CIA Chief (Petraeus): We’ll Spy on You Through Your Dishwasher

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More and more per­son­al and house­hold devices are con­nect­ing to the inter­net, from your tele­vi­sion to your car nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems to your light switch­es. CIA Direc­tor David Petraeus can­not wait to spy on you through them.

Ear­li­er this month (March, 2012), Petraeus mused about the emer­gence of an “Inter­net of Things” — that is, wired devices — at a sum­mit for In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s ven­ture cap­i­tal firm. “‘Trans­for­ma­tion­al’ is an overused word, but I do believe it prop­er­ly applies to these tech­nolo­gies,” Petraeus enthused, “par­tic­u­lar­ly to their effect on clan­des­tine tradecraft.”

All those new online devices are a trea­sure trove of data if you’re a “per­son of inter­est” to the spy com­mu­ni­ty. Once upon a time, spies had to place a bug in your chan­de­lier to hear your con­ver­sa­tion. With the rise of the “smart home,” you’d be send­ing tagged, geolo­cat­ed data that a spy agency can inter­cept in real time when you use the light­ing app on your phone to adjust your liv­ing room’s ambiance.

Items of inter­est will be locat­ed, iden­ti­fied, mon­i­tored, and remote­ly con­trolled through tech­nolo­gies such as radio-fre­quen­cy iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, sen­sor net­works, tiny embed­ded servers, and ener­gy har­vesters — all con­nect­ed to the next-gen­er­a­tion inter­net using abun­dant, low-cost, and high-pow­er com­put­ing,” Petraeus said, “the lat­ter now going to cloud com­put­ing, in many areas greater and greater super­com­put­ing, and, ulti­mate­ly, head­ing to quan­tum computing.”

Petraeus allowed that these house­hold spy devices “change our notions of secre­cy” and prompt a rethink of “our notions of iden­ti­ty and secre­cy.” All of which is true — if con­ve­nient for a CIA director.

The CIA has a lot of legal restric­tions against spy­ing on Amer­i­can cit­i­zens. But col­lect­ing ambi­ent geolo­ca­tion data from devices is a gray­er area, espe­cial­ly after the 2008 carve-outs to the For­eign Intel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act. Hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers, it turns out, store a trove of geolo­ca­tion data; and some leg­is­la­tors have grown alarmed at how easy it is for the gov­ern­ment to track you through your phone or PlaySta­tion.

That’s not the only data exploit intrigu­ing Petraeus. He’s inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing new online iden­ti­ties for his under­cov­er spies — and sweep­ing away the “dig­i­tal foot­prints” of agents who sud­den­ly need to vanish.

Proud par­ents doc­u­ment the arrival and growth of their future CIA offi­cer in all forms of social media that the world can access for decades to come,” Petraeus observed. “More­over, we have to fig­ure out how to cre­ate the dig­i­tal foot­print for new iden­ti­ties for some officers.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Online cache is not a spy’s friend. But Petraeus has an inad­ver­tent pal in Facebook.

Why? With the arrival of Time­line, Face­book made it super-easy to back­date your online his­to­ry. Barack Oba­ma, for instance, hasn’t been on Face­book since his birth in 1961. Cre­at­ing new iden­ti­ties for CIA non-offi­cial cov­er oper­a­tives has arguably nev­er been eas­i­er. Thank Zuck, spies. Thank Zuck.