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Surveillance Tools: Can They Ever Truly be in the “Right” Hands?

Commercial spyware groups insist that they create and sell surveillance tools to government agencies for the sole purpose of criminal and terrorism investigations. However, government agents are free to decide who they use their tools on. It may not sound like that big of a deal, but the spyware tools allow for the tracing of a target’s “every phone call, text message, email, keystroke, location, sound and sight.” With this level of surveillance, it is imperative that citizens are informed about the kinds of tools that government agencies employ and the kind of information that they have access to. #Smile emphasizes awareness of surveillance in the U.S., but it’s clear that the issue is widespread.

In Mexico, texts laced with invasive forms of spyware developed by NSO Group, an Israeli cyberarms dealer, were sent to vocal proponents of the 2014 soda tax. After health researchers and advocates of the soda tax announced their campaign, many began to receive similar spyware-laced messages. According to Luis Fernando Garcia, the director of the Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales, a Mexican digital rights nonprofit, evidence of surveillance being used against nutritional activists is a clear sign that Mexico should not have access to these technologies.

Groups like the NSO may insist that their technologies are developed solely for the purpose of security, but it is clear that these tools can be compromised and accessible to others with specific agendas. Furthermore, even if these tools remain firmly in the hands of government agencies, there is no guarantee that they won’t be abused nonetheless. If anything, it should scare us more that a high-powered government agency would employ such tactics in order to track and monitor American citizens. Many argue that only those with something to hide should be worried, but surveillance is not simply an issue of privacy, but of personal security. Not only can the information collected be used to manipulate victims, but malicious spyware such as the technology described in the article can leave the victim with a sense of unease and uncertainty. Those that open these messages make themselves vulnerable to an onslaught of privacy threats. Once the damage is done, it is irreversible and can be very time consuming and frustrating to deal with. Due to the invasive nature of surveillance, it is an issue better dealt with before the fact rather than after. For this very reason, #Smile is dedicated to promoting the awareness of surveillance strategies so that everyday citizens can be informed.

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