Online Privacy Issues Need to be Easier to Understand


Online privacy issues are currently difficult to understand. Amid media headlines about NSA, Prism and Snowden, terms such as encryption, Tor and HTTPS are used extensively with the average person expected to keep up  with what they mean and understand how the issues affect them.

For people who aren’t technically adept, the message about why online privacy should be an important issue to you is not getting across. Beyond saying that Facebook and Google are bad because they are free and sell data about you to advertisers, this isn’t compelling enough reason to find out more about how the services that they use every day affect their online privacy (no matter how ignorant that might seem to those who are technically adept).

Yes, most people probably don’t care that much about their online privacy. Yes, most people would rather use services like Facebook for free and have ads served to them. But for those who do care about the issues and value their online privacy, it is hard to see how people can take practical, actionable steps that will help educate them about the issues at hand and what steps to take to so something’s about it.

At the moment, we have a few extremes. There is the Richard Stallman approach to computing, which is both technically difficult for the average person to implement, but also extremely impractical on a day to say basis.

The next steps down from are still relatively obtrusive to the everyday Internet user: download and connect to the Tor network, encrypt your email and hard drive, use alternatives to the mainstream services you know and love. Why bother when Google Chrome is so fast, all my friends are on Facebook and I need to use Skype to call my parents?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation in the US and the Open Rights Group in the UK have brought further public attention to the issue by running a series of small campaigns to educate people about the issues. Just to mention a few:

  • PRSM: A social network that promises you’ll never have to worry about not sharing ever again–leave it to Prsm to share your purchases, Internet searches, email, phone calls, and more. Try to sign up at the bottom of the page and the site will redirect you to a page on the Electronic Frontier Foundation website encouraging readers to take actions toward protecting their privacy.
  • Defund the NSA: With just one days’ notice tens of thousands of people urged their representatives in Congress to oppose the NSA’s surveillance programs and defund the NSA.
  • Prism Break: Opt out of global data surveillance programs by switching to services that better protect your privacy. Stop governments from spying on you by encrypting your communications and ending your reliance on proprietary services.

PRSM is a nice gimmick, but will it really help people understand the issues?

And unfortunately, as has been pointed out elsewhere, sites like Prism Break make a bold claim that by using the software and services listed, people can avoid the NSA from accessing their data and communications. This is misleading as Prism Break lists a number of services and software provided by companies based in the United States, who are vulnerable to issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) or National Security Letters (NSLs).

People are being shown ways they can take back some control of their online privacy (my earlier post on my privacy plan details lots of resources), but there is still not enough simple education as to why they should.

One of the threads I’ve seen that best describes why online privacy issues matter to the individual citizen was over on this Reddit thread:

"I live in a country generally assumed to be a dictatorship. One of the Arab spring countries. I have lived through curfews and have seen the outcomes of the sort of surveillance now being revealed in the US. People here talking about curfews aren’t realizing what that actually FEELS like. It isn’t about having to go inside, and the practicality of that. It’s about creating the feeling that everyone, everything is watching. A few points:

1) the purpose of this surveillance from the governments point of view is to control enemies of the state. Not terrorists. People who are coalescing around ideas that would destabilize the status quo. These could be religious ideas. These could be groups like anon who are too good with tech for the governments liking. It makes it very easy to know who these people are. It also makes it very simple to control these people.

Lets say you are a college student and you get in with some people who want to stop farming practices that hurt animals. So you make a plan and go to protest these practices. You get there, and wow, the protest is huge. You never expected this, you were just goofing off. Well now everyone who was there is suspect. Even though you technically had the right to protest, you’re now considered a dangerous person.

With this tech in place, the government doesn’t have to put you in jail. They can do something more sinister. They can just email you a sexy picture you took with a girlfriend. Or they can email you a note saying that they can prove your dad is cheating on his taxes. Or they can threaten to get your dad fired. All you have to do, the email says, is help them catch your friends in the group. You have to report back every week, or you dad might lose his job. So you do. You turn in your friends and even though they try to keep meetings off grid, you’re reporting on them to protect your dad.

