Your Privacy is Your Individuality

I have been on a cypherpunk binge as of late. My interest in the sci-fi genre cyberpunk made me stumble upon the similarly named movement which was born in the early 90's of the internet. They advocate privacy in the digital age through the use of strong encryption.

I care about this stuff. So I've decided to stop using the services that use my private data to sell me ads (Facebook, Google etc). I've also been setting myself up with knowledge-less passwords and PGP encryption. You can now send me emails encrypted with my public key. 🔐

I'm doing this because I don't want to see ads based on my passive activities online. I'm doing this because I want to keep my personal life as private as possible. I'm also doing this because I believe that privacy is necessary for a free and fair society.

The Argument

When I bring this up with people I get responses that resolve to the following quote:

You should only need privacy if you have something to hide!

This argument claims that if I am trying to keep my activities private then it is because I have something to hide. If I am trying to hide something then I must be guilty of it. If I am guilty of it then it must be criminal or embarrassing.

There are some flaws in this argument that need to be addressed. Some of them can be resolved with simple counter-arguments:

Do you leave your front door unlocked and open?

Do you shower in front of an open window?

Do you say what your salary is to anyone who asks?

Do you tell people your sexual fantasies?

Unfortunately these simple statements don't get to the heart of the matter.

It's vital to understand that privacy is a fundamental component of your individuality; as much as your thoughts, your feelings, and your personal interests. This is especially relevant today because of the nature of our world.

We Are Digital

For most of us our lives play out in a virtual reality alongside a physical reality. We obsess about the best filter for our photo of avocado toast. We meet soulmates by swiping right. We communicate with everyone on social networks, even people we see everyday. We dump hundreds of likes, tweets, comments, searches, photos, opinions, queries, and purchases on the internet.

In the past privacy was implict and it cocooned our individuality and our security. To keep our privacy we closed a door, or kept the volume of our voice to a minimum, or burned we the piece of paper.

Now, as digital beings, we are smearing our digital presence with our private individuality and internet companies are mopping it all up to sell to the highest bidder. Did you ever browse for a product, and then see ads start following you around? Has your friend ever told you to clear your cookies so you get a better deal on a flight? Have you ever looked at instagram's recommended feed and seen photos of things you just happened to find interesting?

You may argue that you like suggestions that interest you. You may have met someone or discovered a hobby that you wouldn't have found otherwise. It's a good argument and I can't deny that I haven't discovered things online this way. But what is the cost?

The Price Of Privacy

As a software engineer I have seen first hand the type of technology used to track people online. I've even helped to build some of it (though I don't do it anymore).

One method is to harvest all the interests and browsing habits you perform (even down to where your mouse moves) and then sort you into a bucket. This bucket is full of people exactly like you. They enjoy the same things. They dislike the same things. They have the same opinions. They dislike this food that your dislike and love this city that you love too. Advertisers then target these buckets with things the bucket will enjoy or will likely buy.

At this stage of the process you can argue that your individuality is lost because, as much as the world wants you to think it, you are no longer unique. You are in a bucket with a hundred thousand people just like you. But that was always true.

But these companies are trying to sell you shit. In the long run that is harmless.

But what about the governments and future governments who can use similar methods to group you into buckets? What if they start to wield this farming of our individualities to manipulate or supress us? We've already seen a taste of what can this does during the 2016 US election and the Brexit vote. What happens when they fine tune that even more?

What happens if an ISIS or Nazi-like state gets hold of that information for their citzens? Imagine how easy it would be for Nazi Germany to find all their Jewish or gay citizens if they had the amount of data we have today? Can you imagine how hard it is for gay people in Syria right now to hide the fact when their browsing habits can let slip at any moment?

Those are some extreme cases. Let's think more realistically. Let's think about when our data is misconstrued. Poorly interpretted data could prevent you from getting a loan or a visa. Poorly stored data can be stolen and your identity with it. Poorly encrypted data could reveal your cancer diagnosis to the people who you'd rather tell in person.

That's not all. Hackers are hitting larger and larger targets. The May 2017 NHS hack targeted an infrastructure that should have had good security practices but it didn't. If they can hit a target as big as the NHS, how easy is it going to be for a them to target and harvest the data of a single person?

Privacy Is A Right

Phil Zimmerman's original reason for writing PGP, a standard of encrypted communication, is because privacy has always been an implict human right. There is a risk that we become complacent in excerising that right because the internet wasn't built to allow us that privacy.

If that happens then "no privacy" becomes the status quo and the vultures will swoop in eradicate it from law.

In order for our society to maintain its individuality we need to continue to exercise our right to privacy and reject attempts to remove it.

Do These Things Now

Talk is nothing without action. I've compiled a list of simple things that you can start doing now to protect your right to privacy. Doing these things has the added side effect of safeguarding yourself online.


Technically Savvy

The suggestions above will improve your online privacy and security but they're not going to help in the long run. Learning how to do the following things will help a great deal.


I'd like to end by addressing an argument that is, again, almost consistently brought up in defense of preventing encryption and privacy:

But Criminals can use these technologies, so we should ban them!

Let me draw attention to the second word in that argument: criminals. Criminals will always break or circumvent the law because they're criminals. They already do and always will use encryption to secure their communications. You can't remove content from the web and technologies like PGP are already spread around the world in both digital and paper form. Making privacy illegal will not stop them. So when Amber Rudd claims that whatsapp can be used by criminals and thus we should ban it, then all they'll do is move to the next encrypted method of communication.

Restricting the liberty of law-abiding citizens will only affect law-abiding citizens.

If you've been trying to improve you digital privacy, or you have any tips to share, leave a comment below.

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