How we all became obsessed with online privacy

Author

Jamie Bartlett

June 16, 2015

It began with radical ‘cypherpunks’ who wanted to destroy the state. Now it’s a hot-button issue for every Facebook user. How did the notion of internet privacy gain so much traction, and where will it take us next?

Cast your mind back to just 5 or ten years ago. Did you ever think about data, your digital footprint, the NSA, or what happened to your social media posts? Doubtful, even though you might have been doing much the same online. The question of internet privacy wasn’t something many of us gave much thought to.

In the last couple of weeks, a handful of events have demonstrated how much that has all changed. Earlier this month the US Congress passed the ‘Freedom Act’ (which, in American tradition, stands awkwardly for Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring). It placed limits of mass data collected on US citizens by the National Security Agency, something many privacy advocates thought impossible. Last week, David Anderson published an independent review of the UK government’s investigatory powers – it’s very good by the way – and made over 100 recommendations about how to make surveillance simpler, clearer, and with more oversight. Perhaps even more surprising, although barely reported, Facebook decided to allow users to send encrypted messages on their messenger service.

This is all driven by growing pubic concern of course. According to the 2014 Deloitte Data Nation survey, 24 per cent of people in the UK do not trust any type of organisation with their personal information. Recent research by my think-tank Demos found half of young people said they were either extremely or very concerned by ‘online privacy’ – more than environmental issues, immigration, tax avoidance, or the EU. There are more people are using tools and techniques to cover their digital tracks, especially since Edward Snowden blew his whistle.

Internet privacy has become a major political and social preoccupation. But very few people know much about the origins of the idea. The hope that modern, digital cryptographic software could change society goes back to the 1990s Californian ‘Cypherpunks’ (a mash up of the word cypher with cyber-punk). All were radical libertarians and early adopters of computer technology, sharing an interest in the effects it would have on politics and society. But while many West Coast liberals at the time were toasting the dawn of a new and liberating electronic age, these Cypherpunks spotted that networked computing might just as likely herald a golden age of state spying and control. They all believed that the great political issue of the day was whether governments of the world would use the internet to strangle individual freedom and privacy through digital surveillance, or whether autonomous individuals would undermine and even destroy the state through the subversive tools digital computing also promised.

At their first meeting, Tim May, as close to a leader as the group ever had, set out his vision to the excited group of rebellious, ponytailed twenty-and thirty-somethings. If the government can’t monitor you, he argued, it can’t control you. Fortunately, said May, thanks to modern computing, individual liberty can be assured by something more reliable than man-made laws: the unflinching rules of math and physics, existing on software that couldn’t be deleted. ‘ Politics has never given anyone lasting freedom, and it never will, ’ he wrote in 1993. But computer systems could. What was needed, May argued, was new software that could help ordinary people evade government surveillance.

The group quickly grew to include hundreds of subscribers who were soon posting on a dedicated email list every day: exchanging ideas, discussing developments, proposing and testing cyphers. This remarkable email list predicted, developed or invented almost every technique now employed by computer users to avoid government surveillance. Tim May proposed, among other things, secure crypto-currencies, a tool enabling people to browse the web anonymously, an unregulated marketplace—which he called ‘BlackNet’—where anything could be bought or sold without being tracked. Twenty years before the notorious Silk Road.

Ultimately they also hoped their endeavors would eventually bring about an economic, political and social revolution. In 1994 May published Cyphernomicon, his manifesto of the cypher-punk world view, on the mailing list. In it, he explained that ‘many of us are explicitly anti-democratic and hope to use encryption to undermine the so-called democratic governments of the world.’ On the whole, the cypherpunks were rugged libertarians who believed that far too many decisions that affected the liberty of the individual were determined by a popular vote of democratic governments. They saw internet privacy as the way out. (Julian Assange was joined the mailing list in late 1993 or early 1994).

Of course, not everyone who cared about internet privacy shared the cypherpunks’ view that internet privacy was a route to pulling down governments. Each time governments – especially the US government – overreached by trying to spy on citizens too much, new movements and organisations would join the fray. And through the course of the 1990s and 2000s, internet privacy slowly started to inch into people’s peripheral vision as something worth worrying about.

But it’s really only the last 5 years or so that it’s moved from periphery to centre. Partly it’s Snowden. Partly it’s the relentless work of activists and journalists who share concerns. But mostly it’s the amount of time we now spend online, and a dawning realisation that all that data we produce must be going somewhere. These days we share inordinate amounts of digital information about ourselves: our bank details, our love life, our holiday snaps; our whole lives are online. And it’s no longer just governments snaffling it all up – it is private companies, too. Think for a moment: do you ever wonder why it is that we get all these amazing internet services – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Gmail – for free? I rarely think about it, either, because I’m used to it all just being there, and always working. But it costs an awful lot of money to run these platforms: the server space, the highly skilled engineers, the legal teams. We are paying all right, just not in cash. We pay with our data and our privacy.

