For many years I have been a strong believer in the benefits of the technology powering our modern information society. I have advocated that the eco-system arising from the merger of computers and communications will ultimately help people in their socio-economic development. I have been a staunch supporter of triple-play (merger of IT, telecom and TV) and quadruple-play (IT, telco, TV and mobile) technologies, thinking that the more we can share information, the better it will be for us individually and for our society overall.
Original image by Jeff Schuler. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Surveillance changes everything
However, the revelations triggered by Edward Snowden over the past eight weeks about widespread snooping in on the electronic information we leave behind in this information-rich environment, the news about widespread spying by our own government agencies, and by those of friendly and not-so-friendly governments have made me re-examine my own assumptions and attitudes towards sharing my details with various commercial Internet services.
Turning away from U.S. products and services
Whereas before, I have not had a problem maintaining phone numbers, email addresses or my Skype name on Facebook, today I deleted those. Whereas before, I had no problem keeping my résumé and other personal files in my Google Drive, today, I deleted all files from the service. Whereas I am glad that Microsoft is offering me SkyDrive, today I have decided that I will refrain from using the service.
Next will be Apple’s iCloud, where my iPhone syncs a lot of personal things from me. From now on, I am working with a cloud service under my control. I stopped using Google Chrome today over concerns that I may be tracked more than I would like to be, and switched back to Mozilla’s Firefox browser, which is giving me more control over my privacy settings. As of this week, I am no longer using Microsoft Outlook and have changed to Mozilla’s Thunderbird, although Outlook has provided me with a very good user experience over the past decade or more. My Outlook Calendar is no longer, and the other calendar(s) which I used to sync with Yahoo and Gmail and iCloud is now going to be synced only with my cloud, using open source software under a free license.
Surveillance hurts business interests
This is what surveillance does to U.S. businesses. Customers like me will turn away from proprietary software, from commercial vendors, and increasingly will turn to free and open software. And if even I, who for over twenty years have been a strong supporter of all these technologies, if even I am starting to turn away from U.S. based providers, then it is clear that many others will do the same. And this will hurt U.S. business interests. And if U.S. businesses lose money, then also the U.S. as a whole will be hurt. I really feel sorry for the mostly U.S. based businesses, where many of my professional friends and colleagues work. I trust most people in these businesses are good people. I also trust that most of these businesses don’t want to share my personal data with anyone. However, the current situation with secret laws, secret courts, widespread data collection by U.S. intelligence agencies operating “lawfully” forces me to turn away from U.S.-based services. I have regrettably lost trust in “the system”.
Re-evaluating assumptions and attitudes towards data privacy
It is really ironic that someone like me, who has been an outspoken advocate for all the good things this information society and information technology revolution is bringing us, is going through this exercise. But maybe it will turn out to be a healthy exercise. With whom do I want to share this or that information about myself? In the past, I have of course thoroughly examined, evaluated and adjusted my privacy settings in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and other such online services. But in other respects, I have been more trusting that the companies offering email services like Yahoo or Gmail, or cloud services like Microsoft Skydrive, Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud, etc will keep my personal data private to myself. However, what we all have had to learn in the past few weeks results in a loss of our trust in the ability (and perhaps the willingness) of those companies to protect our privacy when ordered by law enforcement authorities.
Nothing to hide – nothing to worry?
The NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. Photograph: EPA
Well, there is the argument that “those who have nothing to hide” will have nothing to worry about. This is the argument that I have trusted in the past, that the law enforcement and spy agencies will only go after criminals and terrorists. That they will do so only after having obtained a warrant from a judge, that there will be sufficient judicial and parliamentary oversight over the process, ensuring my civil rights. But what has transpired over the past weeks is that this argument is thoroughly wrong-footed. Because these information-hungry agencies are conducting a sweeping vacuuming of all available data, regardless of reasonable suspicions about people, regardless of whether the data belongs to domestic or foreign individuals. So, the “nothing to hide” argument is wrong, because it is not targeted individuals whose data is being vacuumed into the great data abyss of those intelligence agencies, but the data of all of us, regardless of any suspicion.
Everyone has something to hide – it’s a central aspect of the right to privacy
And just like most people, of course do I have something to hide. Nothing that would be criminally suspect, of course, but my bank account is and ought to be private, just like my medical records, my phone records, my religious affiliation, the friends I speak with, the letters I receive, the pictures I take of my son, or the books I buy on Amazon. We have a constitution that demands our government to respect our civil rights, yet I get the distinct feeling that these constitutional rights are now under threat precisely by those who claim to be working for us, to guarantee for our security. Thus, somehow, I feel less secure now, less secure because I fear for my freedoms, I’m afraid that someone is taking away my civil rights.
Vote for change – talk to your representative
I want to live in a free society, where we can speak out freely what we think, without the fear that whatever we say anywhere anytime can be used against us. That’s why I’m not going to give up and hide. We have elections, and our politicians need to listen. We need more oversight, a stop to suspicion-less data collection, and a lot more transparency and accountability of the surveillance agencies worldwide. I don’t have a vote in the U.S. elections, so I hope my many American friends will do the right thing and call their Congressman, their Senator. I hope they will make sure their voices are heard. I have to trust my ability to engage with lawmakers in my country to protect my constitutional rights, my civil rights, my human rights. Our next election is less than two months ahead.