In the digital age, there is an important question which has been debated continuously; is privacy compatible with technology? Politicians, technologists and activists talk about a balance between privacy and security, but the reality of the question at hand is security against surveillance.
Technology has given the world so many positive products and services which have undoubtedly been positive and will drive humanity to greener pastures. Technology is the not the enemy, it is the solution.
Apple’s battle with the FBI has gained much media attention. Tim Cook and Apple have garnered much support from users, customers and from the wider technology community through an effective PR campaign. While Apple’s public support for online privacy and security is an important moment in the history of digital liberty, it has been the function of this series to not take ideas and events at face value, not echoing the vague blur of mainstream consciousness, but to instead challenge conventional thinking. Technology can help and strengthen digital privacy, but not if we continue to, without challenge and thinking, adopting these technologies without considering their implications.
The governments in western democracies are looking to continually make a distinction between online information and information written in journal because they realise it grants them greater powers of surveillance. There should not be a difference between digital information and printed information. These are some ways in which as a community of online users can safeguard the future of the internet and digital age:
- Standing up for the User
Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, kicked off their latest product launch with a keynote not about the latest phone or tablet, but about its high profile clash with the FBI. He said that the company “believe strongly that we have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy”. This is the most public attention the issue of online security and privacy has received since the Snowden revelations in 2013.
In the midst of the battle with the FBI, pertaining to the unlocking the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooting suspect, Apple have engaged in a publicity war. In a recent poll taken by the Pew Research Centre, they found that 51% of those polled agreed that Apple should unlock the phone and assist with the FBI investigation. However, Apple’s public defiance of the government has positioned Cook and Apple as crusaders for online privacy.
This is the one of the most important ways in which we can safeguard our security in the digital age. As users and customers, it is important that we buy into and put our trust in companies not only for the quality of their products but also their commitment to a high moral ethical code that prioritises the needs of the customer first and foremost. Apple has built a reputation for secrecy as well as a cultural foundation of individuality. This reputation is a stark contrast for the much welcomed recent displays of openness and unprecedented honesty.
It is a monumental step in the right direction especially with other technology giants like Google lending their support of Apple. Cook is a long time and public supporter of not only individual privacy but on other social issues like protecting the environment and LGBTQ rights. However, we must be always being critical of such actions. Whilst Apple’s PR machine effectively utilised this opportunity to garner support, it cannot go unnoticed and unpublicised that the FBI successfully hacked the same phone without Apple’s permission. Edward Snowden suggested that the FBI’s claim that it couldn’t unlock the San Bernardino iPhone was “bullshit”. In addition, as users we must recognise that Apple’s sudden public outcry may be motivated by the fact that a unlocking would have a negative impact on its consumer popularity as well as their burgeoning enterprise and cloud business.
- Systemic Infrastructure Attacks
Apple’s battle with the FBI has become mainstream news. However, as with such coverage, it has failed to pick up on the fact that the FBI and other intelligence agencies have had this ability for a long time and continue to exercise that power.
An incredibly important issue which has not received much attention at all has been the vulnerability of the internet. Not only have there been attacks on our communications, companies or products, but the very infrastructure of the internet. Its underlying foundations have been attacked and manipulated by not only government agencies but also hacker groups and foreign adversaries, most notably the Chinese originated hacking of the Pentagon. These events show systemic attacks on the fabric of the internet and our communications, which makes not one person but all vulnerable to surveillance.
The protection and strengthening of the internet’s infrastructure must be protected by us as individuals, by way of utilising encryption methods on either end-point of our online communications. It must also be protected by those who have access to the internet’s infrastructure. Many people would not consider infrastructure engineers as glamorous or even important jobs. Many would not even consider them influential or even targets of surveillance.
While they are pose no threat to society, for western governments these engineers are important because of the access they have. Edward Snowden suggested in May 2015 that government agencies are not only looking potential “terrorists” but are also hacking major sim card manufacturers, telecommunication providers and most recently the world’s biggest consumer technology company Apple.