You probably have no idea how much of yourself you have already given away online, or how much it’s worth to the right people. In a typical week, Facebook users upload twenty billion pieces of content – pictures, names, preferences, shopping habits and other titbits. You are even creating data when you don’t realise it, because as you surf the web, thousands of ‘third-party cookies’ track your browsing habits. Smart phones are often full of apps collecting information about your activity every waking and sleeping moment.Quintillions – yes that really is a number – of pieces of data are being generated by you, about you, every year.

There is a growing feeling that ‘they’ –companies, governments, hackers, anyone who knows more about computers than you do – are getting hold of your data and doing stuff with it you don’t condone, and don’t really understand.

That’s why the issue of internet privacy today cuts across traditional political boundaries. Broadly speaking, the left are fearful that state surveillance might encroach on the individual’s right to privacy. The right worry about how much power will pass to state bureaucracy. At the radical libertarian fringes, many believe that anonymity online will eventually lead to a stateless utopia. There are many others who don’t fit anywhere, but simply believe society is better served if people have a protected sphere of personal and private life. Indeed, a slightly uncomfortable truce has always existed within the privacy movement; between social democratic left wingers and the libertarian right. I would expect Ukip’s Douglas Carswell to be as anti-internet surveillance as George Galloway. Labour’s Tom Watson and Tory David Davis can find common alliance against internet spying. I often wondered how many Guardian readers knew Assange was a tough minded libertarian; part of a group that despised social welfare.

A reflection of this new broad political interest in internet privacy is the impressive group of campaign organisations that have very effectively researched, lobbied and pressured governments on the subject. Each time the UK government of the day proposes new laws on internet surveillance, Big Brother Watch, Privacy International, Open Rights Group, Liberty, Index on Censorship and others click into gear. During the Coalition’s Communications Data Bill, this ‘privacy lobby’, as they are sometimes called, were relentless in scruitinising the bill, picking holes in its provisions, and raising awareness of its flaws. Very few people from the other side of the debate – the police, the intelligence agencies or even the general public – put their heads above the parapet. Their efforts was an important reason it was ultimately ditched (with a lot of help from Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems).

Alongside this political activity is the quicker win of the technological. There are hundreds of privacy activists working on ingenious ways to block censorship and protect your privacy online. I think we’re entering into an era where censorship becomes harder and privacy easier. The bigger question is where this new found obsession with internet privacy might take us. I’ve interviewed many of the people who work on helping people enhance or maintain their privacy online. They aren’t tin hat wearing conspiracy theories. They see the question of online privacy as the digital front in a battle over individual liberty: a rejection of internet surveillance and censorship that they believe has come to dominate modern life online. Their motivation is typically well intentioned: a desire to help make sure people can remain private and secret online, to keep communication open and not controlled by third parties.

I think they are a little optimistic about the way these technologies will propel society along. Technology has always been accompanied by utopian but usually disappointed visions of how it will straighten man’s crooked timber. The early nineties were ablaze with utopian ideas about humanity’s imminent leap forward, spurred by connectivity and access to information. For some, like John Perry Barlow, author of the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, this new, free world could help to create just, humane and liberal societies – better than those ‘weary giants of flesh and steel’. None of them predicted the endless cat memes, or the inane holiday pictures, the Islamist propaganda, or child pornography networks. But you don’t need to be a neo-con securocrat to realise that serious child pornographers use encryption and anonymous browsers to stay one step ahead of the law. Terrorist groups have long used a variety of types of encryption software in their communications. ISIS in particular have been adept at using tools designed for whistleblowers to avoid being caught and pushing their propaganda all over the net.

But despite these obvious problems privacy of all kinds serves a vital social and individual function. Syrian democrats really do create secret and untraceable chat rooms to coordinate activity. Russian dissidents really do use internet browsers like Tor to circumnavigate state censorship of the net. Homosexuals in the Middle East really do use encryption to avoid a knock at the door from brutal enforcers of state morality. Anonymising tools like the Tor browser has had a hugely beneficial effect on free expression around the world. But it’s not just in the more hostile parts of the world that privacy matters. In most democratic societies, privacy creates a sphere of freedom for the individual, which allows for political, social and personal expression. Well-established democracies use secret ballots to ensure that people can express their political views without hindrance or fear. There are many ways that privacy contributes to free expression. I, like many others, worry that even in democracies there is a marked increase in people getting arrested and prosecuted for saying things that are nothing more than offensive and rude and nasty. That results in one of the great dangers to free expression, which is self-censorship: silencing oneself for worry that we offend, or upset, or suffer repercussions. Genuine anonymity has and does grant people the space to speak their mind, to push boundaries, to propel society forward.

Whether politically or technologically, we care more about privacy now than a decade ago, and we’re about to get more of it. This means more privacy from dictatorships, advertisers, spies, cookies, police, hackers. Great news for individual freedom and democracy, and also if you want to browse child pornography. It won’t be one or the other that wins out, but both.

Jamie Bartlett is director of Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media

This article was written by Jamie Bartlett from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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