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You are here: Home Bulletins 2015 fall Privacy -- who needs it?

Privacy -- who needs it?

by Zak Rogoff Contributions Published on Nov 24, 2015 10:51 AM

Though not everyone agrees on the exact extent to which surveillance should be limited, there are many facing a kind of surveillance that is definitely unethical, and educating your network is a good way to build a movement against this. Teaching people about privacy is also a perfect opportunity to explain computer user freedom, because real privacy solutions must start with free software.

This essay provides two resources for someone seeking to educate or learn about free privacy tech: a list of archetypal characters that can benefit from the software, to help personalize the issue, and an explanation of why free privacy tech is worth using, even for those that don't identify with the archetypes.

This is only an introduction -- anyone in real danger must work to understand these tools and verify for themselves that they are using them appropriately. A Web search will reveal myriad resources for each of the tools mentioned, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Surveillance Self-Defense Guide provides a good starting place for further research.

Archetypes of people that need free privacy tech

  • A teenager in an oppressive family who wants to read queer literature
  • A young woman that is secretly pregnant, looking for health information
  • A domestic violence victim searching for a hotline to get help

The threat: abusive family members with traffic-sniffing tools

Some privacy tools that would help:

  • HTTPS Web encryption with the HTTPS Everywhere browser extension
  • strong passwords created with a random password generator
  • a VPN (virtual private network)
  • GnuPG email encryption for a beginner-friendly guide)

This is probably the most common type of threat. However, people who have a visible presence on the Internet often face more technologically sophisticated snoopers. For example:

  • A journalist challenging sexism in online communities
  • Activists from an oppressed cultural minority fighting for their human rights

The threat: harassment or threats by political opponents

Some privacy tools that would help:

  • all of the above, plus
  • anonymous browsing with Tor

As people are increasingly aware, speaking about controversial subjects on the Internet can provoke some mean and violent harassment. Sometimes technologically skilled online harassers can identify their victim's phone numbers, address or employer and share the information publicly, to provoke even worse harassment. This is called doxxing.

Last but not least, there is the best-known category of people that need privacy tools -- those that are being spied on by large organizations with lots of technological resources:

  • An employee that has witnessed a corporate crime and wants to tell a journalist about it
  • A government employee that needs to expose illegal bulk surveillance

The threat: communication and tech companies, potentially cooperating with government cyber military organizations like the NSA (USA), GCHQ (UK), Golden Shield (China)

Some privacy tools that would help:

  • all of the above, plus
  • full-disk hard drive encryption,

Even if you can't relate to these archetypes, there are good reasons to use free software privacy and security tools. It helps you practice in case you need them later or want to teach someone. It encourages other people you communicate with to learn how to use them, and it makes it more socially mainstream to use the tools. Right now, many of the people that need them most have no idea they even exist. It's also a great opportunity to promote free software in general. It increases the total amount of protected traffic moving through the Internet, which means that it's harder for some kinds of bulk surveillance techniques to operate. Finally, it gives you a chance to find problems with the tools and report them to the developers, potentially improving the situation for everyone.

We live in a time of rapid technological change and our culture and government do not always keep pace with the new threats that these technological changes bring against our freedom and privacy. Innocent people are threatened by surveillance every day, and spreading free software privacy tools can help them. Let's resist unethical surveillance together!

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