December 24, 2011
Government Total Recall On Past Communications

UCLA electrical engineering prof John Villaseno thinks the growing capacity of computers to collect, store, and analyze data will enable governments to assess, track, and draw connections between dissidents on a scale previously not seen. Thanks Lou Pagnucco who, no doubt, will be tracked by multiple governments as a result of this sentence I've written to thank him.

These regimes will store every phone call, instant message, email, social media interaction, text message, movements of people and vehicles and public surveillance video and mine it at their leisure, according to "Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Government," written by John Villaseno, a senior fellow at Brookings and a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA.

As the cost of computer disk storage and other storage media continue to plummet the amount that governments can record goes up. Storage costs have fallen so far that the amount that can be captured about each person and kept long term has gotten pretty detailed. In the future the amount that can be recorded and stored per person will undergo more doublings. Every phone conversation that takes place will be able to be captured and stored for decades.

Since today even handheld smart phones can translate spoken words into text it is reasonable to expect governments will be able to capture all spoken conversations, translate them all into text, and then use sophisticated software to analyze the conversations for meaning.

When a government decides someone is of interest as a potential trouble maker that government will be able to quickly analyze every phone conversation (and a large fraction of all online text conversations) that person ever participated in . Then threat assessment software will assess the threat posed by the citizen who is critical of the regime. A retrospective approach is not the only possibility of course. A political threat profile could be maintained that gets continually updated with the latest movements, utterances, and purchasing decisions.

Of course some people already post their most controversial thoughts online under their real names. Others try to hide behind pseudonyms. That will hide your identity from most observers. You can even block cookies. But your usage of IP addresses (used for routing messages across the internet) provides a way for at least governments and telecommunications companies to figure out who you are.

What's not clear to me: In the long run will the net outcome of greater ability to do electronic communications do more to empower government or to empower citizens? Will bands of citizens more effectively control government? Perhaps in some countries. But even if some groups of citizens manage to use the internet to control their governments more effectively doesn't preclude the possibility of more effective government control of yet other groups. We might just have tighter loops of control with various groups constraining each other and the masses more effectively.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 December 24 10:51 AM  Surveillance Records

bbartlog said at December 24, 2011 2:12 PM:

Someone paranoid and disciplined can still today create an untraceable online persona. Needed are free wifi (McDonald's would do), MAC address spoofing (easy on Mac or Unix/Linux box, not sure about PCs), and free anonymous online email (not sure about the availability of this... I believe some services exist e.g. Of course you would then also want to visit different sites than those you would with your regular online persona; always change your MAC address for each new online session, and so on. It would be a pain in the neck. And who would you email such that your new persona could not be statistically linked to the old?

PacRim Jim said at December 24, 2011 3:02 PM:

The U.S. Government is building a virtual reality to be populated by about seven billion inhabitants, which not coincidentally is the number of humans.
Global-scale simulation is obviously the objective, but it would take a more sinister turn were the simulation to incorporate telephone and Web data and assign it to the respective users.
We could ultimately end up with a mirror world in VR, that simulated reality in almost real time.
That would be bizarre, for a few femtoseconds, at least.

Lou Pagnucco said at December 24, 2011 3:38 PM:


"Paranoid"? Seems like the word is destined to become archaic.
Don't forget deep packet inspection, cell phone tracking, car locating technologies, facial recognition, voice recognition,...
put all those together and it will be very impossible to have any secrets from Very Big Brother. Many private companies are chasing surveillance contracts. Nearly 1,000,000 Americans already have top secret clearance. No wonder we are so safe from the ubiquitous terrorists.

The Powers-That-Be will have a tougher time creating Pygmalion presidents, though, since it may be harder to sequester records than lately.

PacRim Jim,

"Virtual Reality"? Don't the Establishment Media provide that already?

In the meantime, maybe it's best to clutter the snoops' files by visiting every questionable website out there, subscribing to numerous email lists, downloading Founding Father's essays and the Constitution, attending dissident group meet-ups,...

Joseph Hertzlinger said at December 25, 2011 6:25 PM:

Can this technology also be used by citizens and/or subjects to track what the State is up to?

bmack500 said at December 26, 2011 7:55 PM:

I think I fear authoritarian corporate rule more than the government... since they heavily influence the government...

Lou Pagnucco said at December 27, 2011 8:22 AM:


To cite just a few examples- Bradley Manning, "War on Whistle Blowers", Julian Assange, Project Mockingbird, Stop-Online-Piracy-Act(SOPA), Government Google+Youtube censorship requests, ...

Unless you are one of the 1,000,000 with top secret clearance, the more they know about you, the less you will know about them.
Fortunately, though, the intentions are good - see

mojo said at December 28, 2011 11:23 AM:

You might want to look into a company called "Orion Scientific Solutions" sometime.

And no, the initials are not an accident.

