Since the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013, governments around the world have succumbed to a worrying surveillance epidemic. In 2016, that disturbing trend continued. Many countries passed laws to allow intelligence agencies to snoop legally on citizens. Digital privacy, once considered an ineffable human right, is now something that people are encouraged to believe they should freely give away.
In a world where terrorism is bought and paid for by an industrial military complex that is irreconcilably connected to both banking and international politics, the balance of power is easily manipulated. The ebb and flow of the rule of law is now heavily weighted in favor of ideas, behaviors, and strategies that ascribe little importance to the rights of the vast majority. Privacy that was fought for over centuries sadly eroded away as quickly as the sand on beaches around the world.
Not so Black and White
Terrorism allows the media to paint a black and white picture of the world. Governments tell us that if you aren’t a terrorist, then you have nothing to hide. In such a world, governments must spy on everyone legally. Anyone who disagrees is ‘unpatriotic’ for not wanting to help in the fight against the common enemy.
Over in the US, there are no fewer than 17 different intelligence agencies. They are all working hard to spy on US and foreign citizens. In 2016, PRISM was revealed to still be going strong. New evidence shed light on the NSA’s continued illegal surveillance of Brazil.
Agreements like Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes allow data sharing across the world’s intelligence agencies. The result is data sharing loopholes between agencies such as the UK’s GCHQ and Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). These agreements often allow agencies to get at data that otherwise would have been unlawful to acquire.
Spying Amongst Friends
Worryingly, despite those intelligence agreements – which imply alliance – those same agencies have been proven to be spying on each other. BND, for example, was shown to be snooping on French royalty and EU politicians.
A culture of fear permeates every level of society. The people who make the laws are as brainwashed as the majority. This leads to mistrust among allies and snooping across borders. This, in turn, creates mistrust among those allied nations: a perfect catch 22 scenario where nations have both othered everybody else and othered themselves from the inside out.
This is the type of climate that leads to war, specifically civil war. In the US, for example, intelligence agencies work independently under different backers. This meant the cold and digital civil war was at epidemic levels during the 2016 US presidential election. With countries fighting on the inside, is there any wonder that important alliances such as that between Turkey and the US are at an all-time low? This is causing the world to move closer to the brink of another world war. Add to that unproven finger-pointing at enemies, such as the blame of the US DNC hack on Russia, and you have a boiling pot of fear that is directly fueling the worldwide surveillance epidemic.
The Frightening Reality of Our Digital World
Let’s take a closer look at the most concerning digital privacy issues that came to pass in 2016.
2016 – a Nightmare for Digital Privacy
In January, human rights activists and the tech industry heavily criticized a Chinese law that came into effect. It forces ISPs and tech firms to help the government with anti-terrorism by providing technical support for decrypting. In the past, the UK and US would have been bastions of freedom that disagreed with this sort of draconian policy. Sadly, in the West, this is something that is on the increase. GCHQ, for example, came under criticism for the MIKKEY-SAKE encryption protocol in January 2016. The protocol has a key management system that gives the UK government a backdoor into people’s communications.
Also in January, Germany’s new data retention act came into existence. It forces ISPs and tech companies to retain web browsing histories, SMS text messages, and metadata for ten weeks. The government passed the law, despite a previous ruling that declared data retention unconstitutional. There have been attempts to get Merkel and BND to take power away from German intelligence. However, terror attacks in Germany have helped to foment the need for increased surveillance in the nation.
In February, Poland passed a law allowing police/intelligence agencies to access citizens’ internet and telecommunications data without a warrant. This includes phone connections, metadata, geo-location, logins, contacts, internet profiles and web browsing histories. The law goes much further than is permitted under the European Directive of Data Retention (which was found by the European Court of Justice in 2014 to interfere with people’s right to privacy). In addition, the law allows for the surveillance of people for 18 months in secrecy. This could jeopardize the safety of journalists’ sources and whistleblowers.
In April, Turkey passed a data protection law that turned the country into a surveillance state. The law uses exemptions to give the police and intelligence agencies unrestricted access to citizens’ data. The government can collect data including race, ethnicity, political beliefs, religion, membership of organizations, health, sexual orientation, criminal record, security-related information, and biometrics. The exemptions allow the data to be collected without a warrant if it is for national security purposes.
In June, Ethiopia passed a cybersecurity law that outlaws a number of online activities. These include the dissemination of defamatory speech, spam, and pornography. The law has extremely high penalties (up to ten years in prison). Many feel that the law makes it highly dangerous to question the authorities and serves to outlaw political opposition.The law also forces mandatory data retention for a year.
On 7 July, President Putin signed a number of laws into action. They allow the Kremlin to crush political opposition and force mandatory data retention. Many believe they will be used to intimidate the opposition during elections. The laws also allows for the imprisonment of anybody found to be inciting anti-government feelings online.
