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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...

6Robo-Roaches (No, Really)

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.

5Van Eck Phreaking

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?

Nope.

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.

4Laser Microphones

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.

3Floating Car Data

Can Spy On:

Your every vehicular movement.

How It Does It:

Most people don't realize they've got a tracking device in their pants. Yep, even you have something that will reveal far too much about you. In your pants. Waiting to reveal embarrassing truths.


"Bitch hasn't washed her pants in weeks."

We're referring to your cell phone, of course. We've mentioned before that governments really like being able to figure out who's going where and how often--particularly in an automobile--because that's how they'll tax you in the future. But installing a device in each and every car is annoying and hard to do, and the device can fail or the driver might get mad and remove it.

So people who want to track your driving habits needed another method. Sure, they could install CCTV cameras everywhere, but that would get expensive. Besides, people tend to freak out at the sight of cameras every two blocks, watching where they go. Surely there's a less intrusive, and less expensive way to track where everyone is going...


Without resorting to Plan Ninja.

Which of course brings us to the fact that they can simply track your cell phone. It turns out that even when it's not making calls, your cell phone is still pumping out enough signal to tell anybody listening where you're going, and how fast you're getting there. This data can be used to determine your direction, speed and rough location at any given time.

If you're paranoid about this, you can tell if they're tracking you by... well, you can't. They don't need a special antenna or dish or anything that would let you know they're watching - they can just capture the data right from the cell phone company's own network.


Assholes.

Of course, this is done purely to monitor traffic flow and there's no reason to believe that anyone would ever leak the fact that you, say, visited a strip club, or a known pot dealer or an adult book store. So what are we worried about? In fact, we also shouldn't be concerned about...

2Load Monitoring

Can Spy On:

Your daily activities by remotely monitoring exactly what electronic devices you're using, and when.

How It Does It:

Of all the objects you'd expect to be spying on you, you probably don't suspect your electric meter. And that's because that's exactly how your electric meter wants it, lurking like the techno-pervert it is in your basement, gathering dust, watching your every move.


WHAT'S YOUR GAME, BOX?

How? Through the magic of nonintrusive appliance load monitoring, or NALM. Once upon a time if a power company wanted to get a sense of how a household was using electricity, they'd have to get permission and attach sensors to things like your refrigerator or hot water heater to see how much each one is taxing the system moment to moment.

NALM, on the other hand, can simply monitor the current as it runs through your house, from outside your house, and detect the exact signature of any device you own, at any given time. In Japan they've designed a damned "neural network" of computers that can deduce exactly what electronic devices you're using via a Skynet-like pattern recognition. From that, it knows how long you've been in the shower, when you watch TV or use the computer.


It does not lead an exciting life.

Honestly, are we just being paranoid here? It's all done in the name of making a smarter power grid, of course, and reducing CO2 emissions. And really, how could having a learning neural network that knows all of our habits moment to moment ever come back to bite us?

We really should stop worrying.

1DCSNet

Can Spy On:

Pretty much any phone anywhere at any time.

How It Does It:

Or maybe not.

Wiretapping somebody used to be a pain in the ass. Even if they got the warrant, they needed bulky, heavy equipment, needed to have somebody actually there to tap the actual phone calls... it was almost more effort than it was worth. Which is why the FBI now can pretty much just double click an icon on their computer screen and instantly tap into any phone anywhere at any time.


There's a pretty good Wiretapping app in the App Store.

It's called DCSNet (Digital Collection System Network) and it is basically a system of computers and software that completely fuses the FBI's wiretapping outposts with the nation's voice communications network--landlines, cell phones, VOIP services, you name it. Every phone in America is available to them like URLs in a browser. They type it, click it, and they're instantly listening.

How is that even possible? Well, there are laws federally mandating a backdoor in every single telephone switch implemented in America (see: the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act). And the telecoms of America were happy to comply as wiretaps have gotten more expensive over the years and that cost just keeps going up (if you were wondering, your privacy is worth $67,000). This wasn't some crazy response to 9/11, either--this happened back during the Clinton administration.


You'd think this guy would be all about privacy.

The FBI slid right in these backdoors with a long, thick network cable of their very own that's literally a private phone network and private Internet. DCSNet can just capture phone numbers, or record your calls like Big Brother's TiVo. It's just point and click.

But really. We're probably just being paranoid.


For more from the world of espionage, check out 5 Spies with Bigger Balls Than James Bond. Or learn how to hide your drinking problem from your family, in James Bond Boozing: 10 Amazing Flasks for Undercover Drunks.

And stop by Linkstorm to discover which columnist has a foot fetish. (Hint: It's Seanbaby.)

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