Mapping the Battlefields: Where Privacy Is Expected to Clash with Trump

Donald Trump. Credits: Gage Skidmore

It is official: as of November 9th, Donald Trump has been elected to be the 45th president of the United States of America. The news has left the world in a state of shock, with cheers from his followers and protests from others, as everyone scrambles now that the ‘what if’ scenario of a Trump presidency is set to be a reality. In the digital sphere, the question for privacy advocates is 'what will privacy look like under a Trump government?'

Unlike his predecessors, Trump has no political background, only his campaign and attitudes, to decipher how his government will approach personal data and online security. Unfortunately, the outlook isn't good: endorsing stronger surveillance and cyber warfare practices, Trump has left little to suggest his administration will respect the personal information of the people they watch. Businesses and individuals are already spooked: encrypted email services including Protonmail have seen double the sign ups since the election, and links are spreading like wildfire on tools even everyday internet users should use to protect their personal data. Others are already starting to look ahead at the core structure of their digital assets: in Silicon Valley, reports continue to stream in on businesses like Pinboard, already discussing their responsibilities to user data, including strong encryption, deleting older records , keeping data for limited time periods or moving the data off U.S. soil entirely.

There's no telling where things will go, with a head of National Security yet to be chosen for his team, however his current choices of Steve Bannon and John Bolton are telling: Trump is not interested in moderation, and we should assume his future influence on privacy will match his past actions. Here are some of the signs for what's coming once his inauguration is complete.

 

Anger against Snowden

Trump is a known critic of privacy advocate and whistleblower Edward Snowden. When asked about Snowden’s actions he is quoted from his 2013 appearance on Republican morning talk show 'Fox & Friends’: “This guy’s a bad guy. There is still a thing called execution.” Snowden however, has not shown to be particularly ruffled by Trump's comments. Already exiled from the United States, Snowden has referred to Trump's commentary as a red herring, using good guy/bad guy language to detract from the issue of government surveillance. Since the outcome of the election, Snowden has continued his calmer stance, arguing that Trump’s succession to power is simply a reminder that government administrations come and go, and that the best protection of privacy will not be at government hands, but “the work of the people."

 

Disagreements with Apple

When Apple challenged, and won, the court battle requiring back doors to encrypted devices Trump was again on Fox & Friends, arguing “To think that Apple won’t allow us to get into her cellphone? Who do they think they are? No, we have to open it.”. This suggests a government which will require backdoor access to encrypted devices in the future, a design flaw that Apple and other privacy experts argue leave information vulnerable to hackers, who will unquestionably find the backdoors once created. It is unlikely however, that Apple or other technology companies with similar stances will take this at face value, given the prior choice to already to go to court rather than submit. Other big names in technology may not be too concerned: it has already been revealed that an encryption backdoors exist for Google’s Android.

 

Campaign Promises

Several of Trump’s campaign promises have dark repercussions for privacy, including surveilling mosques, creating a database of refugees, and biometric entry and exit visas, all of which move towards a "big brother is watching you” future that is hard to ignore. While some of his proposals, such as religious-targets surveillance have been argued as unconstitutional, his a pro-monitoring stance combined with positive support of geolocation tracking mean the American government expecting to know where you are at all times isn't just a pipe dream.

 

Privacy? Well that depends on who's targeted, doesn't it?

Perhaps one of the more confusing aspects of Trump privacy is his complete flip depending on whose privacy is at stake. During his campaign he refused to release financial or tax information, determined to keep his own privacy, but unquestionably Hilary Clinton's own digital governance scandal was his friend in this election. Given his rise in the polls when the issue resurfaced, Trump owes at least a little of his victory to the hacking of Hilary Clinton's emails. Now however, Trump would be wise to take security and information governance in hand with his own communications. While Trump supporters could argue his past emails on an insecure server were not of importance when he wasn’t in government, now holding the highest elected office he can expect scrutiny at every turn. It is very likely that hackers and anti-trump protestors will be on the lookout for any chance to break in and go over his communications with microscope if given the chance.

 

Business with the European Union

Trump is unlikely to bend to international pressures, but it's worth a note that while privacy is looking to be eroded in the U.S., it's a major expectation in Europe, most recently with the European Commission passing the General Data Protection Regulation. Russia likewise now holds one of the most robust data sovereignty legislations in the world, although it would be a mistake to state that this move was for the privacy of citizens. What this does mean however, is that American technology companies will have their work cut out for them: opening up to massive surveillance within the states, but being required to cut that surveillance when data belongs to E.U. citizens, most likely by keeping the information off American networks and soil. It may mean some major infrastructure changes and a serious shakeup of how data moves across the globe, assuming companies decide keeping both U.S. and E.U. customers is worth the effort.

 

What can we expect in Canada?

While living under significantly different leadership with Prime Minster Trudeau, the close relationship between Canada and the U.S. mean Canadians will unquestionably be affected by American privacy and security measures. Many Canadians rely on U.S.-based online services, including email, social media and cloud storage. If the data travels through or resides in the U.S., it is potentially accessible to the U.S. government via the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; the latter of which oversaw PRISM, the surveillance program publicly leaked by Edward Snowden.Thus far, Canadians have shown to be uncomfortable but resigned to U.S. access to their data. While some information, in particular health and finance must be stored on Canadian soil, majority of Canadians continue to use U.S. based online services due to their size, established reputation, and price.

That however, was under the previous Bush and Obama administrations.

Although it would be wrong to say Trump doesn't have fans in Canada, he is by far an unpopular politician and president: if running in Canada, he would have received only 20% of voters, and public sentiment remains uncomfortable with the thought of a Trump administration as Canada’s next-door neighbour. Given this attitude, will Canadians feel comfortable with Trump access to their personal data? How much will Canadians accept as the status quo, or will habits change? Will there be a noticeable movement towards Canadian cloud-based servers and hosting providers, particularly now that giants including Microsoft and Amazon are starting to open up data centres in Canada? Even if there is little change in email and social media habits, will consumers demand more from Canadian companies and the information that can be held by U.S. providers? It's a tough puzzle to figure, even for this author: I've accepted email hosted in the U.S. because there's little getting around it unless my contacts also make the switch, but what about other cloud services? If privacy is tossed out, how long until censorship steps in and articles including this one "disappear" from the cloud they were written on? Such might seem a bit much, but it's worth a reminder that this is, historically, what has been done when privacy is thrown out the door.

For those who want their data completely away from U.S. government surveillance, however, unless public backlash spurs changes to Canadian data laws, don’t bet on businesses taking the initiative. As Tim Edgar, a prior first data privacy offer of the White House told Buzzed news, “Relocating outside of the US won’t help you with direct government surveillance, and you are more vulnerable outside the US, given the NSA.” It’s also worth mentioning there’s nothing to be smug about when it comes to government surveillance in Canada: just recently it was revealed that CSIS has been maintaining metadata on Canadians illegally. When it comes to government surveillance and privacy, Snowden may be on to something: we need to push for what we can, but true privacy will require individual learning, adaptation and vigilance.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore

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