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Privacy in Uncertain Political Times

privacy politics

Like other human rights, the viability of our right to privacy is always subject to the current legal, political, and media weather. There are seasons more fair than others, and days when it feels as though a major storm is on the horizon. Though we cannot forecast the future with certainty, we can look for those early warning signs which suggest we act prudently to protect our values. It has always been up to us to take social responsibility for our privacy through education, public advocacy, and political mobilization. This is not new, but it is worth repeating, especially when the political climate appears poised for a radical shift.

The conclusion of the 2016 U.S. presidential election feels to many like a watershed event. Many citizens and journalists are concerned about the views, authoritarian ideology, and judgment of president-elect Trump. How might our laws be changed? Who might be impacted?

In terms of privacy, we can ask many probing questions or ourselves and our government. How does the consolidation of power in the executive branch mean for those concerned about surveillance? Are there tools we can use to try and preserve our privacy even in the face of  governmental forces? Is the U.S. alone in its attempt to balance national security against citizen privacy?

Trump Presidency Elevates Privacy Concerns

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden delivered a wake-up call to the world in 2013 when he unveiled the extent of the U.S.’ surveillance capabilities. Though his revelations may not have fully accomplished a sea-change in privacy-conscious behavior or public policy on privacy protection, they did deliver a sobering look at the technology behind the U.S.’ massively invasive global reach.

For many privacy experts, president-elect Trump is not the sort of leader they would like to see involved in the NSA. While campaign rhetoric is often at odds with presidential action, a recent article in the Guardian references Trump’s own comments about government-level surveillance: “I wish I had that power,” he said while talking about the hack of Democratic National Committee emails. “Man, that would be power.”

The article goes on to highlight the extent to which the checks on government surveillance designed to provide privacy protections remains largely under the discretion of the executive branch of the U.S government. The concern of many privacy experts is how much of that power is regulated by secret executive order. As John Napier Tye, a former state department whistleblower tells The Guardian:

“Trump could revise the executive order as he pleases. And since it’s all done in secret, unless you have someone willing to break the law to tell you that it happened, it’s not clear the public will ever learn it did. Consider that even now, the American people still do not know how much data on US persons the NSA actually collects.”

What makes all of this so troubling is how little specific information the Trump administration has provided cybersecurity pros and lawmakers. It leaves legal analysts to sift through an ambiguous record on the issues. An article in Lexology titled “The Cyber President? What To Expect From the Trump Administration On Cybersecurity And Privacy” highlights many of Trump’s past public positions in an attempt to decode the president-elect’s potential path. Perhaps the most insightful recommendation in the piece is that privacy advocates

“keep an eye out for activity from Mr. Trump’s transition team. The experts he taps to advise on policy issues, and the people he chooses to lead important government agencies such as the FBI, FTC and FCC, and the Commerce and Justice Departments, could have a dramatic influence on our domestic policies and international posture in the areas of cybersecurity and privacy.”

A considerable portion of the online public is less willing to wait-and-see, according to VentureBeat writer Paul Sawers. In the weeks following Trump’s victory, encrypted email service ProtonMail and encrypted messaging app Signal surged in popularity, as did select VPN (Virtual Private Network) providers in Canada and the U.S. Though there is some ambiguity about whether the rise is due to legitimate fear or simply as a reaction to an elevation in the profile of privacy and security issues, it is an indication that an increasing number of citizens are not complacent about their privacy.

Is Surveillance Growing Globally?

The U.S. is not alone in the apparent increase in surveillance power. Governments around the world see themselves in a race to protect their citizens from a wide range of tech-savvy terrorists and criminal enterprises, and have stepped up efforts to prioritize warrantless surveillance over civil liberties.

In France, the parliament passed a bill in 2015 designed to give intelligence agencies the authority to tap phones and email without judicial oversight, among other profoundly intrusive powers. A UK bill passed by both parliamentary houses, “requires UK ISPs to store user internet history for up to a year, and to decrypt data as needed for police investigations.” Known informally as “the snoopers’ charter,” the bill has been condemned by Joseph Cannataci, the UN’s special rapporteur on privacy.

According to nongovernmental agency Freedom House, this trend towards increased surveillance and governmental intrusion into our right to privacy is real. Freedom online appears to be on the decline, and governmental targeting of messaging and social media has also been on the rise. From the NPR article by Alina Selyukh:

“The report’s scope covers the experiences of some 88 percent of the world’s Internet users. And of all 65 countries reviewed, Internet freedom in 34 — more than half — has been on a decline over the past year. Particular downturns were marked in Uganda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador and Libya. Facebook users were arrested in 27 countries, more than any other app or platform. And such arrests are spreading. Since June of last year, police in 38 countries have arrested people for what they said on social media — surpassing even the 21 countries, where people were arrested for what they published on more traditional platforms like blogs and news sites.”

Despite this evidence, there’s no reason us to turn our back on the democratic fight for the preservation of our human right to privacy. One of the greatest cures for feelings of anxiety and uncertainty is action.

Resources for Privacy Advocates

In an unpredictable political climate, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. There are privacy resources available and many journalists who are covering our privacy problem, including Cecilia Kang at the New York Times, Brian Fung at the Washington Post, Andy Greenberg at Wired, and April Glaser at Recode.

And if you’re new to promoting privacy, welcome. Now is a great time to reflect on what privacy means to you.  Now is a great time to put your privacy awareness into practice.

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