Friday, 02 March, 2001

Enemy of the State

Flipping the channels on the idiot box last week, I came across the movie "Enemy of the State," starring Gene Hackman and Will Smith.  Smith plays a lawyer who obtains, without his knowledge, a video of a murder committed by an NSA bureaucrat.  The bureaucrat proceeds to bring all of the NSA's considerable intelligence gathering resources to bear on discrediting Smith's character and trying to recover the video.  Hackman's character is a former NSA operative who helps Smith's character turn the tables on the bureaucrat.

The movie's somewhat entertaining, and undoubtedly got the conspiracy theorists all lathered up.  I have to admit that it got me to wondering just how much of what's portrayed in the movie is actually possible.

Can the NSA really plant small electronic bugs on me (in my shoes and clothes, for example) that transmit signals allowing reconnaissance satellites to track me?  Wouldn't that require a rather bulky transmitter and antenna?  Do we really have enough reconnaissance satellites to provide 24x7 coverage over any portion of the globe?

Does the NSA really have computers listening to every phone call for words like "bomb," "gun," and "President?"  That's a serious amount of data to be filtering.  What would happen if we got a large percentage of the population to just casually say "bomb President" in every telephone conversation?

On a similar note, I know that the FBI can use its Carnivore program at an ISP to sniff the email correspondence of selected people.  Does our government have the ability to tap into and sniff a large portion of the total email traffic in the country?  Could they do it undetected?  If so, we could reduce their ability to actually inspect the traffic by encrypting every email.  And if everybody put certain trigger words and phrases into their emails, the sniffer programs would have no way of culling all of the suspect messages.

Although certainly possible on a small scale, I don't believe that any of these things are possible today on a nation-wide or global scale.  Will they become possible in my lifetime?  Perhaps.  In the hands of the wrong people, such capabilities would be truly frightening.