By Joshua Hernandez, Feb. 15, 2022
Like most countries, if not all, America is a land of contradictions despite priding itself on its commitment to freedom and justice for all. This is not a political statement, but a matter of fact that can easily be verified with a quick Google search on the NSA. Or it would be easy, if less people were afraid of being watched for asking too many questions online.
In practice, the U.S. is more than willing to compromise and prioritize safety and unity over freedom, a bold strategy if the goal is to alienate its citizens and sow distrust in government institutions. It will even break its own rules if there is a possibility, not a guarantee, it will get the bad guys.
It is for that reason why it is so important to regulate our government because in this democracy, less oversight means more room to grab power.
Case in point, just last November the United States government blacklisted the Israeli-based NSO Group, placing it on the Entity List, a trade restriction list overseen by the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security. This puts NSO alongside the Chinese tech company Huawei and the Myanmar government following their recent coup de tat.
The Biden administration justified the decision based on several instances of illegal surveillance conducted abroad through NSO’s killer app, Pegasus. What they did not mention at the time, was that the FBI already bought and tested the Phantom-version of Pegasus, all the way back in July 2019.
U.S. double standards are nothing new, however what makes this case so egregious is that Phantom, and by extension Pegasus, represents the pinnacle of spyware technology.
Not only can the software infect phones without the owner’s input or knowledge, but once it does, the spies behind the curtain are given complete access to the target’s phone.
Nothing is off-limits. Not the target’s camera, their microphone, the phone’s location, any files downloaded to the phone, everything is at the attacker’s disposal. The target does not even need to use those functions for spies to collect data, for Pegasus gives users the ability to turn them on at will, and all without alerting you — the target.
Pegasus is good, arguably too good at what it does, but while it is designed to minimize its bread crumbs, the software can be detected on phones if the target knows to look for it. Not that it will help much if the phone tests positive, God forbid.
From what has been reported so far, the FBI opted to leave its purchase in storage somewhere in New Jersey after talking with the Department of Justice, but according to the New York Times, they paid $5 million to renew the license, and therein lies the problem.
This is the FBI we are talking about. Not the fictionalized crime-fighting organization seen in Twin Peaks or The X-Files, but the real-life organization responsible for the Palmer Raids from 1919 to 1920, and COINTELPRO from 1956 to 1971, the latter of which explicitly worked to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.”
To the FBI, labor activists, anarchists, members of the Black Panther Party or civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. or Jean Seberg were just as dangerous to the country as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. Ironic, considering recent history at the U.S. Capitol.
On paper, COINTELPRO was shut down once the FBI was outed 50 years ago. But like the paranoid autocracies America pretends to condemn, the government still stretches probable cause from time to time when it is politically convenient, such as with movements like Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street.
According to the Department of Justice, the political reasoning has not even changed much in recent decades. Before, the federal government’s idea to protect national security was to subvert the alleged subversives. In the decades following the fall of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 terrorist attacks however, the strategy has shifted to “combating evolving threats by terrorists and other foreign and domestic actors seeking to harm the United States.”
With that in mind, it is worth mentioning there are wiretapping laws in place to prevent flagrant abuses of power like what occurred with some of NSO’s other customers.
Unless we keep tabs on our government, use our voices and demand for stronger restrictions on this technology, decisions will be made for us without public consent. It is not enough to wait for the issue to make it to ballot box if it ever does. In this democracy, regular citizens must take responsibility and demand action en masse before anything becomes a priority to our elected representatives.
Considering history, it seems uncertain if the FBI will control itself until people force them to.
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