2016 has again seen a deterioration in the state of digital privacy around the globe. Worldwide, a trend towards totalitarianism continues and policies that we would have expected to be confined to far-away regimes 15 years ago are now becoming the norm.
In France, the Charlie Hebdo and Paris stadium terror attacks have been used as a way to force in a hugely invasive database of personal information about its citizens. In the UK, Theresa May (in her new position as Prime Minister) has finally pushed through the ‘Snooper’s Charter,’ a highly invasive law she had been working hard to pass while she was still Home Secretary.
The Snooper’s Charter means that British ISPs will retain web browsing histories on behalf of a huge cross section of British agencies. Those agencies will be granted access to the data without the need for a warrant. That means you can add the UK to the list of places that legally snoop on their citizens. That list now includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, Germany, Poland, Romania, and Canada (C11 and C51 bills).
The United States doesn’t technically force data retention, but does have the Stored Communications Act. That law allows data to be obtained from ISPs and to be stored for 180 days on request. Mandatory data retention is an assault on freedom, and the list of places that does it has been growing ever since the Snowden revelations three years ago. That list has carried on growing in 2016.
Censorship of Opinions
In addition, Western governments keep passing new laws that make it potentially dangerous for people to communicate their true feelings about vital issues. On 30 November 2016, European Union Member States agreed on the verbiage for the European Union Directive on Counterterrorism. In December it is expected to pass into law without any changes.
The legislation standardizes counterterrorism in member states and seriously threatens people’s ability to protest and express dissenting political opinions, possibly criminalizing both. Human rights organizations including Amnesty International, European Network Against Racism, European Digital Rights, the Fundamental Rights European Experts, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and the Open Society Foundations have all come forward to express their distaste at the proposed legislation.
Those human rights groups are urging member states to ensure that they implement local safeguards against possible abuses of the law. Rightly, they point out that it is important to guarantee that current and future governments cannot undermine international human rights agreements using the new law.
Joe McNamee, Executive Director of European Digital Rights, made the following comment about the undemocratic way that the law was rushed through without proper scrutiny:
“It is too unclear to be implemented in a harmonised way across the EU, too shrouded in secrecy to have public legitimacy and too open to interpretation to prevent wilful abuse by governments seeking to exploit its weaknesses.”
Oppression of Dissent
Last week, on 8 December, a piece of legislation called the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act sneaked through the US Senate, hidden in the depths of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act report.
The bill will likely be signed into existence by President Obama before he leaves office. It allows the US government to monitor, influence, and even shut down independent news outlets that are suspected of promoting ‘disinformation and foreign propaganda.’ It is yet another law that chips away at people’s ability to communicate dissenting political views.
A Downward Spiral
Big Brother is truly everywhere. In the UK, the government is seeking to ban pornographic material using age verification as its impetus. However, on closer scrutiny of the law, it becomes obvious that even consenting adults will face certain amounts of censorship. Privacy experts such as those at Open Rights Group feel that this is a way of slowly forcing more and more censorship on the British population.
With censorship on the rise worldwide and governments snooping more and more, people need to open their eyes and start to take steps to protect their digital rights. A good VPN service is the best way to do that. OpenVPN encryption stops ISPs and the government from snooping on people’s web traffic.
Free VPNs simply won’t do, because often the encryption is implemented too poorly to truly keep user data private and secure. As such, people who truly care about their digital privacy are going to need to invest some money (about $70 per year) on a yearly subscription to a top-notch VPN service.
A good VPN service will allow anybody to continue expressing dissenting views in their private communications, without the worry that they are going to be singled out by increasingly oppressive governments. A VPN will also allow people to continue accessing material online that they wish to see, without being subjected to the iron will of overreaching governments.
The Toys Have Eyes (and Ears)
Finally, news has emerged that many of the toys that Santa could be bringing to homes this year might end up spying on users. Two of the connected toys in question are My Friend Cayla and I-QUE. Both toys rely on internet connectivity to provide an interactive experience for children. The concern, however, is that those toys may be spying on what children (or anybody else present) say.
The complaint comes from a number of groups in the US, including Electronic Privacy Information Center, Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, and Consumers Union. The groups believe that toys like the ones mentioned are a huge risk to users’ privacy.
A complaint has been sent to the US Federal Trade Commission that reads as follows:
“By purpose and design these toys record and collect the private conversations of young children without any limitations on collection, use, or disclosure of this personal information.”
Children are among the most vulnerable citizens in any society, and it is highly important that we do everything to protect them. With that in mind, firms that create connected devices for children must look past the fact that they are creating ‘toys’ and must carefully consider the dangers implicated by the connectivity they wish to improve those toys with.
An interactive toy is all well and good, but if it records children’s voices then the security of that toy must be assured: privacy must be assured at the highest levels possible. If that can’t be achieved, then toy manufacturers ought to be made to think twice before adding those types of functions to their dolls, robots and other toys.
Sadly, however, this type of regulation is so far failing to be enforced and toys are going to market that are unsafe. With that in mind I would urge you to strongly consider what you ask Santa for this Christmas. Personally, I already have a VPN, but if I were you (and I didn’t already have one) I would be writing the following letter to the big man in red:
Dear Santa, bring me a (strong) VPN for Christmas and leave the toys behind. Thank you!