Scientists and engineers can spend years of their lives in painstaking trial-and-error experimentation to develop a breakthrough new technology…and the military-industrial complex can find a way to militarize it in mere hours. (Assuming that the research wasn’t being funded by the military in the first place, of course.)
Sadly the military aren’t the only ones interested in the latest gadgets and inventions, though. The alphabet soup agencies are equally voracious for innovative new ways to spy on the public. Today let’s examine five of the most amazing technological breakthroughs…that are about to be turned into nightmarish spying tech.
1) New “visual microphone” lets Big Brother hear without sound
As we all know, what we call “sound” is essentially a wave propagating through a medium like air, displacing particles and causing oscillations in the pressure and velocity of those particles. These oscillations are detected by our ears and converted into nerve impulses that our brain interprets as sound. So what if you can’t directly perceive that wave itself, but theeffect of that wave on another object? Could you reconstruct that sound just from seeing the effect of the sound wave?
Well, let’s not keep anybody in suspense here. The answer is yes. Yes, you can.
As a team of researchers from Microsoft, Adobe and MIT demonstrated in 2014, it is possible to examine video of everyday objects in environments where a sound is playing for the minute, almost imperceptible vibrations that the sound causes on the object’s surface. These vibrations can then be “reconstructed” and a recognizable version of that sound can be reproduced from the video alone…without any audio being recorded.
The technology itself is truly incredible. Check out the video if you haven’t yet done so to see what these researchers were able to accomplish. They reconstruct “Mary Had A Little Lamb” from the vibrations on the leaves of a house plant in the room where the song was being played using nothing other than a high speed camera. They reconstruct a voice recording of a man reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb” from the vibrations on a bag of chips using a high speed camera filming the chips through a soundproof window. Most impressive of all, they even reconstruct a recognizable version of the song from a ketchup packet taken with nothing but an ordinary, consumer version 60 fps DSLR camera.
This is a truly remarkable technology and goes to show just how incredible the products of human ingenuity really are…and just how advanced the spying capabilities of the intelligence agencies already are. If you think MIT researchers are working on technology like this without the full knowledge of the alphabet soupers, you’re not living in the real world. Even Cracked.com, a humor website that derides “conspiracy theories” every chance it gets, knows precisely what this tech will be (is already being?) used for:
“The researchers say they can do the same thing with a piece of foil or even a potted plant, which has far-reaching implications in the field of, well, spying on people. And probably other things.”
But mostly spying.
Remember those ridiculous “X-ray specs” they used to sell in the back of comic books? The ones that were guaranteed to help you see through solid objects? Somehow even 8 year old you knew they were a bunch of hooey (even if you still joked with your friends about how you would use them). Well you can stop worrying about it: they were baloney and you were right not to buy them. But you might be happy to hear that the technology to actually see through objects does exist now…until you hear it was developed for the Department of Homeland Security.
It’s been almost a decade since the DHS revealed the prototype of the LEXID, a handheld x-ray imaging device that allows agents to see through walls. (Surely you remember me covering that in Episode 025 of my podcast, right?) At the time the full working devices were slated to be a year away from being ready to deploy on the street into the hot little hands of the upstanding men and women of the Department of Fatherland Security.
But four years later we instead got roving backscatter x-ray scanner vans. That was when American Science & Engineering (the company in Massachusetts, not the concept)announced they had already sold 500 of their Z Backscatter Vans (or “ZBVs”) to “U.S. and foreign government agencies.” The vans are designed to rove around the streets blasting everything in sight with X-rays in order to (we are told) discover contraband and dangerous cargo in vehicles and other hiding places.
Sound dangerous? It sure is. But are we really expecting the DHS to care whether or not they’re sending random innocent people to an early grave when there’s billions in federal funding for such technologies to burn through and cool spying tech like this to play with? Of course not.
3) Stingrays help police spoof cell phone towers and scoop up all your data
Feeling guilty that you swiped your boss’s fancy red Swingline stapler last week? Thinking of confessing the terrible deed to your friend the next time you’re on the phone? Better think again, thief, because you’re always in reach of the long arm of the law. Or is that the long ear of the law?
Back in November 2014 the story broke that the increasingly inaccurately named Department of “Justice” was sending up a fleet of Cessnas with devices that could mimic cellphone towers in order to collect communication data on criminal suspects. The devices (dubbed “Stingrays” by people who apparently think the scheme isn’t already Bond villain cartoonish enough) spoof cellphones into giving up their identity and location data, and allowed the DOJ to scoop up the cell phone conversations and text messages of thousands of people per flight, all supposedly justified because they were looking for a handful of bad guys’ data.
