The concept of “Big Brother” comes originally from George Orwell’s novel 1984, where the term describes the all-knowing, all-seeing leader of the fictional nation of Oceania.
We also use the term today to describe the presumably extensive ability of the Intelligence Agencies, and the National Security Agency (NSA) in particular, to monitor all of our communications.
As a former Counter Terrorism agent inside the NSA, I was officially an Arabic linguist, tasked with translating intercepted communications in that language, in the interest of protecting US Forces in War Zones and to thwart potential attack abroad and in the homeland. But I came to I know and understand a lot about the capabilities of that Agency to surveil electronic communications.
The exact means and methods, as well as the precise capabilities of that intercept ability are, of course, extremely Top Secret. While neither confirming nor denying systems which have been publicly described, it has been widely reported that the NSA and other partners, such as Great Britain, operate a surveillance program code-named ECHELON.
It goes without saying that the NSA, estimated to have an annual budget of 10 Billion, had better be good at what it does.
So what all that means is that it would indeed seem that Big Brother is at least potentially able to watch you. Now let me tell you why he’s the least of your worries (unless you’re an ISIS terrorist, in which case, worry your life away…).
The NSA was one of several governmental agencies found to have abused its power by the Church Committee (chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church) in 1975. As a result of these findings, Congressional oversight of the NSA was dramatically expanded by the formation of the permanent US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The NSA is chartered to conduct espionage only against Foreign Intelligence targets. Any even inadvertent surveillance of a US citizen in the course of that activity is registered and reported to Congressional oversight.
The very fact that the NSA both detected and reported to Congress several instances in which employees inappropriately used NSA capabilities to spy on non-legitimate targets (usually love interests), is proof that wide-spread abuse is simply not taking place.
Although the exact number is classified, the NSA is estimated to have between 30,000 and 40,000 employees. Trust me when I tell you, most of those people are involved in either the direct support of the intercept apparatus or are otherwise support staff for those who have accounts with which intercept can even be analyzed.
Have you ever had your own email kind of get away from you, I mean, like between the legitimate messages and various other extraneous notifications you receive, you fall behind on your correspondence there? Imagine if your job was to follow not just your own communications but that of ten other people? Now take the number of people I describe above who actually are doing surveillance at the NSA and you will quickly realize that the NSA has the staff to follow legitimate intelligence targets. But they don’t have the time or resources to spy on the average joe.
For the reasons I described above, if you are a US citizen, the NSA is not spying on you. But someone else might be. Depending on who you are, it is not at all impossible that the equivalent of the NSA found in a variety of countries may have you as a target. If you are a C-level executive of a US Corporation, for example, another country may very well want to surveil your communications, in order to give their own country’s competitors any information they may glean to give them an edge against you. From all I understand, you do not need to worry about the English-speaking world. We have an Intelligence Sharing Relationship with countries such as Canada, Australia, and in particular Great Britain, that precludes any possibility that they are spying on you. But pretty much every other country might be. And that means, again depending on who you are, you should be careful what you say on any electronic communication. Make sure you speak only on a phone with the highest possible level of encryption. Reportedly, the NSA was listening in on Angela Merkel’s unencrypted phone because they couldn’t listen in on others (don’t get me wrong, as a patriot, I hope [though I don’t know] that they can listen in on all of them]).
Perhaps more serious, however, is the possibility that you or your organization are being unofficially surveilled by a competitor using a different form of “Little Brother.” A very determined agent of a competitor may be following you on Social Media using a false identity. Between you and an assortment of your colleagues, there may be a goldmine of information about your organization’s operations leaking out very inadvertently.
After the assassination of US diplomat Laurence Foley, US personnel traveling overseas were required to take training in Operations Security (OPSEC), since Foley’s regular schedule may have allowed the perpetrators to plan their attack. I took my overseas training on two occasions at CIA Headquarters. And they taught us to always vary our departure times so that someone casing you can’t predict your movement.
But, you see, the flip side of that is that any departure from your regular schedule is a glaring sign of something important. If you post on Social Media a meal with your wife at a restaurant every Tuesday for seven months in a row, but you skip that one week because you’re working late to finalize that big product launch, you may have just told your competitor that there is an imminent product launch. A similar inadvertent signal was given by Pentagon Officials when they ordered a massive number of pizzas the night before the ground offensive of the 1st Gulf War. A local Domino’s vendor correctly surmised that the hostilities were about to begin.
Depending on who you are, you may need to exercise discipline over your electronic communications. And if you are in the loop on sensitive matters crucial to your organization’s bottom line, you and your team may also need to consider that seemingly innocent details in your Social Media may be throwing important secrets away as well.