Digital Authoritarianism and the Destruction of Privacy Online
by Demelza Hays, Advisor to RealUnit
Once upon a time, Europe had strong privacy laws protecting individuals. As early as 1690, opening up a letter that was not intended for you was a punishable offence in Germany. Any post officer that opened a letter would be fired. In 1742, the French took privacy even further, by using the guillotine on postal officers that opened letters without authorization. About 100 years later, Switzerland adopted the “Briefgeheimnis Gesetz” or Correspondence Secrecy Law in 1853.
For some reason, the privacy that we have with physical letters has not carried over to digital messages online. Instead, the last few decades have completely washed away individual privacy rights in a trend referred to as “digital authoritarianism”. Digital Authoritarianism refers to governments using mass surveillance programs to censor online content and monitor financial transactions. The Freedom on the Net Report for 2019 found that individual privacy online has decreased for the last nine consecutive years in a row. Of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net Report, a record 47 countries featured arrests of users for political, social, or religious speech. Interestingly, Iceland was found to have the highest level of freedoms online including almost no restrictions on content. Armenia also had a considerable improvement as reformist prime minister Nikol Pashinyan reduced restrictions on content.
Figure 1: Freedom on the Net Map of Internet Freedom
Reading someone else’s private messages is considered bad manners, unless you are the government apparently. In response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, 65% of Swiss voters supported an increase in the snooping rights of the government. Supported by popular opinion and not facts, Switzerland’s surveillance laws known as BÜPF and NDG may allow government agencies such as police, public prosecutors and the national secret service to retain data on all forms of communications including post, email, phone, text messages and IP addresses for a period of up to 12 months. However, government officials fail to explain why the previous levels of spying were insufficient to prevent the terrorist act or how expanding (mass) surveillance will prevent future attacks. Government websites and official speeches do not reveal specifically how these programs work, what types of data they collect, or what results have been achieved.
Proponents of government surveillance argue that security is more important than privacy and that surveillance is the best method for preventing terrorism. This means that the government must violate our privacy in order to protect our private property including our person and home. Policies that violate some of our rights in order to protect some of our other rights are an example of a performative contradiction, where the propositional content of a statement contradicts the presuppositions of asserting it. An example of a performative contradiction is the statement “I am dead” because the very act of proposing it presupposes the actor is alive.
On the other hand, opponents of government surveillance claim that the assumption that public safety requires the curtailment of privacy is unfounded and that bulk data collection infringes upon our natural right to privacy.
The government may honestly be trying to protect us by surveilling us, or they may be trying to stop tax evasion and activity that challenges the government’s power, including creating new forms of money like cryptocurrencies. This is one reason the creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, never disclosed his identity. Previous attempts to make private monies that competed with the State’s money were stopped dead in their tracks by federal authorities. The creator of the Liberty Dollar faced federal charges for minting gold coins in the early 2000s. Since Bitcoin is stored on a distributed network, the government does not know who to come after. Sort of like the Greek mythological creator, Hydra, that grew a new head whenever one was chopped off.
Another piece of evidence that supports the notion that government surveillance programs have a hidden agenda is the fact that the Swiss government was caught red-handed collecting illegal data on leftwing activists during the Cold War period, union members, feminists, Jura separatists, foreigners, “untrustworthy and suspicious” federal officials, and even Red Cross orphans despite having a relatively low number of terrorist attacks or reason to collect the data.
Source: Swissinfo.ch, Keystone. 35,000 Swiss protest surveillance in Bern, 1990 following the 1989 Government Snooping Scandal
The government incurs objective costs for tracking their citizens such as hiring security analysts, storing data, building offices, investing in research on encryption technology, and investigating suspects. These costs are redistributions from productive sectors of the economy to public bureaucracies and government contractors. Instead of taxpayer funds supporting education, health, infrastructure, or simply not being extracted from the private sector in the first place, billions of dollars are being spent on opaque and seemingly ineffective surveillance programs.
