Government may be using apps to spy on you

Do you know how much of your private info the government says it's allowed to see? It's much more than you think.
March 17, 2014 11:43:11 PM PDT
Big Brother is watching you! Those free apps we use to chat with friends and share pictures can store lots of information about us -- information the government can later come and get.

ABC7 News looks at exactly what spy agencies can find out about you and what those who don't like it are doing about it.

Wickr CEO Nico Sell is an organizer of DEF CON -- the notorious hacker convention. She's a speaker, a startup founder and a mom. She has only a few pictures of herself posted online.

"I love technology, but I boycott social media. I don't have any Facebook friends, get really mad when people Evite me," said Sell.

The sunglasses she wears are no accident. Sell is on a mission to keep her face and her data off of services where the federal government can track her.

"There's been many stories about Skype working with governments all over the world," said Sell. "Even Snapchat has let people know that they've given snaps to the FBI."

They're the free, convenient apps of our modern digital life, but amid leaks from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, there's a growing sentiment that they're not as private as we thought.

"George Washington, the founder of our country said we need for a strong social system, we need private correspondence without the government's prying eyes, and freedom of information without government censorship. That was the original beginning of the U.S. Post Office," said Sell.

But the history of the Post Office, it turns out, is also one way the government's justifying some surveillance tactics. We all know what's inside a letter is private, but what about what's on the outside? Well, when the government looks at who you're writing to, or who you're calling, they're applying what is called the third-party doctrine.

"That doctrine really originates in this idea that when you mailed a letter, you had no expectation of privacy, any of the information you put on the outside of the envelope," said David Greene, an Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says the digital equivalent of an envelope is what's called metadata. Like an envelope has an address and a postmark, a phone call carries metadata with who you called and when -- data the NSA says it has a right to look at.

"If it wasn't useful information, the government wouldn't want it," said Greene.

And that brings us to a tiny lab at Stanford and a project called MetaPhone.

"We got a lot of people to volunteer their metadata to us and we were able to analyze it," said Patrick Mutchler, a Stanford Ph.D. student.

The goal is to find out what spy agencies can learn from metadata when they have a whole lot of it.

"You wouldn't expect just your call logs to tell you, 'OK, I'm dating someone or not.' And who I might be dating," said Mutchler.

But they wrote a program that does just that. They can tell who you bank with and make a pretty good guess about your health.

"Say you're calling Planned Parenthood or you're calling a heart specialist," said Mutchler.

But it goes beyond metadata. The latest Snowden papers show the government asking tech companies for the keys to information you store online -- your pictures, files, email, private conversations.

"The government believes it can get your information from a cloud service. And that's not going to violate your constitutional rights. I believe that's wrong," said Greene.

And so does protest group Restore The Fourth -- as in Fourth Amendment. Not your typical activists, they are techies worried their customers won't stick around without privacy protection.

"What Snowden has revealed is that our government is undermining sort of our livelihoods and our core sort of professional interests," said Zaki Manian, a spokesman for Restore The Fourth. "The ability to trust American technology will be lost."

But the technology industry is starting to come up with solutions to protect your privacy. Products like Pixeom -- an alternative to Dropbox and Google drive, where you host your own tiny cloud service at home.

"We can provide them everything we have, turn over all our data, but in the end, the consumers are the ones who are encrypting it themselves," said Sam Nagar, the Pixeom co-founder.

Sell has her own product called Wickr -- that competes with Snapchat, and eventually Skype. It pledges to encrypt everything and store nothing.

"We've also had law enforcement asking us for data, and we were able to say no, because we don't have any data," said Sell.

But they'd rather see change from above. And now that Snowden's made it all public, that battle's beginning.

"We're having lawsuits about it, and if the government thinks it's legal, now they have a chance to justify it in the courts," said Greene.


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