do so with impunity.
The words of William Binney, one of three whistleblowers, formerly of the NSA: "We tried to stay for the better part of seven years inside the government trying to get the government to recognize the unconstitutional, illegal activity that they were doing and openly admit that and devise certain ways that would be constitutionally and legally acceptable to achieve the ends they were really after. And that just failed totally because no one in Congress or — we couldn't get anybody in the courts, and certainly the Department of Justice and inspector general's office didn't pay any attention to it. And all of the efforts we made just produced no change whatsoever. All it did was continue to get worse and expand."
When we as citizens are denied access and can no longer monitor the inner workings of our own governments, then we are no longer an open democracy. When everyone in a country is monitored, surveilled and tracked, we typically think of places like East Germany or North Korea. Yet, with today's technology like smart phones, tablets and GPS enabled cars we are under a much higher level of scrutiny than even the Stasi could invent. The only thing keeping it from sliding into a police state is the freedoms and rights we have as individuals, but those rights are being trampled down every day in the rush for expediency.
The US Constitution and Bill of Rights is one of the best written documents in the world. It contains a series of checks and balances that work in 2015 as well as they did when it was ratified in 1788. Classified Presidential Executive Orders combined with both secret legislation and closed courts have undermined those protections. The US is not the only country doing this and I don't wish to single them out, but they certainly take the prize for the largest effort in circumventing their own laws and unwillingness to curb their efforts.
When governments enact secret legislation, use security classifications to cover abuses and exclude their own citizens from public debate, the outcome of degraded trust is inevitable. When government can literally rewrite history and the official record, only we as the citizens will suffer.
EDIT: Just as I was about to post this, I found a reference to New York City police officers, using official computers and Internet, editing and deleting Wikipedia entries concerning police brutality cases to place the NYPD in a better light. The officers involved will not face any severe disciplinary measures according to the NYPD police commisioner. They will receive a slap on the wrist, but more for getting caught than anything else. Expect more instances like this in the future.