Sound like a clear violation of Fourth Amendment rights? It certainly is, but that didn’t even cause the FBI to blink. Once the program was exposed they simply declared: “Warrants? We don’t need no stinking warrants!” (or the legalese equivalent thereof) and continued on their merry cellphone spoofing way.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, it came out a couple of months later that the Stingrays were not merely being deployed by the top elite law enforcement professionals of the FBI but local law enforcement, too, and that the Bureau had tried with all its might to keep that knowledge from ever seeing the light of day. This is important because when late last year it was ruled that the feds could no longer use this technology without a warrant that ruling did not apply to local or state officials. So yes, it is quite possible that your cellphone call is being scooped up by a fake cellphone tower and stored in the vaults of some bureau or agency, somewhere or other.
And if all of that doesn’t sound quite Orwellian enough…don’t worry! The latest revelations from a leak last December show that the Stingray is just one of a catalogue of items that the police state can (and does) use to spy on your cell phone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that local law enforcement have been increasingly dipping into the military-industrial tech treasure chest for their spying needs, a phenomenon prompted by the problem-reaction-solution set up of events like the San Bernardino shooting. These technologies allow for precise tracking and geolocation of a targeted cellphone in more ways than can even be elaborated here.
4) The NSA’s TEMPEST irradiates your secrets out of you
But don’t let all this fool you into thinking that the spymasters need physical access to you or your location at all in order to see/hear what you’re doing. We’re sadly well past that point, as described by Jacob Applebaum in a speech at the annual Chaos Communication Congress in 2013.
Now Applebaum himself is a character who probably deserves his own investigation but the bag of NSA goodies that he revealed at 30c3 is nonetheless informative. His presentation, entitled “To Protect and Infect,” broke down a series of exploits, backdoors, and good old-fashioned skullduggery that the NSA uses to scoop information out of computers and devices around the world, from secret hardware implants in USB connections to provide wireless backdoors into target networks (dubbed “COTTONMOUTH”) to the no-less-imaginatively entitled HOWLERMONKEY. That’s a radiofrequency transmitter that the NSA can surreptitiously implant directly into your computer when it is in transit through the mail.
But by far the most intriguing part of the presentation came near the end when he revealed this nugget:
“Well, what if I told you that the NSA had a specialized technology for beaming energy into you and to the computer systems around you, would you believe that that was real or would that be paranoid speculation of a crazy person?… That exists, by the way.”
The idea here, apparently, is that by using a continuous wave radar unit, the agents of evil can beam up to 1 kilowatt energy directly into you, effectively lighting up you (and any electronic equipment you’re in contact with) like a Christmas tree so that active radar can exfiltrate your data.
According to Der Spiegel, “Most of this equipment involves a combination of hardware implants which emit a very inconspicuous signal, and a radio unit aimed, from outside, at the space being monitored. Reflected radar waves are changed by the signal emitted by the implant hidden in the targeted space.” According to the documents published by Der Spiegel, the technology can capture the location of a specific object in the room, words spoken in the room, and even what is displayed on a monitor in the room, all without the need of any active listening device in the room.
Even disregarding how utterly insane that sounds, is it safe? Won’t that kind of RF energy being beamed directly into people cause cancer? Who knows? Who cares! The eyes in the sky could care less as long as they get their target data.
OK, this is all incredibly creepy. But what if you’ve already typed out your super secret love letter and the NSA wasn’t able to intercept it in real time? What if they weren’t able to spoof it out of your phone or irradiate you so you glowed like a candle for their radars to scoop up every word? What if it’s already a done deal? A fait accomplis? Surely they can’t get the info, then, right? What are they going to do, scoop it right out of your brain?
5) Brain scanner allows researchers to read your thoughts
Essentially, yes. They are going to scoop the info out of your brain. As the International Business Times puts it: “Scientists have created a mind-reading machine that allows them to reconstruct images in a person’s mind using brain scans.”
Sound sensational? Well it’s not as far off the mark as such hyperbole might sound at first glance. In 2014 researchers at New York University and the University of California showed 300 pictures of faces to six test subjects who were undergoing fMRI scans in order to build up a database of how their brains reacted to facial data. They then showed them pictures of new faces and used the resulting fMRI data to reconstruct crude (but recognizable) versions of those faces. In other words, they “read their mind” and were able to pictorially represent what the subjects were looking at.
The technology is still a long way off from being “mind reading devices” in the Buck Rogers sense, but it’s a significant step on the way. And this is only the technology that is publicly known about. Are we really to believe that this is truly the cutting edge of such technology and that they don’t have something more cutting edge in the skunkworks of DARPA?
Scared yet? Well don’t be. That’s just what they want.
Nothing to fear but fear itself
“OK, OK, we get it, James!” you’re saying right now. “They can see everything, read everything, hear everything. There’s no escape. We might as well just give up.”
Absolutely not. It is important to understand and be knowledgeable about the types of technology that the police state has at its disposal. But let’s keep in mind that the only perfect prison is the one that we create in our own minds. The one that stops us from acting out of fear that the jailers will see us. (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the Panopticon you might want to check out my previous work on that subject.)
And, as we shall see next week, we should always keep in mind that stories about what the intelligence agencies have up their sleeve is always exaggerated and over-played. Their most effective tool is to merely convince you that they see and hear everything. But more often than not, they’re flat out lying…