Future Tense

Surveillance 2012: The Year’s Must-Read Stories on Snooping Governments

Former CIA Director David Petraeus knows government surveillance first-hand.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In 2012, stories about surveillance demonstrated just how difficult it has become to strike a balance between civil liberties and security. We’ve seen everything from a bizarre court case involving a Predator drone spying on a North Dakota farmer, to outrage over warrantless monitoring of American citizens’ communications.

Around the world, there have been major developments in advanced new spy technologies. Governments on almost every continent announced plans for controversial laws to better intercept communications sent over the Internet, while a growing dossier of evidence linking advanced tracking tools to human rights abuses has led lawmakers to rethink how technology exports are regulated. Even ex-CIA spy chief David Petraeus found himself ensnared in Big Brother’s web.


Below, I’ve compiled a list of some most significant stories of the year (with a few of my own posts thrown in for good measure). There’s been some really stellar reporting on surveillance issues across range of news outlets in the last 12 months—so much so that it was a real struggle to keep this list at a reasonable length. If you think I’ve left anything out that I shouldn’t have, feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.                                


Supreme Court: Warrants Needed in GPS Tracking,” Washington Post, Jan. 23.

Just Business: How Russian Technology Provides the Eyes and Ears for the World’s Big Brothers,” Agentura, Jan. 25.

The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say),” Wired, March 15.


Your Eurovision Song Contest Vote May Be Monitored: Mass Surveillance in Former Soviet Republics,” Slate, April 30.

FBI: We Need Wiretap-Ready Web Sites—Now,” CNET, May 4.

Jamming Tripoli: Inside Moammar Gadhafi’s Secret Surveillance Network,” Wired, May 18.

Did a Surveillance Drone Help in the Arrest of a North Dakota Farmer?,” Slate, June 12.

NSA: It Would Violate Your Privacy To Say if We Spied on You,” Wired, June 18.

Wireless Firms Are Flooded by Requests To Aid Surveillance,” New York Times, July 8.

Cyber Attacks on Activists Traced to FinFisher Spyware of Gamma,” Bloomberg News, July 25.

Oops! Air Force Drones Can Now (Accidentally) Spy on You,” Wired, Aug. 5.

How Governments and Telecom Companies Work Together on Surveillance Laws,” Slate, Aug. 14.


Trapwire: It’s Not the Surveillance, It’s the Sleaze,” Wired, Aug. 14.

How Government-Grade Spy Tech Used a Fake Scandal To Dupe Journalists,” Slate, Aug. 20.


Software Meant To Fight Crime Is Used to Spy on Dissidents,” New York Times, Aug. 30.

Crackdown on Sale of UK Spyware Over Fears of Misuse by Repressive Regimes,” the Observer, Sept. 9.

LAPD Spy Device Taps Your Cell Phone,” LA Weekly, Sept. 13.

Members of Congress Who Reauthorized Warrantless Wiretapping Bill Don’t Understand What It Does,” Mother Jones, Sept. 14.

Watch Your Tongue: Law Enforcement Speech Recognition System Stores Millions of Voices,” Slate, Sept. 20.

The Economics of Surveillance,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 28.

Spyware Leaves Trail to Beaten Activist Through Microsoft Flaw,” Bloomberg News, Oct. 10.


EU Plans Groundbreaking Project To Monitor Internet Censorship Around the World,” Slate, Nov. 6.

Petraeus Downfall Illustrates Scope of Feds’ E-mail Snooping Powers,” Arstechnica, Nov. 14.

Judge Questions Tools That Grab Cellphone Data on Innocent People,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 22.

The Hackers of Damascus,” Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov. 5.

Google: Government Surveillance Requests Are Way Up—and the U.S. is the Leader,” Slate, Nov. 14.

U.N. Report Reveals International Protocol for Tracking People Online,” Slate, Dec. 4.

How Foreign Firms Tried To Sell Spy Gear to Iran,” Reuters, Dec. 5.

U.S. Terrorism Agency To Tap a Vast Database of Citizens,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 12.

Ban Surveillance Tech to Repressive Regimes, says EU Parliament,” ITnews, Dec. 13.

So long as the same momentum keeps up, the months ahead are certain to yield yet more interesting and important developments. I predict that the domestic use of military-style drones will become a major issue next year, aggressive government attempts to wiretap the Web will cause renewed outcry and protest, and we’ll see fresh scandals involving Western companies supplying spy technology to dictators.

Here’s to 2013 …