The Internet Shall Set You Free

The Digital Dilemma

Photo: English PEN

Photo: English PEN

The revelations of mass surveillance have caused privacy and security to seem antithetical in the online world. In the first article in the series “The Internet Shall Set You Free” Alice Olsson explores why it doesn’t matter if you have nothing to hide.

The Internet is a double-edged sword. It helps people all over the world communicate and collaborate; online services like Twitter have proven instrumental in connecting aspiring authors to editors in the publishing business, as well as protestors to freedom fighters in uprisings against authoritarian regimes. But the World Wide Web was originally created for military use and has in recent years been revealed as a means for government authorities to spy on their citizens—monitoring, censoring, and controlling communication.

The Internet is perplexing because it is virtual, and what you do online may seem to have very little connection to the physical world. It provides a false sense of anonymity; “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” as Peter Steiner famously wrote in his 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker. Whilst it is possible to assume false identities or use fake names online, the website that sends you the information you’re viewing also receives information about your IP address—your identity. Wherever you go on the Web, your activity can be, and is, traced. There are different kinds of online activity however. Posts in an open forum or comments on a news article are public, and can be viewed by anyone with Internet access. Emails, on the other hand, are a different kind of communication—private rather than public.

The last year has seen a wave of revelations regarding mass surveillance programs carried out by security and intelligence agencies, most notoriously in the US and the UK. Since June 2013 The Washington Post and The Guardian have published a number of classified documents from the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the British equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). The information, primarily leaked by former NSA employee Edward Snowden, reveals the NSA to have direct access to the servers of tech companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Skype. The documents further expose how the companies have cooperated with the NSA to circumvent privacy controls. GCHQ, co-funded by and cooperating with the NSA, have similar programs, for example tapping into large fibre optic cables carrying massive amounts of Internet and telephone traffic.

These government authorities have been proven to monitor and record the online activities of their own citizens as well as people all over the world. In February last year alone the NSA recorded 3 billion pieces of information from American citizens. Also private correspondences are being intercepted, and the agencies are reading and storing information from private email exchanges. The NSA’s criteria for what is being stored include evidence of crime, but also foreign intelligence information and any other data that could aid the agency’s electronic surveillance. The information is stored in databases searchable by name, email, IP-address, region, and language. No one is anonymous online.

The problem with privacy
One common argument defending the intelligence agencies performing mass surveillance is that people have to be prepared to assume responsibility for what they say online just as in the real world. However, this reasoning is problematic and does not address the real issue of the debate. Firstly, people are already being held accountable for their activities online; more cyber-crimes are being reported in the UK than ever before. Secondly, the argument assumes what you write online to be inherently different from what you write in your personal notebook. And it is—“from a legal point of view [tweeting] is a form of publishing and people are legally responsible,” says Robert Sharp, Head of Campaigns and Communications at English PEN. But this is not where governments are over-stepping boundaries. The person who tweets may not always be thinking about the consequences, but is aware that he or she is making a statement anyone can read. Someone writing an email, on the other hand, rather considers the exchange a private conversation.

Imagine you are having dinner with your family, talking to a friend over coffee, or meeting with a business partner. As the conversation is private you might part with information you wouldn’t want to share with others: your own or someone else’s medical condition, details about your children, or information of commercial value. Now imagine that a government official joins your table, or casually slips into the meeting room. Would you feel equally comfortable sharing this information, knowing that your words are being listened to and recorded by someone else?

Our right to privacy is protected under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, as well as a number of other treaties and conventions. Yet it has actively been infringed upon by intelligence services in signatory countries like the US and the UK. After pressure from writers and artists as well as leading technology companies, the UN adopted the resolution “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age” in December 2013. Previous to the resolution over 170,000 people, including five Nobel laureates, signed an appeal by Writers Against Mass Surveillance. The appeal noted that the human right to integrity “has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes,” and that “surveillance violates the private sphere and compromises freedom of thought and opinion.”

Writers Against Mass Surveillance are not alone in emphasising this relationship between privacy and free speech. Nobel Prize Winner for Literature J.M. Coetzee spoke out: “Mass, untargeted surveillance is a clear attack on the creative freedoms guaranteed across the globe by innumerable international conventions.” The newly adopted UN resolution resonates this as it states that “unlawful or arbitrary surveillance and/or interception of communications […] violate the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.”

“But I have nothing to hide”
Mass surveillance is a clear infringement upon our right to privacy, but what does it have to do with free speech? In authoritarian regimes it can lend itself to forms of direct censorship or even political persecution, but in democratic surveillance states the effects may not be as clear. This is the focus of “Chilling Effects,” a report published by PEN American Centre in November last year. The report, which documents the findings of a survey among over 500 American writers, reveals that awareness of far-reaching surveillance programs are causing writers to engage in self-censorship. 28% reported that they have avoided social media activities, whilst 24% have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversation, and 16% have avoided writing or speaking about a topic entirely.

Our ability to exercise free speech thus depends on our right to privacy being protected. And the issue does not only concern writers, thinkers, or political dissidents. Some people argue that they aren’t concerned about mass surveillance as they have nothing to hide. But, as Tactical Technology Collective explain in their campaign to raise awareness about online security, “nothing to hide” is not the same thing as “everything to show.” Certain information you may want to keep private, even if there is nothing bad, wrong, or illegal about it: a serious illness, pregnancy, or details about family members dependent on you for security, for example. Furthermore, the collected data is stored, and what passes as illegal activity can change over time.

Eliminating online mass surveillance by creating an Internet where users are completely anonymous, and where information cannot be intercepted, seems like a solution. But this place already exists, and the Deep Web has problems of its own.

The complexity of control
The part of the Internet that is not or cannot be indexed by search engines, and thus not accessed through sites like Google and Yahoo!, is in terms of sheer volume of information many times greater than the Web as most people know it. The Deep Web can only be accessed through Deep Web browsers, which work by keeping the IP address unknown, and are freely available to everyone. The software takes less than three minutes to download and install. The complete anonymity provided by this part of the Internet is often used by law enforcement, journalists, and political dissidents. It can be used to keep documents safe, facilitate safe communication, and research sensitive topics.

However, the Deep Web is also the home of an expanding market of illegal services, such as drug trafficking, arms dealing, contract killings and child pornography. The guaranteed anonymity makes it difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement officials to address this criminal activity. Making the Internet lawless territory will thus not solve the problem of the opposing relationship between privacy and security online.

In a panel discussion at the Frontline Club in London in July 2011, philosopher Slavoj Žižek commented on the effects of confidential information recently made public by WikiLeaks. Foreshadowing the debate that would be sparked by Snowden’s revelations two years later, he claimed that not only was the organisation violating the rules, it was changing how we violate the rules. “[This] might be the most important thing you can do,” said Žižek. In a world of increasingly complex communication systems, it is crucial that we find a way to utilise the unique power of the Web to connect people without limiting free speech—and ultimately innovation and democratic progress. We need to rethink not only the rules, but how we interact with them. As Tactical Technology Collective argue, security and privacy need not be in opposition. In fact, giving up your privacy can make you less secure.

Alice Olsson is an English and Related Literature student and young human rights advocate. In September 2013 she became the first student to attend the PEN International Congress in Reykjavik.

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One thought on “The Internet Shall Set You Free

  1. Pingback: Letter from the Editor | University of York's English PEN Society

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