A long, painful history of spying eyes

By OCCRP staff - Aug 01 2013

Surveillance is nothing new in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, which gave the world Iosif  Dzhugashvili (better known as Stalin) and Lavrentiy Beria, head of secret police for the Soviet Union.

Technology has just made it easier, says veteran journalist Zviad Koridze.

“Nowadays surveillance is more widespread because of technological developments, since it is possible to record video or audio files with hidden cameras or other types of devices,” he says. “Thus the process is almost impossible to detect.”

During the administration of Eduard Shevardnadze, Koridze was editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper 7 Days when he was swept up in a surveillance scandal that eventually led to the resignation of Minister of Security Shota Kviraia.

He says Georgians knew that surveillance was just a fact of life during Soviet times. “At that time, mostly phone calls were recorded, from the fifth floor of the Telegraph Building on Rustaveli Avenue,” he says.

He says that historically journalists, lawyers and businessmen were the primary targets, so he wasn’t surprised when, in 1996, a special Parliamentary commission investigating illegal surveillance contacted him and told him he was being wiretapped.

“Their aim was to find out about journalists’ plans, their schedules and the topics they covered. Most importantly, they wanted to know about our sources,” he says. He thinks he was targeted because his newspaper “often covered Kviraia’s affiliations with businessmen and his various interests in the private sector.”

Koridze was never formally called to testify before the commission, which disbanded in 1997 when Kviraia resigned rather than face prosecution for conducting surveillance without court permission, he said.

Sixteen years later, societies are grappling with how to deal with the flood of information technological advances have made so readily available.

Neil M. Richards, a professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri, recently headed a symposium on “The Dangers of Surveillance” for the Harvard Law Review.

“As a society we don’t really know why surveillance is bad, and why we should be wary of it,” he writes. “To the extent the answer has something to do with ‘privacy,’ we lack an understanding of what ‘privacy’ means in this context, and why it matters. We’ve been able to live with this state of affairs largely because the threat of constant surveillance has been relegated to the realms of science fiction and failed totalitarian states.”

But no more, he writes. Digital technologies have created minutely detailed records of our daily activities, which governments say they need to fight threats. The US has been buying and borrowing huge private-sector databases, and the US National Security Agency has been building a massive data and supercomputing center in Utah, to intercept and store Internet communications for decryption and analysis.

“Although we have laws that protect us against government surveillance, secret government programs cannot be challenged until they are discovered. And even when they are, our law of surveillance provides only minimal protections. Courts frequently dismiss challenges to such programs for lack of standing, under the theory that mere surveillance creates no harms…”

Richards believes that surveillance is harmful because “it can chill the exercise of our civil liberties”, and because it gives the watcher power over the watched. Constantly watching people to determine what they are thinking, reading, and saying to others as they make up their minds about political and social beliefs can cause people to avoid new, controversial, or deviant ideas, he writes.
The power imbalance between the watcher and the watched can lead to “discrimination, coercion, or the threat of selective enforcement, where critics of the government can be prosecuted or blackmailed for wrongdoing unrelated to the purpose of the surveillance.”

The problem is only going to become more pressing as technology advances, according to a paper written by Danielle Keats Citron and David Gray. They cite the example of Virtual Alabama, a project working to combine all data available in the US state of Alabama in one place.

“Google has built a customized database for Alabama’s Department of Homeland Security that combines three-dimensional satellite/aerial imagery of the state (including roads, buildings, airports, etc.) with geospatial analytics that reveal relationships, trends, and patterns in incoming data,” they write.

“Virtual Alabama can track ‘moving objects, monitor sensors, and overlay near-real time data sets.’ … Alabama can add data from any and all available sources. To date, Virtual Alabama’s database includes traffic camera feeds, real-time private and public video streams, GPS location data for police cruisers, building schematics, sex offenders’ addresses, and land-ownership records.”

They say the state’s 1,500 public schools plan to link their video cameras to the system, while “private entities” are encouraged to contribute data in exchange for access to the system.

“Virtual Alabama is part of a broader surveillance system sponsored by federal, state, and local governments and their private partners. The centerpiece of this developing surveillance state is a network of fusion centers, located across the country, including Alabama, which ‘co-locate under one roof’ government agents and private-sector representatives to ‘collect and share’ information and intelligence.”

They cite as another example the “Washington Joint Analytical Center. There, analysts from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, state police, and Boeing sit side-by-side generating and analyzing “criminal and anti-terrorism intelligence.”

Like many other countries, Georgia is streamlining its legal surveillance activities at its gleaming new 112 emergency response center, which coordinates emergency response to fire, medical and or criminal emergencies while tracking video feeds from highways and city streets.

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