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Privacy: why-how to safeguard it

Privacy: why-how to safeguard it

Instead of safeguarding people’s privacy, governments are stealing it away from us, says Robin Doherty. Here’s a discussion on what you can do to minimise intrusion. 

Privacy: why-how to safeguard it

By Robin Doherty*

The governments of Australia, Germany, the UK and the US are destroying your privacy. Some people don’t see the problem…I have nothing to hide, so why should I care?

It doesn’t matter if you have “nothing to hide”. Privacy is a right granted to individuals that underpins the freedoms of expression, association and assembly; all of which are essential for a free, democratic society.

The statement from some politicians that “if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear” purposefully mis-frames the whole debate. This affects all of us. We must care.

Arguing that you dont care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you dont care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

– Edward Snowden

Loss of privacy leads to loss of freedom.

privacy bath_001_mediumYour freedom of expression is threatened by the surveillance of your internet usage – thought patterns and intentions can be extrapolated from your website visits (rightly or wrongly), and the knowledge that you are being surveilled can make you less likely to research a particular topic. You lose that perspective, and your thought can be pushed in one direction as a result.

Photo: With nothing to hide, your bathroom would have clear glass.

Similarly, when the things you write online, or communicate privately to others, are surveilled, and you self-censor as a result, the rest of us lose your perspective, and the development of further ideas is stifled.

Your freedom of association is threatened by the surveillance of your communications online and by phone, and your freedom of assembly is threatened by the tracking of your location by your mobile phone. Can we afford to risk the benefits of free association, the social change brought by activists and campaigners, or the right to protest?

These freedoms are being eroded, right now. The effects will worsen over time, as each failure to exercise our freedom builds upon the last, and as more people experience the chilling effects.

Bits of information that you might not feel the need to hide can be aggregated into a telling profile, which might include things that you actually do want to conceal.

In the case of data retention in Australia, we have given away our rights to privacy, and now share a constant stream of:

  • where we go,
  • who we contact and when, and
  • what we do on the internet.

With just a small portion of this data, off-the-shelf software and their own spare time, ABC News readers found Will Ockenden’s home, workplace and parents’ home.

The intrusion becomes all the more spectacular when you consider the data across a whole population, the massive budgets of the Five Eyes intelligence agencies, and the constant progress of artificial intelligence and big data analytics.

Your interactions with the world around you can reveal your political and religious beliefs, your desires, sympathies and convictions, and things about yourself that you aren’t even aware of of course, what “they think is being revealed might be wrong!). Given enough data and time, your behaviour might even be predicted.

Personal chilling effects

When you understand the fullness of the picture that mass surveillance paints of you, you begin to change your behaviour – you avoid exercising certain freedoms.

You might think twice about:

  • contacting or meeting people (exercising your freedom of association) who you think might become “persons of interest” to the state, or that you think the algorithms might determine as such in the future, since you know that your association with them is retained for at least two years and may be analysed,
  • congregating in the same location as a group of those people (exercising your freedom of assembly). Would you attend a protest march calling for action on climate change, knowing that you would forever be linked to what the Australian government calls a “vigilantist” movement of “economic saboteurs”?
  • participating in any activity that might make you look bad in the data – even if you know that you are innocent. This could mean avoiding writing about a particular topic online, or visiting a particular website, or buying a particular book – exercising your freedom of expression.

Societal chilling effects

The combined result of these second thoughts across the population is a chilling effect on many of the activities that are key to a well-functioning democracy – activism, journalism, and political dissent, among others.

We all benefit from progress that occurs when activists, journalists and society as a whole are able to freely engage in political discourse and dissent. Many of the positive changes of the last century were only possible because of these freedoms. For example, the 1967 referendum on including indigenous Australians in the census, and allowing the federal government to make laws specifically benefiting indigenous races, was only made possible by sustained activism throughout the 1950s and ‘60s.

Unfortunately, we are already self-censoring. A 2013 survey of US writers found that, after the revelations of the mass surveillance regime of the US National Security Agency (NSA), 1 in 6 had avoided writing on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance, and a further 1 in 6 had seriously considered doing so.

Ask yourself: at every point in history, who suffers the most from unjustified surveillance? It is not the privileged, but the vulnerable. Surveillance is not about safety, its about power. Its about control.

– Edward Snowden

By creating databases and systems of easy access to such a great volume of personally revealing information, we increase the scope of mass surveillance, and therefore the scope for infringements on our human rights.

East Germany is the most extreme example of a surveillance state in history. The Stasi – its infamous security agency – employed 90,000 spies and had a network of at least 174,000 informants (in a population of about 18 million, about 1 informant for every 70 citizens). The Stasi kept meticulous files on hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens, including “pink files” on people they believed to be homosexual, and used this information to psychologically harass, blackmail and discredit people who became dissenters.

But that was before the internet.

Reflecting on the NSA’s current systems of mass surveillance, a former Stasi lieutenant colonel said: “For us, this would have been a dream come true”.

Even aside from the risk of systematic state misbehaviour, in Australia we know that 2500 snoopers who have unrestricted access to your data are subject to “professional curiosity”, fallible morals, and are only human, so will make mistakes and become victims of social engineering, blackmail or bribery. This is most dangerous for the most vulnerable people. For example, if you have an angry or violent ex-partner, you could be put in mortal danger by them getting their hands on this much detail about your life.

Risk taking

Our “digital lives” are an accurate reflection of our actual lives. Our phone records expose where we go and who we talk to, and our internet usage can expose almost everything about ourselves and what we care about.

Even if we trust the motives of our current governments, and every person with authorised access to our data, we are taking an incredible risk. The systems of surveillance that we entrench now may be misappropriated and misused at any time by future governments, foreign intelligence agencies, double agents, and opportunistic hackers.

The more data we have, the more devastating its potential.

Each system of surveillance and intrusion that we introduce erodes our privacy and pushes us one step further away from a free society.

While you may not have noticed the impact yet, your privacy has already been eroded. If we continue along our current path, building more powers into our systems of surveillance, what was once your private life will be whittled away to nothing, and the freedoms that we have taken for granted will cease to exist.

As technology advances, we are presented with a choice: will it to continue to offer an overall benefit to society, or will we allow it to be used as a tool for total intrusion into our lives?

Privacy is rarely lost in one fell swoop. It is usually eroded over time, little bits dissolving almost imperceptibly until we finally begin to notice how much is gone.

– Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’, Daniel J. Solove

What next?

The governments of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and others are poised to take a big step in the wrong direction with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The EFF explains why the TPP is a huge threat to your privacy and other rights.

  • Take action – if you are a technologist, join the Cryptohack Network and fight back against mass surveillance.


*  Robin Doherty is a consultant at ThoughtWorks who usually plays the role of software developer or technical lead, and who tries to demystify cryptography and digital privacy by facilitating cryptoparties in Melbourne. Follow CryptoPartyAus to hear about the next public cryptoparty. Robin also organises and Melbourne-based meet-ups, where software developers gather to contribute to open source privacy tools like Pixelated, helping to make them easier to use. This article appeared first on the blog:



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