In October, France implemented the TES database. It is the most intrusive database in French history. TES stores the data (including biometrics) of every French citizen over the age of 12.
On 7 November, China passed its new PRC Cybersecurity Law. The law adds China to the list of countries that have mandatory data retention imposed at ISP level (for six months). It more than doubles the population of citizens around the world who can be digitally spied on by governments, from 1.067 billion to a whopping 2.424 billion citizens.
UK – Snooper’s Charter
On 16 November, the UK’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’ was passed. Queen Elizabeth II granted it royal assent on 29 November. The law grants many UK agencies permission to access citizens’ communications metadata and web browsing histories. ISPs must store those web browsing histories for 12 months.
Section 217 of the Investigatory Powers Act also requires UK firms to provide encryption backdoors. This is a hugely problematic piece of legislation. It makes the UK one of the most surveilled locations on the planet. In addition, the backdoors issue means that the UK may see tech firms deciding to move their operations elsewhere.
The law also means that strong encryption for cyber security reasons may be under serious threat in the UK. After all, any government backdoor is also vulnerable to hackers and foreign governments.
In December, a fear of ‘fake news’ led to the passing of the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act. It will allow the US government to exert a more totalitarian control over the dissemination of news in the country. It also allows for media censorship when necessary. The law means that freedom of speech is the US is under severe threat. Remember that Obama already passed a law in 2012 that legalized propaganda. As such, during Trump’s administration ‘real news’ (read as official propaganda) will be permitted but ‘fake news’ (read as the truth) will be illegal.
Digital Privacy in 2017 – Why a VPN is Essential
So many citizens are now subject to mandatory data retention laws that people need to consider using a VPN service. Decent VPNs can provide strong encryption, excellent privacy policies, and a proven track record of providing privacy for their subscribers.
Market-leading VPNs encrypt data using strongly implemented OpenVPN encryption. This means that ISPs are unable to keep tabs on users for the government. It gives the VPN user much higher levels of security and digital privacy. A VPN costs around $75 per year (on average). It’s a relatively small price to pay to improve your personal cybersecurity.
With that piece of advice out of the way, let’s take a look at a few digital privacy-related predictions for 2017.
Digital Privacy Predictions for 2017
2016 was perhaps the most dramatic year the world has seen since the events of 9/11 in 2001. Terror attacks, wars, sanctions, hacking incidents, and a loss of digital privacy for much of the world’s population plagued the year.
One slight glimmer of hope came on 21 December 2016, however, when the European Court of Justice ruled that data retention is illegal in the EU. The ruling means that EU countries (including the UK, were the Snooper’s Charter was due to go into effect on 2 January 2017) may get a reprisal. As such, the ruling may mean that the UK has to invoke Article 50 (and make good on its threat to Brexit) if it wants to be able to impose the overreaching Snooper’s Charter legislation.
This might mean that the UK (which had been procrastinating about invoking Article 50) decides to leave the EU sooner rather than later, in order to enact the highly invasive law. German, French, and other European citizens, however, should feel the benefit of the ECJ’s decision. Good news indeed for 2017.
2016 saw a continued rise in the amount of ransomware targeted at businesses and individuals. Sadly, experts are predicting that this will get worse in 2017. In 2016, a number of hospitals and health centers had their systems locked up with ransomware. Luckily, the malicious activities of those cybercriminals did not lead directly to loss of life. However, one has to wonder if 2017 will be the year when hackers do indeed cause a loss of life. One thing is for sure, experts believe that ransomware attacks on individuals will go up dramatically in 2017. Be sure to protect your devices with strong passwords, antivirus and antimalware software. Also, remember to regularly take security updates from manufacturers as and when they are available.
In October 2016, the source code for the Mirai malware emerged on the internet. The malware allows cybercriminals to create a Botnet for launching DDoS attacks using badly configured IoT products. Since its release, the world has seen a massive surge of DDoS attacks. One attack on Dyn Inc., which provides DNS services to huge firms like Twitter, Amazon and Netflix, caused web blackouts for several hours. In 2017, it is likely that these types of Mirai attacks will become worse. They could possibly cause internet blackouts of up to 24 hours at a time. The financial repercussions could be huge. Only time will tell.
Forced propaganda, combined with a restriction on independent media outlets that are found to be spreading unwanted truths known as ‘fake news,’ could lead to a massive surge of hack-attacks on mainstream media outlets like CNN and Fox. Hacking collectives like Anonymous have huge numbers of hackers in their ranks and with the Mirai malware now in the wild it is likely that we will see hacker-caused media blackouts during 2017. Recent hacks of the Bilderberg website, and Anonymous’ message to David Rockefeller, add an air of excitement to the vigilante-style hacking prospects of 2017. Whether it can compare to the excitement of the 2016 DNC hacks, however, is probably one for the bookies.