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Totally unbalanced power

"I don’t want to live in a society where everyone can be controlled, their data collected and stored, and then used for whatever purposes private companies want." Interview.

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One ton of illegal ivory confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, June 2015. One ton of illegal ivory confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, June 2015. Demotix/Richard Levine. All rights reserved. openDemocracy (oD): Could you introduce yourself and say a few words about how you ended up where you are?

Claudio Agosti: I am Claudio Agosti, from Italy. I am working on two projects. The one which I am talking about today is GlobaLeaks. I’ve been running this project for 5 years. Our NGO is dedicated to developing software to empower whistleblowing. This is why I switched, career-wise, from protecting computers to trying to protect users. My other engagement is with Tactical Tech, an NGO based in Berlin, where I work on data politics. This means understanding how user data is tracked and stored during its navigation on the Internet, in order to raise data protection awareness.

My background is in hacking, trying to penetrate systems and determine how to defend them. I worked as an IT consultant, and that’s where I realised the number of false assumptions people had regarding their internet use, particularly regarding data privacy.

I don’t want to live in a society where everyone can be controlled, their data collected and stored, and then used for whatever purposes private companies want. This is why I switched, career-wise, from protecting computers to trying to protect users. 

oD: Where do we stand in terms of finding the right balance between freedom and control? 

CA: At the moment, we are in a totally unbalanced situation, where both corporations and intelligence agencies wield unchecked power when it comes to your data. Regarding the power of intelligence agencies, I cannot explain to myself why most people think that if they sacrifice some kind of privacy, they can be more safe – maybe it’s from a Hollywood movie? What you’re doing is creating a superior, centralised power in your system which knows your every secret. I don’t think this is compatible with democracy. At the moment, we are in a totally unbalanced situation, where both corporations and intelligence agencies wield unchecked power when it comes to your data.

At the same time, we see that corporations are collecting much more data than intelligence agencies probably have. Corporations offer free services, based on a unilateral contract called Terms of Service. They say to you, ’I can do whatever I want with your data, you have practically no rights, and please read this 20-page legally worded document’. State surveillance is a big problem, but for me surveillance by corporations is even worse. A foreign company is going to be less accountable than a local police force. They can compile, correlate, aggregate all of your data and do whatever they want with it, including selling it.

We have a less malevolent perception of corporations than of secret services at the moment. I can understand someone saying that secret services can put you in jail, and Facebook cannot. But they can still do whatever they want with your data, on a scale much larger than states, considering the amount of data they have. Mass data collection by corporations is another way to unbalance the power distribution in our society. 

A tweet is only 140 bytes, but you have more than one thousand metadata associated with it. This means that the metadata, not the content, is really the asset. Facebook is, for example, compelling you to add more and more information to your posts – where you are, who you are with, what you are doing, how you are feeling. Plus the information about which posts you comment on or share. These products are designed exactly to extract the most metadata. They are used to study how users behave.

It gets scarier if you consider that for many people, social media is the entry point for making up their minds and learning about any issue today. Think about Facebook’s ‘experiment’ last year to influence the mood of users by changing which type of stories they see. So a foreign company will be able to feed you whichever information it wants, with zero accountability, since you are not a citizen of their country and it doesn’t follow your country’s law, and your relationship is guided only by a unilateral and obscure contract. How does that make you feel? ’I can do whatever I want with your data, you have practically no rights, and please read this 20-page legally worded document’.

oD: While there have been a few high profile whistleblowers, particularly in intelligence agencies or banks, there doesn’t seem to have been the expansion of everyday whistleblowing we might have expected. Why is that?

CA: There are a lot of instances of whistleblowing which have resulted in the necessary corrective action being taken, but they have tended to be quite context specific and have certainly not received the amount of attention that Snowden’s revelations did.

Our focus with GlobaLeaks is precisely on this, this local whistleblowing. We have developed a framework which can be used to cover different kinds of whistleblowing needs. We have investigative journalists using it, alongside organisations such as Transparency International and one fighting the wildlife poaching! One week ago, for example, one of the main ivory poachers was tracked and arrested thanks to WildLeaks, a platform used to monitor the behaviour of poachers and the market of smuggled ivory in Africa.

But more generally, the expansion of whistleblowing behaviour has also been stalled by cultural barriers. In the Anglo-Saxon world, internal whistleblowing is a relatively accepted practice, with a legal framework and networks of lawyers to protect whistleblowers. In Mediterranean countries, such as Italy, whistleblowing tends to be associated with snitching. We’ve been fighting to introduce a law that affords protection to whistleblowers. We believe this is the best way to address corruption... and we have some problems with corruption in Italy as you may know.

oD: What sort of reception do you get from politicians in these efforts? Do they understand what it’s about?

CA: We are not the only ones working on this, there’s a few other organisations working with us. Politicians can be quite receptive, but besides the cultural concerns I talked about before, there are some constitutional and ethical concerns as well. Whistleblowing, for me, is for people or groups who want to speak out in the public interest.

For example, empowering any one other than the police force to carry out investigations, as a whistleblower might, would be completely unconstitutional in Italy. So a key challenge is to define adequately the boundaries of what constitutes good and safe whistleblowing. In totalitarian regimes, spying on your neighbour and reporting him for unlawful behaviour would have been considered a form of whistleblowing. We have to be very careful not to empower this kind of behaviour, which destroys the social tissue.

Whistleblowing, for me, is for people or groups who want to speak out in the public interest and could find themselves in danger because of it. We need to make sure they can rely on the help of a journalist or a lawyer, or any other entity that can help transform this information into action.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.
About the authors

Claudio Agosti is a self-taught hacker who since the late 90ties has gradually become a techno-political activist as technology has begun to interfere with society and human rights. In the last decades, he worked on whistleblower protection with GlobaLeaks, advocated against corporate surveillance, and founded "facebook tracking exposed." He is a research associate in UvA, DATACTIVE team, vice president of the Hermer Center and OTF fellow 2017 with CodingRights.

David Krivanek is an Associate Editor of openDemocracy, and edits the digitaLiberties debate. He was previously editor of Can Europe Make It?, and currently works for an international organisation in Beirut.

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