Andy Freeman said at December 28, 2011 11:54 AM:

> I think I fear authoritarian corporate rule more than the government... since they heavily influence the government...

That doesn't make sense.

Moreover companies don't care what you believe. Govts do. Companies can't throw you in jail or kill you. Throwing you in jail and killing you is how govts work.

Ferd Berfel said at December 28, 2011 12:31 PM:

For a taste of what this article espouses, go watch this season's new television show "Person of Interest" on CBS.

Odah said at December 28, 2011 3:16 PM:

stats will still lack the ability to stop people before they become a problem..such a large amount of information.. might tag so many people as possible threats that the system just doesn't work. or even worse if the bad guys can get the same info they can do more targeted team building.. and use it to screen for people who are infiltrating. at the point though in the world we live in the biggest threats are the people running the governments.

Dedicated_Dad said at December 28, 2011 7:48 PM:

The US Government is - today - the biggest threat to personal Liberty on the planet -- ESPECIALLY to its own citizens.

Here in "The Land of the Free" we already imprison a larger percentage of our population than any other nation on the planet -- even higher than the USSR at the height of their "Gulag" era, even higher than Nazi Germany, even higher than those EEEEeeevil NorKs, higher than ANYONE past or present!

But hey - they're CRIMINALS, right?

Actually, most of them are there for victimless crimes, most commonly possession of some substance our Masters have declared verboten -- including unpasteurized MILK.

Is there any more fundamental Liberty than the choice of what to put in our own bodies?

NOW they've asserted the right to make anyone they label a "terrorist" disappear - you know - just like the KGB or Gestapo.

What's a "Terrorist"?


According to the current regime, anyone with a Ron Paul Bumper-sticker, a pocket Constitution, or a previous term of Military Service - among others. Pelosi and her ilk are more open and succinct - they just say "Tea Party" and "Anyone opposing Obamacare" and so on.

But HEY - it's a free country, right?


albatross said at December 29, 2011 9:09 PM:

This can be done, and I strongly suspect is being done, now for people anywhere close to power. There are about 300 million Americans, but hardly any of us are likely to ever be in positions of enormous power. On the other hand, with a decent research staff and a smallish budget, I'll bet you could come up with a list of, say, 10,000 surveillance targets that is very likely to include the next five presidents, dozen supreme court justices, three or four secretaries of state/defense/attorneys general, and perhaps the likely best reporters and editors at the NYT, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.

Start making recording everything about them now--all 50 governors, prominent congressmen, CEOs of large companies, top generals/admirals, top journalists, state and federal prosecutors, federal judges, top law professors, undersecretaries, big city mayors, important party functionaries, you can get all them in that 10,000 with room to spare. Update your list from year to year, eliminating the dead or hopelessly discredited, adding the up and coming. With that, you're extremely likely to have the dirt on folks at the top. You'll know or at least learn enough to dig around and find out about affairs, shady business deals, drug use, homosexuality, weird kinks, links to criminals, etc. The power that would give you is frankly scary. Want to make sure the wrong guy doesn't get nominated to the supreme court? Want to make damned sure there won't be congressional hearings on something? (More to the point: Want to make sure a law is passed to stop lawsuits that might reveal details of the surveillance going on?)

Trent Telenko said at January 10, 2012 9:59 AM:

Alternate communication systems are already emerging:

December 24, 2011: In an operation in Veracruz State earlier this fall, Mexican marines discovered a sophisticated radio communications center being operated by Los Zetas drug cartel. It turns out that commo center was part of an elaborate alert network run by the cartel. The network included street salesmen and cab drivers with mobile radios who would pass on information about police and military vehicles. Since the initial discovery, Mexican soldiers and marines have found several more communications centers and relay transmitters, some located deep in the desert and powered by solar panels. The network was installed to give Zetas operatives an alternative communications system to use in lieu of cell phones. Intelligence agencies have become very adept at detecting cell phone calls. The radio and radio-relay system operates outside the cell phone system. Authorities speculated that Los Zetas began developing the system as early as 2006 and was largely built with commercially-available equipment. Zetas operatives could encrypt their conversations, making eavesdropping even more difficult. The system extended through several eastern Mexican states.

It won't be long before the Zeta's start leasing bandwidth to allied criminal organizations.

Things are going to get very wierd in many places due to pirate NGO communications of all sorts.

Randall Parker said at January 11, 2012 8:57 PM:

Trent, I expect it would be hard for such networks to function in nations with stronger and more competent central governments. The transmitters would be easy to find, no?

Penny Pincher said at January 26, 2012 1:27 PM:

@Andy Freeman, yes the corporations DO care what you believe. My blog was visited by someone from Dyncorp when I posted something unflattering about them. The level of collaboration between corporations and military is such a Gordian knot that nobody can tease it out. Even back in the Eisenhower era, y'know, his speech about the military-industrial complex taking over? Look it up on Youtube before Big Brother blacks it out.

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