It was crude, even by the standards of the 1980s. I would pick up my telephone receiver to make or answer a call, and I could hear the distinctive “click” of someone or some machine joining the conversation. Having spent some time on a party line with a nosy neighbor in my younger days in Missouri, there was no mistaking the signal that I was not alone. Clued-in conversationalists verified my suspicions

          In the eighties, I was one of the public faces – and hard-working private researchers – of a small group of locals who didn’t think locating a lignite plant five miles north of Huntsville, TX, was a good idea.

          The local bigshots and their political minions were aligned against us as they saw an opportunity to line their pockets – even if it meant dumping five tons of radioactive particulates, among other pollutants, on the town every single day.

          My listening pals could have come from many factions, but the lack of sophistication led me to attribute the bug to private parties. Surely, the governmental groups were better equipped.

          Sharing my conversations with unknown outsiders became part of my routine. And, of course, even  if we had any startling insights, revelations or dirt to dish (we didn’t), such info would not have been discussed over my phone lines. 

          I still don’t make any remarks that might be twisted against me on my phones – or in my writings.

          Nor should you.

          Governments around the world have proven themselves increasingly suspicious of their citizens, especially those from opposition parties. And, they have advanced tools with which to surveil “others.”

          In July, RUV, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, reported Icelandic police “do not know how many times they were allowed to eavesdrop on politicians.”

          One of the political parties in Iceland is the Pirate Party, whose members run the political circle from left-leaning libertarians through liberals and progressives to anarchists and radical centrists. Refusing to be pigeonholed, they are advocates of direct democracy.

          When one of their parliamentary representatives asked for “the number of politicians and officials who have been intercepted by the police,“ RUV reported, “The Minister of Justice says that such information is not available. It does not take a position on whether the information could be provided if it were available.”

          Yeah, we don’t have that information on hand. I’ve heard that recently.

          RUV added that an author had, “published new information about the wiretapping of opposition parties’ phones during the cod wars.”

          Iceland had a change at Minister of Justice in mid-June. The official reply is that it is not known,  “how often authorization was granted for wiretapping. That information is not kept in the police’s case file system.”

          And that’s how they act in the country recently declared the safest in the world.

          After Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas was murdered in 2017 by a drug cartel he had been investigating, Griselda Triana, his widow and a journalist herself, was targeted with phone messages which would have installed spyware on her mobile phone if she had responded to them.

          In 2019, the Canadian research group Citizen Lab announced that her case was “the 25th known case of third parties attempting to install spyware on the mobile phones of journalists, activists, lawyers, and other Mexican citizens,” as reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

          Triana was in the sights of Pegasus, a phone hacking technology made by the NSO Group, an Israeli company that Antony Loewenstein of In These Times claimed in June, “endangers activists across the globe.”

          He reported, “Both the Mexican government and NSO claim that Pegasus is used solely for the purposes of fighting crime and terrorism, but Triana’s case proves that this claim is false. Mexico has been a major testing ground for NSO technology.”

          And, they weren’t trying to track the murderous drug dealers, but the widow of one of their victims.

           “The problem is that it has been used to spy on people who do not represent a danger to the country,” Triana said.

          The problem has also been pervasive enough that the European Parliament opened a Pegasus Commission in 2022. In November of that year, an editorial in Barcelona’s El Pun Avui commented on the year-long investigation, saying the probe “fully confirms the existence of the case of political state espionage known as Catalangate and certifies again the direct responsibility of the Spanish government in an illegal activity, outside the rule of law, harmful to the rights of citizens and contrary to the fundamental principles of democracy.”

          Many in Catalonia would prefer independence from Spain. Barcelona’s prosperity ironically works against those efforts since it has enticed many non-Catalan, pro-union Spaniards into town – where they vote against a separate nation and the candidates who espouse one.

          A referendum in October of 2017 narrowly favored independence, but Spanish officials and judges charged any elected official connected with the vote with crimes, imprisoned those who did not get into exile quick enough and forbade many of them from holding office for set periods of time.

          Thus, Pegasus, employed against “pro-independence deputies and (Members of the European Parliament) and their relatives, lawyers and members of civil organizations.”

          And El Punt Avui adds in outrage that the “the Spanish government has lied by acknowledging that it had spied on only 18 people and with judicial authorization instead of the 65 verified.”

          Revelations of a similar phone-tapping scandal in Greece in 2022 resulted in the resignation of several officials.

          The Greek Reporter reported, “The inquest on Member of the European Parliament and opposition leader Nikos Androulakis’ phone-tapping allegations had confirmed that a surveillance request had been made by the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP) and approved by a chief prosecutor, as legally required. The surveillance ceased after three months—only a few days after Androulakis was elected as the new leader of center-left party PASOK.”

          On July 18, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (“We watch the watchers) warned of the “detailing surveillance of patients seeking out-of-state abortions and gender-affirming care…. Alarmingly, patients face growing risk from states that are seeking to punish patients who leave the state to find care. The report details how law enforcement can track travel and the safest forms of transit and accommodation.”

          In May STOP, which says it advocates for “privacy and civil rights.” condemned  what it called the “systematic abuse of foreign intelligence databases to target Americans.”

          The database was created in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It allowed “sweeping electronic communications and other surveillance records the FBI and NSA are only authorized to search for foreign intelligence purposes.”

          Instead, a Washington Post investigation showed the information had been “misused” 278,000 times.

          “When the FBI misuses this sort of power even once, it’s a scandal, but when they do it a quarter million times, it’s a threat to democracy itself,” said STOP Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn.

          As an eighth-grader is Missouri, I retaliated against my nosy neighbor with loud, high notes from my harmonica.

          In Huntsville, the eavesdropping lasted long after we won our environmental battle (we really did) until one night after a heart-rending talk with someone going through tough emotional times, I hung onto the phone and cussed the jerks out, explained that they had never and would never get any useful information that way and they were low-rent louses to be listening to other people’s troubles. That was the last click I heard.

          Times are more parlous these days. In his In These Times article, Loewenstein warned, “NSO is the tip of the iceberg of this surging industry, which largely operates in the shadows with no public scrutiny. It’s not just the American, Chinese, Russian, Israeli, or Iranian authorities unleashing cyber hell but a litany of private entities, sometimes built in democracies, that often act as proxies for state actors. Regulation is virtually nonexistent.”

          (Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party.)

Citizen privacy thing of the past

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