What is Internet Privacy? Part 2: Free Speech

In this series I am diving into the core of what internet privacy is and why it’s important to everybody. Too often I hear people assume that those worried about internet privacy and anonymity are only concerned with such because they are being shady. But the notion of internet privacy goes far deeper than that.

In the first part I dissected the value of internet privacy as it pertains to your sensitive personal information. Data brokers, as they are called, have created a sprawling multi-billion dollar industry collecting, packaging, and selling your information.

They collect so much, in fact, that many times they don’t even know what use it will be. So like squirrels with nuts, they store it away for a time when the information will become valuable.

One of the largest data brokers, Axciom, claims to have an average of 1,500 pieces of information on over 200 million Americans.

In this part, I delve into the value of internet privacy when it comes to issues like whistleblowers, journalists, and free speech.

Free Speech is Protected by Anonymity

Let me start off by relating a couple of privacy rights and protections of free speech in the US- and many other developed nations.

First, we vote anonymously. No one asks you before you enter or as you’re leaving the polling station how you voted, there is no one looking over your shoulder as you cast your ballot.

The reasons why are apparent: you could be threatened to be fired if you didn’t vote the way your boss or business owner wanted, if one party gained an enormous amount of power they could then go after (think corralling dissidents so you can keep an eye on all of them easily, prevent them from voting in the future, or just straight up threaten or kill) those who voted against it.

In this case, as with internet privacy, it’s not a matter of hiding- it’s a matter of protection.

Another example is witness anonymity. Much for the same reasons stated above, a lot of times police must promise their witnesses remain anonymous. All-too-powerful people and gangs often have a long arm that is able to track those who testify against them and coerce or otherwise silence witnesses.

Now, imagine that all-too-powerful person or gang had a definitive way to track what the witness said, where they said it, who they said it to, and ultimately their current location. That would suck right?

Well, unfortunately the internet makes this last part far too easy. Internet Protocol (IP) addresses are a unique string of numbers that identifies each device accessing the internet. All one has to do is know your IP address to identify you and know your location (for a quick demonstration of this, just go to whatismyipaddress.com).

For further proof, look at the Mexican drug cartels. From 2000-2011 they were responsible for at least 58 photographers, editors, and reporters’ deaths. The murders came as a direct result of their news reporting of the narcotics trade and the violence that it has brought along with it.

This constant threat of violence pushed reporting to a less identifiable means: the internet.

You may have guessed where this is going. The drug cartels, armed with prior Mexican Army special forces used their technological know how to begin hunting down those that blogged and used social media to voice their opinions.

When Free Speech is Jeopardized

Now imagine an organization that has unlimited resources: they have the manpower, recruitment abilities, technological prowess, and access to key hubs of internet traffic. You’re imagining the government; who has this skillset down to a science.

I want to go into this more in a future article so I’ll keep it short here. PRISM is one of many, many, clandestine programs that the NSA is running to collect web information. Under their umbrella they have coerced, or threatened the top tech companies to coorperate in their data collection program. AOL, Apple, Google and Microsoft are just a few of the companies known to hand over consumer information.

We only know this program, and others, because of Edward Snowden.

In the documents he stole and subsequently released, the public found out about a private battle that Yahoo! had with government in which it was threatened by a $250,000 fine per day if it did not fully cooperate with the NSA. This fine was to double every week. This program and others were said to be lawfully authorized by section 702 of the FISA Amendments act

Use your imagination again, if you will. Now you are a whistleblower- Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, and Edward Snowden all from the NSA come to mind; or a political reporter with a huge scandal about a powerful figure or government agency; or a political activist fighting to change a systemic problem.

If this is true- NSA intercepting nearly all unencrypted internet communications, without warrant- and it is. Then the government already has all the technology needed to keep you silent. If you aren’t using means to protect your privacy they can uncover a myriad of information they can use to blackmail or otherwise keep yourself or your organization quiet.

With minimal oversight, and no need for warrants, there is little holding the NSA back from abusing its power and putting a muzzle on free speech.

In Closing

In the US, the Supreme Court- the last word in judicial issues- has continually upheld the promise of anonymity. In decisions handed down, the justices have said things like, “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”

Internet privacy is getting harder and harder to come by. And as of now there is no way to remain 100% private- even Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the most infamous anonymous marketplace- was caught eventually.

There are several tools you can use to bolster your internet privacy and free speech. Disable or block cookies from being created while browsing. Use a VPN to create an encrypted tunnel for your internet traffic (a VPN like LiquidVPN that keeps no logs whatsoever of your traffic is your best bet). And remember that your mobile device is not immune from releasing sensitive personal information (have you ever read the permissions that apps ask for? You can use these apps to protect yourself).

Why then, are netizens still fighting to remain anonymous and prevent mass surveillance online? Have we, as a society, become so fearful of the possibility of terrorism that we are willing to surrender our identities and free speech? Has the government successfully sold us the notion of the constant threat of the terrorism? I sure hope not.

Anonymity promises fairness, honesty, and provides a check against the powerful by virtue of true free speech. And as John McAfee puts it;

In anonymous discussions, issues of race, gender, social status and other factors, which are generally judged, disappear.  What people perceive is a person’s intelligence, humor, eloquence etc.  People therefore feel, and are treated, more equal.

feature image courtesy of Thierry Gregorius 

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