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Surveillance Capabilities


The advanced and pervasive state of modern surveillance should never be underestimated: [1]

Their recent evolution has been not incremental, but abrupt. The crucial advance of modern surveillance has been the development of inexpensive automation. Where before the government had to rely on human agents or informants to spy, today it spies through a proliferating network of unsleeping sensors. And where before agents had to manually review what they collected, today they use computers to make sense of their harvest. The government’s appetite for digitally collected data has grown in conjunction with its capabilities for collection and analysis. And, when law enforcement agencies cannot sate that appetite directly, they feast, instead, on data accumulated by private companies.

The result of these advances is that, for the first time in human history, the government can now engage in nearly pervasive surveillance of the public. We have seen a glimpse of that reality already, through Edward Snowden’s disclosures to the press of the breathtaking scope of surveillance by the National Security Agency and recent reports on law enforcement’s expanding use of new and invasive technologies like cell-site simulators, automated license plate readers, pervasive aerial surveillance systems, and facial-recognition databases.

The trend in technology is to reduce virtually everything we do to digital data. Our cellphones are livestreams of our locations; our internet-usage histories are unintended journals of our thoughts; our e-mails are often-permanent records of once-ephemeral conversations. Newer technologies digitize even more of our lives: smart watches, smart TVs, smart refrigerators, smart cars, and a host of other internet-connected devices have made The Wizard of Oz’s technicolor transition seem impossibly quaint.


To determine the proper anonymity techniques to adopt, the user must estimate the technological capabilities of surveillance adversaries such as corporations, criminals, and repressive government. This is bound to be difficult if signal intelligence is a foreign concept or the user does not have a technical or scientific background. Nevertheless, the proven capabilities of adversaries is worth summarizing, in order to help users distinguish facts from fantasy.

In simple terms, a highly capable adversary [2] with significant technological resources and expertise can:

  • Intercept a user's Internet traffic, including e-mail, instant messaging, VoIP, and Wi-Fi connections. [3]
  • Intercept a user's phone and fax communications, including landlines, cell phones, satellite phones, and radio telephone extensions. [4]
  • Associate a user's geographical location with IMEI (cell phone) or SIM card identifiers.
  • Reliably associate a user's calls with stored voiceprints (speaker recognition). [5]
  • Associate a user's geographical location with records of digital financial transactions.

Extensive passive surveillance is already performed around the clock, particularly in the 5 Eyes jurisdictions and allied countries, repressive regimes like China and Russia, and various other places around the world.

Based on Snowden's intelligence disclosures it is likely that all harvested data is retained indefinitely, despite the vast majority of the population not being suspected of wrongdoing. Furthermore, surveillance methods are increasingly automated, super-powered by virtually limitless resources, and immediately deployed once any new tool becomes fully functional.

Adversaries are not however omnipotent; human resources are definitely a limiting factor in the scope of both targeted and passive surveillance. At the time of writing, adversaries cannot:

  • Break modern or quantum-resistant encryption protocols. [6]
  • Perform active surveillance on a large number of non-suspects, such as launching widespread exploits against individual computers -- the chances of being caught are too high.
  • Task officers or employees with directly reading or listening to a large amount of communication.
  • Recognize individual faces from a satellite -- although extensive CCTV and public camera networks are effective in tracking individuals in public places. [7]
  • Depend on a near-limitless stream of qualified human resources.

To learn more about passive and targeted surveillance and the host of programs already in use, refer to this FAQ entry.


  1. https://www.yalelawjournal.org/forum/why-rely-on-the-fourth-amendment-to-do-the-work-of-the-first
  2. Such as a military counter-intelligence unit.
  3. Wi-Fi connections are vulnerable, even though they do not directly involve ISPs.
  4. Radio telephone extensions do not use telecommunications providers ("telcos").
  5. Some large corporations and government departments already offer confirmation of identity via this method.
  6. Although Quantum Computers may soon tip the balance in favor of attackers.
  7. As are UAVs which can be used for facial recognition.


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