No Security in a World Without Privacy

Connected Life, Cyber Politics, Privacy, Security & Privacy

In 2017, for the great majority of people, privacy is on life support.

For the great majority of people, ownership is also becoming an obsolete concept, further accelerating the death of privacy – how can you truly have any privacy when everything you have is owned and controlled by someone else?

A few extreme individuals can own privacy. Mark Zuckerberg uses money and courts to dispossess Hawaiian natives from his private island, and to build and protect his private neighborhood of Silicon Valley.

For the rest of us, the little privacy we are allowed to possess has become a bad joke, a pale mocking imitation.

The unfortunate reality of the human condition is that we live in a pyramid scheme.

The pyramid schemes are not new, it has been the way of the world since ancient times – some even suggest it is a mathematical necessity.

However, the different sub-pyramid schemes do grow and shrink at different times. At one time, the Roman Emperor owned more than everyone else put together, probably multiple times over. Thanks to technological and social revolutions, the wealth pyramid is (for now) a bit flatter.

Now, with the incredible growth in data storage capacity, and computing speeds that allow practical machine learning applications, the surveillance and privacy pyramid scheme has grown to epic proportions, and will likely get a lot worse before it gets better.

A very few people can invade the privacy of just about anyone, while remaining largely protected themselves.

Those with access at Google, Facebook, and few other spyware companies have access to the detailed and constantly growing personal information of billions of people. Information that they can manipulate, use to intimidate, and translate into unfathomable power. Meanwhile, privacy robber barons can avoid any semblance meaningful transparency more or less with impunity.

Those with access in law enforcement and at extra-legal spy agencies force access to the data from their country’s IT and social media companies, access to telecommunications companies’ data, as well as the ‘right’ to hack and spy on anybody anywhere with impunity. These agencies can order silence, imprison whistle-blowers indefinitely as ‘terrorists’, and escape any oversight via brazen lies and by self-serving pleading of dubious “national security”.

Any pretense to rights of habeas corpus, rights against arbitrary search, and rights against self-incrimination are conveniently “not applicable” in the digital world.

Forget the traditional standard of requiring a limited individual search warrant signed by a judge based on probable cause, with “poisoned fruit” protections against abuse. Instead data search is en masse, unlimited, without warrant, with secret ‘courts’ rubber stamping “national security letters”; fishing trips without cause and parallel construction are considered normal; and even when caught in illegal search, the poisoned fruit is accepted.

And your rights against self-incrimination? Border police and sometimes normal police believe they can force you to unlock your devices for search, and force you to give up passwords.

All Western governments are passing sweeping surveillance laws, and again threatening to break encryption for surveillance. Russia and China are trying to ban TOR and VPNs for surveillance. India is forcing the whole economy under fingerprint-tracked surveillance.

Storage and computing power will continue to scale and scale. The metadata available will continue to scale with it. The automatic surveillance connections found by machine learning will continue to grow exponentially. It will continue to grow harder and harder to poison the surveillance with fake data or with attempts to avoid “the grid”.

The odds are stacked, the casino is rigged, but that is not a reason to give up, it is a reason to fight back!

Slavery was stopped (for some, sort of). Civil rights were won (for some, sort of). Less awful working conditions were won (for some, sort of). Fighting for basic rights and humanity is not easy, and it is never finished nor complete, but it is also not futile.

To quote Anonymity & Privacy Researcher, Sarah Jamie Lewis, “privacy is consent – the right to remove consent”. That consent is a fundamental human right, and as always the effects of its removal fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable, with secondary effects spreading like a cancer of violence and corruption throughout the whole society.

Privacy is also unlike other rights – if your right to free speech is violated temporarily, this does not affect your future free speech once that government abuse has been stopped.

Conversely, once privacy is lost, it is lost for good. The internet is forever (barring, probably man-made, apocalypse). Even assuming you stop the abuse of a government or a corporate Peeping Tom, the secrets that they have stolen from you remain stolen forever. Your information is out there, and will continue to be correlated in new ways until the heat death of the universe. You will never be able to delete every copy, the right to be forgotten is a technical nonsense.

That is why I tilt at this privacy windmill. That is why I consider this particular right as fundamental, existential, and worth sacrifice.

I hope you will too – it is never too late to fight back. Are our basic human rights to privacy and a more Rawlsian world really so much to ask for?

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