2) Let’s say number one goes on. The country is a weird place now. Really weird. Pretty soon, a movement springs up like occupy, except its bigger this time. People are really serious, and they are saying they want a government without this power. I guess people are realizing that it is a serious deal. You see on the news that tear gas was fired. Your friend calls you, frantic. They’re shooting people. Oh my god. you never signed up for this. You say, fuck it. My dad might lose his job but I won’t be responsible for anyone dying. That’s going too far. You refuse to report anymore. You just stop going to meetings. You stay at home, and try not to watch the news. Three days later, police come to your door and arrest you. They confiscate your computer and phones, and they beat you up a bit. No one can help you so they all just sit quietly. They know if they say anything they’re next. This happened in the country I live in. It is not a joke.

3) Its hard to say how long you were in there. What you saw was horrible. Most of the time, you only heard screams. People begging to be killed. Noises you’ve never heard before. You, you were lucky. You got kicked every day when they threw your moldy food at you, but no one shocked you. No one used sexual violence on you, at least that you remember. There were some times they gave you pills, and you can’t say for sure what happened then. To be honest, sometimes the pills were the best part of your day, because at least then you didn’t feel anything. You have scars on you from the way you were treated. You learn in prison that torture is now common. But everyone who uploads videos or pictures of this torture is labeled a leaker. Its considered a threat to national security. Pretty soon, a cut you got on your leg is looking really bad. You think it’s infected. There were no doctors in prison, and it was so overcrowded, who knows what got in the cut. You go to the doctor, but he refuses to see you. He knows if he does the government can see the records that he treated you. Even you calling his office prompts a visit from the local police.

You decide to go home and see your parents. Maybe they can help. This leg is getting really bad. You get to their house. They aren’t home. You can’t reach them no matter how hard you try. A neighbor pulls you aside, and he quickly tells you they were arrested three weeks ago and haven’t been seen since. You vaguely remember mentioning to them on the phone you were going to that protest. Even your little brother isn’t there.

4) Is this even really happening? You look at the news. Sports scores. Celebrity news. It’s like nothing is wrong. What the hell is going on? A stranger smirks at you reading the paper. You lose it. You shout at him "fuck you dude what are you laughing at can’t you see I’ve got a fucking wound on my leg?"

"Sorry," he says. "I just didn’t know anyone read the news anymore." There haven’t been any real journalists for months. They’re all in jail.

Everyone walking around is scared. They can’t talk to anyone else because they don’t know who is reporting for the government. Hell, at one time YOU were reporting for the government. Maybe they just want their kid to get through school. Maybe they want to keep their job. Maybe they’re sick and want to be able to visit the doctor. It’s always a simple reason. Good people always do bad things for simple reasons.

You want to protest. You want your family back. You need help for your leg. This is way beyond anything you ever wanted. It started because you just wanted to see fair treatment in farms. Now you’re basically considered a terrorist, and everyone around you might be reporting on you. You definitely can’t use a phone or email. You can’t get a job. You can’t even trust people face to face anymore. On every corner, there are people with guns. They are as scared as you are. They just don’t want to lose their jobs. They don’t want to be labeled as traitors.

This all happened in the country where I live."

Scary stuff when you imagine yourself going through the same situation. The whole post is here.

A few more articles that go some way to describing why privacy matters:

  • The Chronicle Review: Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’
  • Privacy International: Why Privacy Matters
  • Schneier On Security: The Value of Privacy (including details on NSA surveillance programmes from 2006)
  • Spider Oak: Why Privacy Matters
  • SGroupies: Online Privacy (and where the image for this post comes from)

These are just a few examples (and I had to do some searching to find them).

I’d love to see more articles in the media or spokespeople for organisations like EFF or ORG explain why these issues matter in a simple, easy to understand, non-technical way.

I have likely missed some excellent articles or explanations like this, so feel free to submit links in the comments for me to read and add into the post if they hit the mark.

And if there aren’t easy to find and understand resources out there, then I’d be happy to help create one.

Maybe I can even make Richard Stallman’s setup make perfect sense to my Grandma…

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