Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Loss of Privacy – is not just over the Horizon

I am watching the BBC2 Horizon documentary on privacy Inside the Dark Web (Wednesday 3 September 2014). I have always veered between complacency and paranoia when it comes to personal privacy and the internet. I think I got it wrong; I have been veering between complacency and a genuine concern – and I need to recognise the latter.

It’s not just Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, but also Sir Tim Berners-Lee and David Chaum raising concerns.

The scale of surveillance is awesome. “In 2011, they [GCHQ] were tapping 200 10Gb cables coming into Cornwall”. The UK government taps into the optic fibres (carrying much transatlantic traffic) leaving Cornwall for the USA and can “read” all the data – the equivalent of the entire contents of the British Library in about 40 seconds – and use computers to analyse that data and which can learn to identify patterns to report for further investigation.

Perversely Government wants security for its own communications, but wants to be able to access our communications. Thus the US Navy developed The Onion Router (TOR) system to preserve anonymity – but for true anonymity it was necessary to have lots of users (to create the haystack in which the needle could hide) so they made the system available to all. Thus in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, dissidents could use it for “safe” communication – a “good thing” – unless you are the Syrian secret police. On-line narcotics supermarkets also used it – a “bad thing”. TOR is also used by Wikileaks – whether that is a good or bad thing rather depends on whether you think we should know whether governments can abuse our privacy in our name.

But where does this effect those of us who consider that we have free speech? The programme gave examples of technology companies that monitor our use of the internet.

  • A woman has bought a pregnancy test. That single fact – plus an ID placed in a cookie on her computer, then meant her pregnancy was a trade-able fact sold to advertisers who can then target the computer holding that ID with adverts for baby goods etc.
  • Your (smart) mobile phone enables your movements to be tracked.

If we browse anonymously we deny all these tiny snippets of information that can be aggregated to enable technology companies (and anyone to whom they sell the data) to know some aspects of our lives better than our parents or our spouses.

So what’s it to be:

“Privacy is over – get over it”


“A free society is one where our behaviour is free from analysis”

The programme is sobering. Available on iPlayer until 17 September 2014.

How to respond given that I am moving further from complacency towards genuine concern and a desire to protect my privacy – not just now but in the future?

Apart from technological precautions, I take sensible usage precautions:

  • I control my digital image – and any images are fully clothed!
  • I don’t explicitly use “the cloud” for “my data” as I don’t know how to fully delete information put “on the cloud” and I don’t trust the cloud organisations. (But where is this blog stored?)
  • I blog anonymously – although a determined search could attach names to this blog.
  • There are some issues that I am too fearful to broach and some that I am very careful about discussing.

Technologically, do I start using TOR – even though to some authorities the mere use of TOR flags you up as a person who uses the web for nefarious purposes? Likewise do I start using PGP to encrypt my emails – if the people with whom I correspond would do the same?

Do I take a greater performance hit on my browser’s performance by adding further privacy and security add-ins? Already my precautions include the following practices:

  • I don’t use Microsoft Internet Explorer because it is so targeted by hackers – due to the large user base and its history of being a bit flakey.
  • I don’t use Google Chrome because I don’t trust Google’s data acquisitiveness.
  • I use Startpage.com or DuckDuckGo.com for searching rather than Google for similar reasons.
  • I have disabled Java in all my browsers and only use flash by exception.
  • I have disabled my webcam.
  • I block scripts – the little programmes in practically all webpages that run when you load the page or do something like move your mouse over an image.
  • I heavy restrict cookies – the little IDs and associated facts that webpages leave on your computer so that later webpages can associate your use of the later webpage with your use of the earlier webpage. Does the pregnant women after looking at a page selling pregnancy testing services go to pages selling maternity-wear or pages giving abortion advice, and does that page use get associated with searching for psychiatrist living within one mile of postcode AA12 3BB?
  • I try to force the use of https rather than http for webpage browsing
  • I use a degree of email security – knowing that email is so insecure that we have to treat emails as if they are postcards which we leave lying around.
  • I was about to implement Truecrypt to encrypt my laptop hard drives – when Truecrypt went belly up!
  • I worry about how well Amazon knows me!

I have done nothing wrong – but I do have something to “not make public” – my privacy.

The need for privacy is not only a sacred place to work out who we are, what we do or how we think; it’s a psychological refuge from overwhelming public dissection necessary for anyone’s mental health, famous or not.
Van Badham, 1st September 2014 Comment is Free, Guardian


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