The Government Is Watching You Tweet

Words to avoid on Twitter if you'd prefer Homeland Security doesn't knock on your door.

As a country, we are now more concerned with guarding utility and government computer systems against hackers than we are with real-world troubles like terrorism, or so says a recent study from local computer security giant Unisys. Much like in the Cold War years, which saw the proliferation of the military-industrial complex, Americans today are faced with the constant reminder that someone, somewhere is out to get them, albeit through 1s and 0s rather than nuclear war.

The resulting “security-industrial complex,” as it’s been dubbed, has started to go to extreme lengths to “protect our freedoms” via online surveillance. It’s a full-blown digital Cold War, and spying by government agencies abounds—only this time, Americans are a focus for monitoring, too. You never know where a threat is going to come from, right?

If there’s anything that shows how serious our government is about monitoring our web communications, it’s the Utah Data Center.  The National Security Agency is behind this beast, which is scheduled to be fully operational by September 2013. It’s worth $2 billion, will take up one million square feet (a tenth of which goes to servers alone) and will use an estimated $40 million in electricity annually.

All that adds up to the ability to process a full yottabyte of information, an amount that represents much more than all of the data ever produced since the beginning of man. That information comes from email correspondence, website content, video calls, phone messages, electronic purchases, everything. In the event of a nuclear war, the UDC will remain online because it is a fully self-sustained system. So, to reiterate, the NSA is dead serious.

Other agencies, like the FBI and CIA, are currently looking to corner the social media surveillance market, but all of them (with perhaps the exception of the NSA) are years behind the Department of Homeland Security, which has admitted to monitoring Americans via their online communications since around 2009.

The DHS’s National Operations Center is the main entity behind their monitoring scheme, which gives the Center the ability to analyze and store information from every major social media site. Their targets are bloggers and journalists due to the concentrated, consistent output of content by those users. The content the DHS monitors, however, is more broad, with a recently released list of 380-ish monitored words found to include terms like “gas,” “burn,” “cloud,” “marijuana,” “sick,” “crash,” “pork,” and “wave.” Social media monitoring might be old hat to the DHS, but as evidenced by that list, they’re always looking to improve their range.

These agencies are already monitoring our web activity, and the security-industrial complex doesn’t show any signs of fading—it’s even seeping its way into our legislation. The infamous CISPA passed in the House and is expected to die in the Senate, but that isn’t the only or even worst piece of Internet legislation making the rounds. The Cybersecurity Act of 2012 essentially allows for more information trading between government agencies and private entities while simultaneously establishing the DHS as the primary cybersecurity agency. Joe Lieberman, Mr. Digital Pearl Harbor himself, introduced the bill, prompting a Republican response from John McCain. Coming in the form of the SECURE IT Act, McCain’s plan essentially does the same thing, albeit without establishing a regulator. Additions include the creation of criminal penalties for a number of cybercrimes and incentives for companies that share information with the Feds.

Is there a way to avoid this monitoring, to circumvent our nosey government’s imposition into our digital lives?

Unfortunately, not really—you can try utilities like Tor or go the Comcast-duping route, but come September 2013, most forms of encryption will look like a candy wrapper to the UDC. We’ll have to fight this head-on, as recognized by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the two sponsors behind the crowd-sourced Digital Bill of Rights. Guaranteeing “digital citizens” the right to privacy and freedom (among other things), the proposed bill is gaining support in the online community, with 85 percent of respondents showing their support in a recent Mashable poll. And no wonder: With monitoring and legislation poised to take us into the first legitimate Big Brother era, some digital liberty protection is looking pretty good right about now. Hopefully it’s just not too late.