openDemocracyUK

Can we really be bothered to take back our privacy?

Is the best we can do really to download countless programs merely to slow down those spying on us? This is not only wrong on principle. It's also a lot of effort. People can't be bothered.

Dom Shaw
20 August 2014

Edward Snowden. Flickr/Rockefeller

Speaking via Google Hangouts from Russia on June 5th 2014, during a talk with Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder J.P. Barlow at the Personal Democracy Forum conference in New York City, Edward Snowden was all about the good news for what he likes to call ‘netizens’. That’s what we are now, you and I, ‘netizens’. Just using the greatest step forward in communication since Alexander Graham Bell was first put on hold, makes it so.

The advice and the watchword from Snowden and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are all about a discipline that first saw military use in the era of Julius Caesar - Cryptography.  The putative Emperor God favoured a standard substitution cipher to communicate with his generals which was considered quite innovative at the time and really boosted his capacity to outwit the enemy. But we all know what happened to Julius. An audacious rise up the ranks through judicious military strategy and a risible comb-over period before succumbing to hubris and failing to kick against the pricks of his rivals who stabbed him near the Theatre of Pompey (very sensitive area to be punctured) thus qualifying him as the very first post-mortem report. Apparently his death was mostly attributable to blood loss from multiple stab wounds. I like that ‘mostly’. As if his hay fever also played a major part in his demise. JFK’s fate was probably mostly down to his lactose intolerance.

The modern interpretation of cryptography of course is encryption.  The way we take back our privacy is apparently by obfuscating everything we do online. The Reset the Net campaigners freely admit all they are doing is promoting consumer encryption tools that make NSA surveillance harder and more expensive. Therefore, contrary to the conference strap line, you are not taking back your privacy; you are simply putting a price on it, forcing spooks to do a cost benefit analysis on breaking your codes.

Reset the Net has a privacy pack that is designed to slow the NSA and GCHQ down to a slow muddy trudge through your privacy rather than a joyful gambol through the open fields of your Facebook statuses and your online purchases from ‘Iamnotaspy.com.’

On your mobile, you are advised to download Chatsecure, Textsecure, Redphone and Cryptocat from…the Google Play store, respected guardians of your privacy with no record at all of compromising your data. Thunderbird and Enigmail will encrypt your email if you download them from Mozilla. It may also be possible to use Universal Encryption Managers from almost a thousand providers.

The Tor Network is recommended and before you download it, be sure to read their latest top security advisory about a ‘relay early’ traffic confirmation attack. Apparently, and who knew this could happen, unknown persons who probably thought the metadata of folks who use the Tor Network might be worthy of more attention that you naïve felons and cyber activists who use Firefox or Chrome, decided to make a special effort to find out what you were so all fired up to protect.

And here is where the real cost benefit analysis takes place on a purely personal level. Let us assume for a moment that the recommended browsers and software are not compromised by special teams of code monkeys set up to focus on them by virtue of their ubiquity amongst users who wish to conceal their data. Let us also assume that the authors of these instruments are not seduced into the ranks of GCHQ and the NSA or Chinese State Security to lead them by the hand through the back door portals of their arcane mysteries. Let us assume your eyelids are not already growing heavy at the thought of all that software downloading and round the back technology you are going to have to master in order to keep track of what the trackers are not keeping track of. Let us assume you give a flying cleft stick (early cryptography) about protecting your state-shaking hacktivism from detection.

Most of you are not doing that sort of thing. You are, in the main, and purely by statistical probability, not a member of Anonymous, not a paedophile, not a criminal laundering your drugs proceeds through a Cayman Island shell company operated by a Limited Liability Partnership through the UK where the Government has made it so very easy to hide your ill-gotten gains. Therefore, all this activity of camouflage and misdirection is all about a principle.

‘They shall not have my data, even if that data is mind-numbingly boring and mundane and nobody cares if I also bought ‘Gone Girl’ after the ‘The Anarchist Cookbook’.’

A noble and principled stand. There may well be some satisfaction in making yourself a target for more attention from those trawling the metadata only for them to discover that you are kinky for ‘Hello Kitty’ underwear and that you buy every Jo Nesbo novel, the second it becomes available.  But frankly, it just makes most of us tired at the very thought.

Part of me wants to stand up for the principle, knowing it is already a lost cause. But the other part of me, the part that really wants to get to the shops before I have to go to work again, simply despairs at the low ambition of such measures. It’s a pretty miserable level of attainment to know that all your efforts to anonymise your every action are only slowing up the process. That every vote to restrict the routine surveillance of every ‘netizen’ is always subverted by the gatekeepers of the latest technology, whatever quasi-democratic decision is made in the heavily bugged corridors of power. That, in the end, it is just too much effort to be anonymous and that the quid pro quo of using these bastard child technologies of Mr A G Bell Esq. is the absolute abandonment of privacy and the monetisation of your every online action.

We acquiesce through apathy and I really do understand how equally miserable a response that is. I’d really like to justify it by suggesting we all just give up trying and accept that we should never do anything online at all that we do not wish to be susceptible to snooping. That we should, like certain Russian intelligence oligarchs, revert to cash only transactions, Adler typewriters and dead letter drops in the park, even if all we are concealing is our dirty laundry bags with those ‘Hello Kitty’ drawers right at the bottom where no one can see. But I just can’t be bothered.


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