Those with access to systems and infrastructure have a major role in protecting our liberties in the digital age. They have the ability to stop the government from collecting internet histories and hanging on to them forever. System and infrastructure engineers are one of the most important people in the future of the internet. Government agencies and foreign adversaries no longer look for just individuals; they look for people with access, not because they are terrorists, not because they are criminals but because they have access to the very fabric of the internet and our communications.
- Knowledge and Transparency
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have found 63 cases across America where the federal government asked for a court order compelling one of the giant internet companies, including Apple and Google, to help access people’s devices. In cooperation with the All Writs Act, the Justice Department had previously released information suggesting that they had given Apple 70 court orders requiring them to assist in their investigations since 2008, which they obeyed without objection. While the ACLU has suggested many of these cases were related to drug crime, it does show that Apple’s recent public crusade for online privacy may not depict complete transparency from the company.
Whether Apple is truly fighting for our rights and interests or not, the revelations that the FBI has been able to unlock the iPhone of the suspect of the San Bernardino massacre without Apple’s help is equally worrying. As users and civilians around the world, we must not only trust internet companies, representatives and liberty organisations to protect our digital rights, but we must also take on the responsibility ourselves. We need to understand and apply methods of encryption to safeguard our liberties.
When people hear about encryption or online security, there is very little awareness of the jargon or meaning of technical computing terms. Technical and computer literacy is another factor limiting our ability to safeguard digital liberty.
Methods such as encrypted browsers like Tor, have become an important tool for whistleblowers to anonymously share information. Whilst it has become a safe haven for drug orders on Silk Road, other important methods like blocking third-party cookies and location data, not storing passwords, and other interesting methods must be known by every user.
Many of these methods which seek to safeguard our digital liberties make people want to shove fingers in their ears and pretend that surveillance is not real. The reality is that you might not think you have anything to hide, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of online privacy.
Knowledge of these methods is one part, the other is its transparency. For example, there has been little media attention about the lack of privacy commitments by companies like Snapchat and Drobox. These two companies are hugely successful and popular, but they severely lack of user privacy measures. Snapchat has been known to collect and store all content on their platform. Dropbox appointed former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice to their board. It is safe to say that she is one of the most anti-privacy officials imaginable. Both companies have secure and privacy orientated alternatives called Cyber Dust (Mark Cuban creator) and SpiderOak (recommended by Edward Snowden). Transparency and a willingness to share information on methods of encryption and protection are integral to not only the privacy of individual users, but also a community strengthened with the knowledge to provide solutions to global surveillance.
The issue of online privacy and liberty in the digital age is going to affect every single person on this planet in the near future. As smartphones become more readily accessible to more people around the planet, than water and electricity, securing our digital activities is a battle which must be fought.
Snowden has suggested that the internet and our communications are not only vulnerable to government surveillance but to foreign adversaries and anyone around the world. This means that we need to keep all those who have access to our private records and information, those who represent us and those are supposed to protect us, accountable. We must continually, as national citizens and global users, keep companies and government accountable to their actions.
“Classified” and “national security” can no longer be justified as a legitimate way to keep secrets from people and keep those in power protected from accountability and transparency.
It is the role of the user, to create an environment where those in power cannot abuse such powers, and securing the online future for every other user now and in the future. For example, we must continually shed light on the issues pertaining to the Investigatory Powers Bill which has shown, without any subtlety or attempt to cover up, a willingness and desire to collect, store and analyse as much information as possible. It is not a surprise that under the fog of political debate over the “Brexit” or what happened in this week’s PMQs , that this bill and questions over our digital rights has fallen by the wayside.
We must also keep accountable the private companies and other service providers which are so influential in our lives. Services like Google Hangouts and Skype are very popular, but we should always hold them accountable, in how they use our data, how they store it, and constantly ensure they keep within lines set by the user.
Silence is often a telling indicator of bias and action. Google’s recent silence regarding their own interactions with the government and their court orders suggests their actions may not always be aligned with their needs and interests of their users.