The innate human drive for survival will always generate demand for security. However, different individuals demand different types of protection. Similarly, the costs that individuals are willing to pay for protection vary, and furthermore an individual’s demand and willingness to pay fluctuates throughout his or her life in response to new information. Furthermore, it is not proven that unwarranted data collection, domestic drones, and intrusive law enforcement agents actually prevent terrorist attacks. Without a free market for security, it is impossible to accurately price the service of protection and to gauge what protection services are in demand by citizens.
What Can be Done to Increase Personal Privacy Online?
An excellent way to protect your privacy online is by relying on well-implemented strong cryptography, which is becoming increasingly accessible to the general public. One use case for example is a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which hides your IP address to remote peers, and removes much of your ISP’s (and your government’s) ability to eavesdrop on your Internet activity. Obviously, you would need to trust the VPN provider more than you trust your ISP for this to make sense; but because there are so many providers, in so many locations, it is easier to make an informed choice. Other interesting use cases include Full Disk Encryption (removing the ability to read your data should your device be seized/stolen), Zero-Knowledge Encryption for online emails or file storage, or technologies such as Tor. To protect your financial transactions from being monitored by surveillance programs, the most common approach is to leave the banking system by using cash or cryptocurrencies.
A second wave of protection stems from organizations that are fighting intrusive surveillance programs, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) started by the Grateful Dead lyricist, John Perry Barlow. The EFF helps people pay for legal fees to fight court battles against government agencies that have unconstitutional illegal surveillance programs. In 1990, the US government seized the assets of a small book publisher in Austin Texas without due process, because they believed that the book publisher had received a copy of a confidential document. The book publisher, Steve Jackson Games, had actually not received or accessed the confidential document but officials took his computers and blocked his email access for months. During this time, Games’ publishing company went bankrupt, because he was unable to publish.
The EFF’s first case was representing Games in a trial against the U.S. Secret Service. This landmark case lead to the creation of important protections for individuals online. Specifically, that electronic mail deserves at least as much protection as telephone calls from unwarranted surveillance and confiscation.
The EFF has since represented plaintiffs in many important cases in the US including the Bernstein v. U.S. Dept. case that involved a University of California Ph.D. student in mathematics and the U.S. Department of State. The student wanted to publish a software program that encrypted information, and the government would not allow him to release the software to the public. The State Department actually said that he needs to be licensed as an arms dealer before he could publish the software, because encryption techniques were in the same category as bomb blueprints and chemical weapons. However, the EFF was able to prove in court that publishing software online is a way of communicating online and is protected under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protecting the freedom of speech.
This case is still relevant today as software developers of distributed cryptocurrencies are being harassed by government officials. The US government arrested a software developer who created a Bitcoin mixing software that would help users obfuscate the origin and destination of their Bitcoin transactions. There is also a concern that the developers of decentralized prediction markets can face jail time for creating illegal prediction markets. This is why Wyoming’s proposed bill to give First Amendment rights to code is so important. Recently, the governor of Wyoming, Mark Gordon, stated that developers that release software online should not be prosecuted if other people use that software to commit a crime. This is similar to what are called “common-carrier” laws that protect telephone providers from being liable when criminals plan crimes over the phone.
Final Word. The laws that protect our physical property should also protect our digital assets. When they don’t, there are, fortunately, means to unilaterally reclaim that privacy, which mostly involves relying on strong cryptography. In the same way we can opt-out of the financial system by relying on cryptocurrencies, we can also opt-out of the State-sponsored eavesdropping programs by encrypting and obfuscating everything we do online.
As Edward Snowden famously states, saying that if you don’t have anything to hide you shouldn’t mind eavesdropping is similar to claiming that if you don’t have anything bad to say, you shouldn’t mind censorship. And as every honest human being understands, a civilized society involves total transparency for institutions and full privacy for individuals. To err on the side of precaution, it’s best to just take a moment to learn about how to properly protect your data and to begin reducing your digital footprint online.