If you live in America, a very significant change to online privacy happened the other day, as a result of some political jiggery-pokery I won’t get into here. A bill called CISA was attached as a rider to a bill that was bound to pass; that meant CISA passed, too, and now, long story short, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) is allowed to share your personal information (name, address, and all your online activity, including browsing history, your emails, and everything else) with any government, law enforcement, or intelligence agency who requests it. Those agencies do not need a warrant to make this request. They don’t need any reason at all. Theoretically, they can say, “Give us the records for 10,000 people,” and they can troll through them until they find something criminal, or interesting, or suspicious, or maybe they just want to start a file on you in case you end up becoming a person of interest someday. Yes, it has the potential to be that creepy.
The most important takeaway from all this is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Don’t worry if you don’t know what a VPN is right now. If you know how to use a computer in the most basic ways, you are smart enough to figure out how a VPN works.
It can get a lot worse, too. While I don’t want to rile people up unnecessarily, the fact is, there are basically no consequences any more for violating your online privacy, because you don’t have any. Should you panic? No. You may very well notice no changes. But at the very least, you have the right to know.
I don’t want to get caught up right now in who to blame for this situation. I do a lot of reading and writing about digital privacy and online surveillance, and for a few years now I’ve felt that this was inevitable. Not only were they going to find a way to make it legal to see all your data sooner or later, but they’ve actually already been doing it all along. We know this because of what Edward Snowden revealed about online surveillance, as well as the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement that has been in place for years.
The government can know you are in financial trouble before your business partner does. The government can know your marriage is in trouble before your spouse does. The government can know you are gay before your parents do.
So, for the average shmoe, nothing is going to change. They’ve already been able to spy on you from the time you liked your very first silly cat video. This just makes it easier for them.
Why am I concerned? Because there is a lot of potential for some very bad stuff to happen down the road. Personally, my biggest worry is that digital information can be used to single out people or groups for their political beliefs, and subject them to some form of persecution or prosecution because of them. There is kind of a precedent for this throughout world history, you see, so don’t think for a moment that it can’t happen here just because it’s modern America. Ever heard of Nixon’s enemies list? How about the time J. Edgar Hoover ordered the mass arrests of 6,000 people whom he suspected of being Communists?
Governments can peek at the private correspondence of the opposition, environmental groups can be labeled as “terrorists”, Muslims can be spied on because they are Muslims, activists of all stripes can be surveilled just because. The government can know you are in financial trouble before your business partner does. The government can know your marriage is in trouble before your spouse does. The government can know you are gay before your parents do. The government can know everything about you that it is possible to know, before you choose to have that information known. And because knowledge is power, that means they have significant power over you… far more than was ever given to them by any democratic means. It’s power they simply took, and that should piss you off.
Human nature being what it is, there is always going to be the potential for misuse of technology; and if the potential for something to happen exists, eventually it will, in some form. There are certain people who, once in positions of power, would have no qualms about starting electronic dossiers on every single person in the US… just in case. We need to take steps to protect ourselves from those people.
Keep in mind that most of what the government knows about you is stuff you’ve already put out there on Facebook or other social media. You may not even have an issue with that. You may believe, fallaciously, that just because you’re not a criminal, you have nothing to hide. (Privacy is a huge component of freedom of expression, as I’ve explained in this blog post right here.)
You may, however, have a bigger issue with the fact that every single email you write or receive is being read, at first by a computer, later by a human, if certain keywords or patterns were detected. Is that definitely happening? I don’t know. Is it legal for that to happen now? Yes, it is.
There are steps you can take to keep your digital information private. Many of them are outlined in this excellent Reddit post, which I recommend you read even if you don’t understand most of it. The most important takeaway from all this is to use a VPN. Don’t worry if you don’t know what a VPN is right now. If you know how to use a computer in the most basic ways, you are smart enough to figure out how a VPN works. There are free options, and there are paid ones that cost $10 a month or less. We can probably expect to see a boom in VPN services now that CISA is in effect. Take some time, educate yourself, and learn how it all works. You’ll be better off for it. If knowledge is power, it’s time for you to start taking power back.
In 2014, the UN passed Resolution 68/167, which upholds the right of all people to privacy in the digital age. CISA is a gross violation of that right. It’s not going to make us any safer. The vast majority of so-called “terrorist communication” is not happening via encrypted channels, but right out in the open… and the people who are supposed to be catching these things often miss it anyway. They missed the attack on the Bataclan in Paris, after all, but instead of taking responsibility for that, they’d rather blame Snowden.
I know you’re busy, and this information might seem overwhelming. I know you really don’t need another thing to be afraid of right now. I know you would rather just carry on as if nothing had happened, because the alternative–acknowledging the true depth of what our government has just done to us–is too frightening. Again, I am not urging panic. Again, you very well may notice nothing different. I simply believe we all owe it to ourselves to learn as much as we can about how to protect our privacy.
Remember, knowledge is power, and they have just seized a significant amount of power over us. Learning is the best way to begin taking it back.
Featured image credit: Flickr user Michell Zappa, “PRIVACY: @chassyofcricket” via Creative Commons