The War Against Privacy

In the May-June 1993 issue of Wired Magazine, an article on a group of mathematicians advocating a radical, libertarian, cryptographic philosophy appeared on the front cover. The group of scientists called themselves the “Cypherpunks.” By 1996, their political-scientific philosophy had developed into a populace movement against government intrusions into the private lives of individuals. We should also be reminded that one of the first voices to speak on the subject of government surveillance into the private lives of individuals was George Orwell’s work 1984. Apparently, the Cypherpunks picked up the gavel and took it further. It is also important to remember, that it was President Ronald Reagan and his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or “Star Wars”) which was proposed as a missile defense system intended to protect the US from attack by ballistic strategic nuclear weapons (intercontinental and submarine-launched) that actually gave birth to “Big Brother.” He made the public announcement of his brain-child in 1983 and established the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization to oversee the SDI. And although this initiative is used to fight terrorists even today, no one ever thought it would be used to spy on individual Americans, other countries, governments, politicians or corporations.

It seems that the war against privacy really starts with people’s belief in the human right to privacy and the protection of that right under law. A cursory review of the US Constitution shows that it does “not” contain an explicit explanation to privacy per se (albeit the Fourth Amendment makes reference to privacy). However, the Bill of Rights (a similar version of which appears in over 150 countries throughout the world) does stipulate rights to the privacy of beliefs. However, the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that mass surveillance programs violate the obligations of states. Further, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 12) clearly states that we all have a right to privacy and to be free from unjustified and unreasonable intrusions into our lives. What the Constitution of the United States does explicitly state is privacy of the home against demands that it be used to house soldiers, privacy of the person and possessions against unreasonable searches, and the privilege against self-incrimination which also provides protection for the privacy of personal information.  As a result of gray areas in these statutes, a bevy of important law suits and groundbreaking US Supreme Court decisions have been rendered in the US over the past eighty years (i.e., Meyer vs Nebraska (1923), Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965), Stanley vs. Georgia (1969), Ravin vs. State (1975), Kelly vs. Johnson (1976), Moore vs. East Cleveland (1977), Cruzan vs. Missouri Department of Health (1990) and Lawrence vs. Texas (2003) are some of the most important).

Over the last three decades, however, the use of computer technology to invade the privacy of individuals has increased. It seems that state-corporate entities want to have access to “all” plain text, telephone conversations, data stored on computer hard drives, internet conversation and traffic, and any proxy speech or documentation. As many of us know, when we surf the Internet, websites collect information about us such as usernames, email addresses, location information, interests, access patterns, and navigating behavior. This information allows them to create profiles and much of this information is collected by search engines. Further, the use of these profiles is to create customized services of user preferences and to make money through marketing efforts. This in turn, attracts advertisers for target advertising and dynamic pricing. This purpose represents a privacy threat when the user’s express consent to this data is not obtained because the collection of data should be with knowledge and explicit consent. More important, within the realm of anonymous communications, end users are interested in preserving their privacy while web sites want to know more about them.

As a result, super surveillance programs to access this information secretly and anonymously have been developed particularly those approved during the Bush administration. Now, regardless of the argument of these entities concerning whether this action is a violation of privacy concerning the protection of personal information or not, people around the world see this action as spying and are “circling the wagons” around the mantra that “an observed life is not a free life” – a core human value. They believe that governments, the state, and corporations should not be recording their emails or listening in on their telephone conversations.

Consequently, a group of privacy advocates ( or “privacy freedom fighters”) with an arsenal of highly sophisticated mathematical and cryptographic computer programs and tools are fighting back. Their philosophical platform is to standup for the rights of human beings and provide the opportunity for them to live their lives as they see fit without regulation by the state. More important, this movement has led to a change in philosophy by some of the very computer experts that create these super surveillance computer programs for these state-corporate entities. We know all too well about the contributions of Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Jacob Applebaum but there is a cadre of other mathematicians and scientists waiting in the wings such as Christopher Soghoian, Amir Taaki, Vitalik Buterin, Janislave Malahov, Cody Wilson and Pablo Martin that are struggling in this conflict that are not so well known. And, there are hacking groups springing up all over the world. Not only are they turning the tables on these entities and secretly hacking their databases for information to use against them for their criminal and unethical activities but they are also developing encryption tools that everyday people can use to avoid surveillance. Even some of the scientists at CERN are developing web tools to protect the privacy of users.

As one of the freedom fighters so adequately put it, “the force of authority is derived from violence, one must acknowledge that with cryptography no amount of violence will ever solve the math problem…if they find an encrypted message, it doesn’t matter the authority behind everything they do, they cannot solve the math problem.” Over the past fifty years, we have witnessed the war against poverty, the war against drugs, the war against terrorism, and now we have another – the war against privacy.

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