Between Facebook sharing your vacation photos and friends list to the world, and Google tracking every search you've ever made, most of us have pretty much given up on the idea of privacy on the Internet. What is easy to forget is that real-world privacy is no better.
No matter how paranoid or how careful you are, if somebody wants to find you, and listen to what you're saying, they will. After all, we're living in a world where there exist things like...
Can Spy On:
Anybody with the brains to search for electronic bugs, but not bright enough to bring a flyswatter to squish actual bugs.
How could you hurt something this cute?
How It Does It:
Humanity is united in our disgust and contempt for bugs. They're vile little bastards. Unless of course you work for the government's uber-nerd collective, DARPA, and they're suddenly your best friends, because they make great robots. Why?
One, bugs breed a lot, as anybody who's had them as houseguests can tell you. Two, they have simple nervous systems and aren't cuddly, so nobody cares if you rip out their brains and replace them with microchips just to see what happens, which is exactly what DARPA researchers did.
Thanks for all the laughs, DARPA.
It turns out that installing a microchip into the brain of an insect is not only easy, it gives you full control over its ability to do things that are great for surveillance, like fly and cling to walls. Attach a camera or a microphone to the bug and suddenly you've got a small, unobtrusive, highly mobile listening device that eats shoe polish and is cheap to replace if it gets crushed.
But we're pretty sure that was just an afterthought between "Let's see if we can rip out a bug's brain and install a microchip!" and "Hey, let's see if we can make them nuclear powered!" Yes, DARPA wants to give us nuclear cyborg cockroach spies. They use a tiny amount of a radioactive isotope to work as a nuclear battery to power the transmitter to relay back to headquarters what you're saying or doing.
The by-product is described as "minimal."
We have no knowledge of whether these have been actually deployed by intelligence agencies, which should be a relief because if they were they would totally tell us.
Can Spy On:
Whatever is on your computer monitor, remotely.
How It Does It:
Let's say you scoff when we mention the loss of privacy on your PC. After all, you're careful. As you write your manifesto on your laptop, you have already checked to make sure you have no sneaky trojans or keystroke monitors installed. You've disconnected yourself from the Internet, so the NSA can't sneak in somehow. There are no bugs or cameras in your house.
Those damn cows are staring at you again, though.
Just you and your PC. You're safe, right?
With some very simple equipment it is possible to remotely view anyone's monitor, at any time, from a distance. The technology has been around since the 80s and is called Van Eck Phreaking (after Wim van Eck, a prominent computer guy who discovered it).
All electronics give off radio waves, which is one of the side effects of cranking voltage up and down a billion times a second. These radio signals are generally weak and completely unintelligible, but the right tools can detect the waves given off by your monitor from afar and recreate what's being displayed on it, right down to the nipples.
All they really need is an antenna close enough (like, say, in a van parked down the street) that they can get from Radio Shack, and a method of inserting your monitor's sync pulses into the signal, and boom: You and your PC suddenly have an audience.
This method is so effective that way back in 1985, a guy with enough equipment in a van could see what you were doing. Today, somebody can do it for less than the cost of a top notch gaming PC. It works on your flat-panel monitor, it works on your laptop. There are supposedly countermeasures but we're assuming somebody who wants to monitor you bad enough will come up with countermeasures for your countermeasures.
Or to put it another way: If it's on your computer and They want to know about it bad enough, they will.
Can Spy On:
Anybody with a window.
How It Does It:
Here's the thing about "bugs," even if they're attached to living cockroaches. They have to emit radio waves in order to transmit their signal back to the listeners, which means they're pretty easy to detect. With the right tools you could scan your apartment right now to see if the feds are listening in.
Then, if they want to replace them, they still have to break into your place without you knowing it. So if you really wanted to make sure they weren't listening in, you could stop them, right?
That should do it.
Wait, do you have any windows? Then no.
All they need is a laser microphone. Sound is nothing more than vibrations created in the air. Your thin windows vibrate ever so slightly with every sound (the same principle that lets a certain pitch of voice break glass). So if somebody outside your house can capture that vibration, they can "hear" what's being said quietly inside the room.
It's very easy to do. All they need to do is fire a laser at the glass at an angle, and set up a second device to "catch" the reflecting beam. As you talk, the sound wiggles the window, which makes the beam bounce. The listening device can interpret those bounces and translate them back into sound.
Of course, this kind of expensive, high-end device is only available to spy agencies... oh, wait, no: Here's a guide on how anyone can make their own laser listening device with stuff you can easily buy off the shelf.
But you'll see this laser beam firing through your window, right? And probably see the red dot on your wall and assume there's a sniper out there? Not quite. The device doesn't need visible light to work. You'll never know they're doing it. Isn't science awesome?
Smug bunch of labcoat-wearing pricks.