Can the Government See Everything I Do Online?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Permanent Record" by Edward Snowden. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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You may ask yourself: Can the government see everything I do online? What is government internet surveillance like? How extensive is it? Can the government see what you search for?

Government internet surveillance is extensive and can track a wide range of activities. Technology used by the government can monitor online activities.

Can the government see what you search for? Yes. Read more about how.

Can the Government See Everything I Do Online? 

One of the major programs for mass government internet surveillance was called XKEYSCORE. Ed had known that the government internet surveillance tech existed from what he’d found, but being trained on it was a whole different matter.

Ed could look up almost everything anyone does on the Internet. So, can the government see what you search? Yes. Ed was able to look up even the NSA’s director or the president. If he had their IP address, phone number, or address, the program gave him access to their recent online browsing. Sometimes even a recording of their screen was available.

Can the Government See Everything I Do Online Without a Warrant?

But what about a warrant? You might ask, can the government see everything I do online without a warrant? In looking at surveillance using this program, it wasn’t often professional abuse. Ed mostly saw personal use—LOVEINT. People would spy on their spouses or exes. If you use surveillance like this you can get ten years in prison, but no one in the NSA had ever been sentenced. The NSA couldn’t publicly prosecute anyone because to do so, they’d have to admit the secret mass surveillance system existed.

But what if you’re not searching for anything relevant to the government? You may ask yourself, can the government see everything I do online even if it’s irrelevant? Ed also learned that almost everyone does two things on the Internet: store images of their family, and watch porn. Ed found the family element the most uncomfortable. Ed found a video of a target working on his computer with a young child sitting on his lap, and the child stared directly into the camera as if he knew Ed was watching.

Protecting Yourself From Government Internet Surveillance

It’s not really possible to delete digital files. This is important part of the question “can the government see everything I do online” because it also makes it clear that what you do cannot be deleted. When people first built computers, they knew users would make mistakes. Engineers also knew that users wanted to feel like they had control and agency. They might not know how to fix computers and had to agree to terms of service, but at least they’d be able to delete their own files.

However, when you delete a file on your computer, it usually only looks like it’s gone. What actually happens is the reference to it. It’s deleted from the file tree so you can’t search for it or easily get to it, but it’s still there if you look hard. The best you can do is overwrite it, again and again, until it’s so covered up it’s unusable, but that’s not foolproof either because your computer might have a copy of it somewhere you can’t find.

Can the Government See Everything I Do Online?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Edward Snowden's "Permanent Record" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Permanent Record summary:

  • What Ed Snowden discovered that caused him to completely lose faith in the government
  • How Snowden led the bombshell reports of US mass surveillance
  • How Snowden is coping with his treatment as both patriot and traitor

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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