We spend a significant time online, and our online information and communications have become essential parts of us as human beings. Therefore those influencing this arena must be held accountable consistently in order to ensure that the internet is invulnerable from policing and surveillance.
- Philosophy of Challenge
This series has proclaimed a strong belief in the positive power and influence of technology has and will have on human beings and society. The computer industry has been the bastion of that change, becoming synonymous with technology. However the rate at which people have been adopting new technologies has not been met with a willingness to challenge conventional thinking about the safety and freedoms associated with these products, services and companies.
For example, Facebook clearly is popular as well as a great asset to human communication. With over 1.5bn users, its popularity and cultural significance is in no doubt, but there is little understanding or transparency over how the company uses the data they collect and that is worrying.
The recent FBI and Apple battle has been an important moment in our digital history. It is one of the first challenges made by a large technology company to the government’s surveillance powers and ability to bend private companies to its will. Apple’s public outcry thrusted the legality of the secret FICA courts where these court orders were made and sealed under “classified” categorisations.
The internet, the symbol of the digital age, has become a place of surveillance and mass collection of data. The governments and representatives which have taken office and oaths to protect and fight for our interests, have instead created a system to collect information on all digital actors. They are continually and aggressively expanding the definition of actors who have had an inclination or even possible motivations for now or in the future, posing a subversive or challenging threat to their ability to exercise their power.
This is the terrible and horrifying picture, of a world of mass, indiscriminate surveillance, a world in which those in power and their actions are clouded in secrecy, with little transparency and no accountability, which has been supported and enforced by society. It is a world of conformity and fear. This is not just a fight against the government, against real terrorists or foreign adversaries, this is a fight for the very freedoms we hold dear and take for granted.
The nature of free and liberal societies, the very system which our governments claim to uphold, is that there is a significant amount of risk. Life is full of risk. We have made a choice politically and morally that higher rates of crime and lawlessness are necessary sacrifices for liberty and freedom. A government, like the ones we live with today, have abandoned this belief system in favour of prioritising security, through the mass use of surveillance, which is a hallmark of authoritarian states.
In the digital age, the flow of information, news and opinions are dominated by feeds. These streams of information have become extraordinarily charged and biased. For the younger generation, there is inclination to opt into bubbles of opinions which create group think mentalities. The internet is an amazing feat of human creation because we no longer have to believe in one system or listen exclusively to one source. There are vast numbers of sources available for young people, but the importance behind this philosophy of challenge is to analyse the sources which have become apparent sources of truth, because even they can be wrong. Getting the facts right, analysing and creating an opinion based on multiple sources is integral to keeping those with power accountable and to rejecting an conformist society.
There is not going to be a magical liberalisation moment, where legal mechanisms are put in place to protect our digital information. We instead have to enforce our rights through technology and through standards. This means end to end encryption, protecting our communication while in transit across the networks we have without choice utilised, end point protection and most importantly making it transparent to users across the world.
There is a major problem within society that has been passed off as a normal mode of social thinking and functioning; that changing our behaviour, because we think somebody is watching us is normal. It is not! Professionals across multiple disciplines have researched and tested how this breeds conformity and fear.
There have been many poll conducted which show people admitting they have changed their behaviour online because they think they are being watched. The numbers range from 5%-70% of people who have changed their behaviour. Whether it is 5% or 70%, even the lowest possible number represents millions of people around the world who feel unsafe and unprotected in the digital age. This is a huge and worrying problem.
Technological development is one of the most amazing parts of human history. People with the willingness, the persistence and creativity to convert their ideas into reality for the rest of the world have done every person a service.
This era has become the digital age, a period in which computing technology has improved humanity for the better. Technology has become synonymous with computers, with the internet at the core of that development. We as a society and individuals need to protect it. We need to safeguard our liberties in the online age, to ensure future generations and our fellow users are able to utilise the amazing technologies at our fingertips. We must not let agencies and individuals monitor and police our online communications and activities, we must not bow down to conformity, we must continue to protect the digital age so it can thrive and keep pushing humanity onwards.