Welcome to the world of Big Brother: where even the most private of activities—like stalking your ex, your looped playlist of “One Direction,” and that solo activity that makes every mother want to sew her eyes shut for eternity—are monitored and sold to the highest bidder.
Such a world was predicted in George Orwell’s “1984,” which has been proven to be less a novel and more of a 21st century reality. With whistle blowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, we have become increasingly aware of the hungry eyes of our government.
It’s for our safety, they say.
This was the basis for their (the government’s) tapping of phones of any person they believe to be within three degrees of separation from a member of ISIS.
Sounds convincing, except for the fact that, thanks to Facebook, we are all within 3.5 degrees of separation.
A small world it is.
And it’s getting smaller, or so it seems.
With President Trump pressing for even less privacy restrictions than were previously imposed during the Obama administration, a world of private searching and private communication is becoming as small as the possibility of finding that infamous needle in the piling haystack.
Our unfortunate shift to a Republican administration makes it very likely that the fate of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government’s primary telecom regulator, will fall into the same hands. And that alone could mean the end of rules designed to protect privacy and individual choice made on the internet.
Under Trump, “the FCC will be a lot more focused on getting government out of the way,” said Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a think-tank that opposes overt regulation.
If the Trump FCC whacks away at existing regulations as though they were overgrown, undesirable weeds, cable and phone companies are going to find it a lot easier to mine our browsing habits and other information for data that they can use to target ads.
According to the Associated Press, Verizon, for example, is eager to build a digital-ad business to compete with Google and Facebook. But recent privacy rules force them to ask customers for permission before using their data.
Those companies have made no secret of their dislike for this requirement, hence their support for Trump and his disdain for government involvement in the private sector.
To some, it may seem like a futile task to prevent the profit-driven agenda of the most powerful entities that exist in our world today—the U.S. government and the telecommunications industry—to others, though, it is worth the fight.
Since Trump took office, there has been a surge in activists, journalists and everyday citizens organizing (and attending) get-togethers (i.e. CryptoParties) to learn how to anonymously use the internet as best they can.
CryptoParties are a decentralized, global initiative to introduce basic tools for protecting privacy, anonymity, and overall security on the internet to the general public.
The idea was conceived in the wake of the Australian Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, which angered privacy advocates due to the fact that it would force carriers and internet service providers (ISPs) to preserve stored communications and hand them over when requested by certain domestic authorities (such as the Australian Federal Police) and other foreign countries.
Now, the parties are just as popular in the U.S. as they were in Australia.
At a recent Cryptoparty in Harlem, which gets together every month, Matt Mitchell taught his guests about “circumvention technologies.”
One way to make your technologies—such as your Smartphones and internet browsers—less vulnerable, according to Mitchell, is to use Signal App, which allows users to use data instead of cell towers to make voice calls and send text messages.
The 4.5 star (free) app uses end-to-end encryption. It supports group messaging, and photo and video attachments. In a recent review in The Intercept, Signal is a better choice than WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook.
One reason, he argued, is that it is an open source–meaning the app’s code is freely available for experts to inspect for flaws or back doors in its security.
Another thing that makes Signal unique is its business model: There is none.
In stark contrast to Facebook and Google, which make their money selling ads, Open Whisper Systems—the creators of Signal—is entirely supported by grants and donations. With no advertising to target, the company intentionally stores as little user data as possible.
Another circumvention technology is Tor browser, a browser that allows users to anonymously browse the internet.
“Tor” is an acronym for The Onion Router; the onion refers to the layers you go through to disguise your identity.
An NPR article explains the trajectory of Tor: When you connect to a site through Tor, your computer goes through a series of other computers and bounces around anonymously until it reaches a destination.
“No one will be able to see you’re the one visiting those websites, and the websites will not be able to see you either,” says Runa Sandvik, a privacy and security researcher. “They will only be able to see that you’re using Tor to do something.”
A common argument posed to those who advocate for their privacy is not unlike the argument posed by a needy significant other: “But if you got nothing to hide…”
The truth is, there’s a lot more than criminal activity that inspires users to keep their technical behavior anonymous.
Tor, for example, is a valuable tool for Chinese dissidents who can’t access sites like Twitter.
It was also a valuable tool during the Arab Spring.
“We saw that the numbers were skyrocketing,” Sandvik says. “For example in Iran, Tor usage went from 7,000 users in 2010 to 40,000 users two years later.”
In Syria, the number of Tor users grew from 600 to 15,000 in just two years, she says.
Though these technologies do not guarantee 100 percent privacy, it is a step that consumers can take to keep their technology’s activity out of immediate view of those who tend to focus their efforts on the easy and insecure.