On the digital technologies and usage habits required to protect the freedom of opinion

On the value and dangers of having an opinion

Before taking Professor Moglen’s course, I paid very little attention to my own digital footprint. I wasn’t doing anything criminal – I thought to myself – and so I had nothing to worry about. It did not occur to me what disturbing assumption went into the making of that statement. Namely, that it was Okay for my thoughts and opinions to be monitored, for I was a good citizen after all. What if one day I seized to be a good citizen in the eyes of the state? What, then?

The year 2011 marked a year of significant political unrest in my home country of Bahrain as protestors gathered to demand greater political freedoms and economic justice. My classmate Zahra lost her father who was tortured to death in one of Bahrain’s prisons for his work in the demonstrations. Another classmate Sara didn’t see her father for 5 years as he was sent to jail for treating the wounds of injured protestors.

It ought to be self-evident that the struggle for justice to persons hinges on the free and unrestricted expression of opinion. As Professor Moglen writes, “Because the recognition of individual possibility, to allow each to be what she and he can be, rests inherently upon the availability of knowledge; the perpetuation of ignorance is the beginning of slavery.”

Protecting freedom of opinion in the digital age

I, like hundreds of millions of people around the world, now realize that holding an unpopular opinion could lead to dire consequences on my part. The question is, therefore, “How do I protect myself against my own state?” This is a tricky question, as one expects to receive the protections of the state while necessarily giving up some degree of privacy for the sake of ensuring “national security” and maintaining the peace. It is evident, however, that this excuse has been abused over the years, being used as a scapegoat to ensure the continued exercise of power by a certain group of individuals.

Given the government’s ability to spy on the digital communications and interactions of its citizens, as countless cases around the world have shown us including the Edward Snowden NSA scandal and the Simone Margaritelli UAE scandal, it is evident that one must take serious precautions to maintain online privacy. I have therefore compiled a list of 15 digital technologies and usage habits that, in my view, must be adopted in order to ensure privacy online.

The 15 Necessities of Online Privacy

1. Set up an SSH proxy server. I operate a proxy server through Columbia’s computers such that my internet activity goes through Columbia before reaching a designated website and back. This way, the website can only see Columbia’s IP address rather than my own, thereby maintaining my anonymity online so far as possible.

2. Use a trusted VPN. This goes to the same point as above, adding a further layer of necessary tracking, as well as preventing websites from directly identifying the user.

3. Use Tor browser. This browser routes traffic through random IP addresses of thousands of tor volunteer servers and encrypts information at each level.

You would perhaps want instead to consider Tails, which would provide the Tor browser and much more.

4. If one were to use Firefox, then one must ensure that Ad-Block is installed, as well as the option to block third party cookies that are utilized by websites to track user activity.

5. Set up PGP/GPG Encryption for email communications. In addition to encrypting and decrypting email, PGP is used to sign messages so that the receiver can verify both the identity of the sender and the integrity of the content.

6. Use FreedomBox. FreedomBox is a private server which lets users easily install and configure server applications, so that one can host necessary web services at home on a device they own, powered by trusted free software.

You might have figured out a little more about what that would empower you to do, in light of the other items on the list.

7. Use ProtonMail? instead of Gmail. ProtonMail? ’s encryption means that nobody but the user can read the messages in the user’s mailbox, whereas Google can and does gain access to private emails sent between Gmail users. These emails can later find their way to the wrong hands, as Google is in the business of selling such information.

8. Use free operating software such as GNU/Linux instead of MacOS? or Microsoft Windows. This will prevent third party providers of software to gain information on your activities.

9. Use free software such as LibreOffice? instead of Microsoft Office. This will prevent third party providers of software from gaining information on your activities.

10. Use DuckDuckGo? instead of the Google search engine. This goes to the same point as above in maintaining privacy online, as the Google search engine keeps track of everything that one types in and researches whereas DuckDuckGo? does not.

DuckDuckGo? presently just relays Bing searches, without some of the tracking. Any search engine through a proxy, with some confetti added by, for example, TrackMeNot, would do as well or better.

11. Delete third party social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp? . As the Cambridge Analytica whistle-blowers told us, these platforms maintain records of what you like, who your friends are, and even your very private conversations with others, and then provide that information to any third party or government.

12. If necessary, use Signal as a messaging App. Signal gives you encrypted messages, as well as voice and video calls.

13. Routinely check for spyware and other malware on your device as it could be pushed via software updates.

14. Install a privacy screen on your computer, as well as a webcam privacy cover.

15. Only connect to the internet while at home or at a safe and trusted place. Do not connect to the internet while on the go, so as to prevent your precise location from being known.