Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
To say the the internet has changed how we communicate and share information would be an incredible understatement. The ability for anyone to easily communicate with anyone else in the world is now a reality. Networked communication, however, is not without its shortcomings. The ubiquity of the internet as a communications platform has given rise to a surveillance state. The goals of any particular state in surveilling our communication may differ, but the common thread is the accumulation and filtering of the vast amounts of information transmitted each day over the internet.

The goal of Freedom Box is a modest one: to enable private conversations online. However, as the purported anonymity of the internet vanishes and the surveillance state becomes more sophisticated and pervasive, this simple goal becomes all the more urgent. The ability of people to communicate free of government surveillance will be more important in authoritarian states, but the availability of the tools enabling secure communication will nevertheless be important in all societies, regardless of whether they are actually used. Whether citizens will take advantage of secure communication tools will depend on the political climate and the probability of state persecution. Whether citizens should be capable of communicating free of government surveillance, however, should not be in question.

The use of commercial intermediaries (i.e. Twitter, Facebook etc.) to facilitate our communication exposes it to interception and surveillance. In most cases we don't care. The convenience and ease-of-use that these commercial services provide is well worth the price we pay in terms of lack of privacy; where we have nothing to hide we should have nothing to worry about. This is the natural response for most people. The vast majority of information we share on the internet does not concern the government and so we are not particularly concerned that the government has the ability to take a look. For the vast majority of communication most people will therefore not be willing to sacrifice convenience for security. However, where freedom from surveillance is desired, the desire for convenience is secondary to the desire for security.

As dystopian as it may seem to have a government capable of surveilling almost the entirety of our interpersonal communications, most people won't care about this if they aren't breaking any law. In countries like the United States, where subversive groups only occupy the fringe and have constitutional rights to free speech, the primary proponents and users of Freedom Box will therefore be those who seek to avoid law enforcement: content pirates and drug dealers. In countries like China, however, where the state more actively and forcefully fights against the transmission of subversive information, Freedom Box will have a much broader appeal.

The ability to transmit and receive information securely is an essential for the dissemination of subversive information. Power, no matter where it resides, will seek to suppress subversion of its own power. In a country like China people fear reprisal by the state if they create or spread subversive information. Without the ability to securely communicate, it is therefore difficult for subversive actors to organize, spread their ideas and gain followers. Tools that allow people to communicate with one another securely and without surveillance by the state are therefore essential to the destabilization of totalitarian regimes.

Where people are afraid of creating or disseminating subversive information they will be afraid of engaging in subversive action. The ability of the state to surveil communication between subversive elements allows it to act preemptively, before it reaches a critical mass. By arresting those who seek to organize against the state, the state can also chill any future subversive activity. By protecting the privacy of one-to-one communication on the net, a device like Freedom Box has the potential to create a substantial impediment for those in authority attempting to suppress the spread of subversive ideas and information.

-- DarrenHaber - 07 Mar 2013

There seem to me to be a few problematic unexamined assumptions:

  1. People would only use privacy-enhancing technology to escape criminal investigation or other state surveillance, not in order to protect their privacy from commercial surveillance;
  2. People like me, who already use the equivalent privacy-enhancing technologies, are likely to be engaged in illegal or "subversive" activities;
  3. People who are engaged in serious subversive or illegal activities haven't already got at least as good technology for secret and anonymous communication as we have, for putting in FreedomBox;
  4. Most people in the world have the same attitudes about privacy you observe in the people you know, so that it is unnecessary to present any actual data about people's attitudes, here in this society or anywhere at all, because mere assertion based on personal experience is just as good.

I think all of those unexamined assumptions are false. Revision would make the essay stronger by ending dependence on these false assumptions. I think a different and clearer argument necessarily results.



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r6 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:39 - IanSullivan
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