I See What You Said There: How Killing Privacy Threatens Free Speech


From the outside, privacy and free speech might appear two very different beasts: after all, free speech is the right to communicate to the public about views, faith, opinions and thoughts without fear of government arrest or worse. Privacy, by contrast, is the right to sit back quietly : to worship, read, write, speak with friends and live your life without being judged, to select what part of yourself to share with the rest of the world. Yet when you dig deeper, it becomes apparent that the denial of one harms the other. How can free speech exist, when fear of censorship creeps in as thoughts are first written down? Why are views protected if created for public forum, but not so if meant for an individual or close connections? What happens when 'censorship' can be applied not only at a level of blocking communications from reaching an audience, but moving towards exerting force on the content even when first coming to existence in the private space?

Think about how you communicate with others now. Aside from in-person meetings and friendly face to face chats, most of our communications are now delivered via electronics: we phone, text, Skype, send email and turn to social media. We exercise 'free speech' even in our private lives: because while these communications are not always viewed by other parties, that doesn't mean that others can't see them.  We use technology to protect our transactions, encrypting messages such as the signal from one computer to an online store that a purchase is to be made. We also trust, through policy and law, for others not to listen in: if my grandmother uses Skype to rants with me over local politics, we assume the rant stays between us.  Take away both the technology and laws however, and there's no privacy, security or free speech: when you deny users the option to use tools protecting their personal information from the very real threat of cyber thieves and ID theft, you also make their personal thoughts and data open to others. You paint a target on the backs of the vulnerable, which starts with those traditionally marginalized, but eventually encompasses the entire community. After all, how safe is anyone really, when death threats are made for disagreements from experiences playing video games?

Yet, privacy is unquestionably eroding: as cyber warfare reaches new heights and devastating terrorist attacks rock the globe, governments turn to monitoring communications to catch wind of potential problems before acts are carried out. In the United Kingdom, government surveillance has hit a new high point, with the enactment of the Communications Data Bill. Dubbed the 'snoops charter' it gives the government a host of new powers to spy on the Internet traffic of individuals, including requests from law enforcement to Internet Service Providers for individual browsing histories and search for over a year, without a warrant. This is more than a little unnerving: have you ever searched for something you’d rather not share with others? The U.K. government will know. 

In Canada CSIS has been found guilty of illegally holding onto and using citizen metadata without a warrant, while this month reports have concluded that yes, Quebec police really did access journalist cell phone records to track down sources. Journalists themselves have been modifying their own internet access habits for fear of being watched, which should alarm anyone: how can freedom of the press exist if those who write the news are afraid they'll be spotted when fact-checking? Don't even get me started on the Trump administration's selection of Mike Pompeo for head of the CIA, an individual notable for calling after Edward Snowden's execution, and saying that: ”The use of strong encryption in personal communications may itself be a red flag.” I'll need to address the utter nonsense of this statement later, but for now I'll leave it in the hands of privacy advocate Ann Cavoukian, who tweeted it best: "It's like saying people shouldn't use strong locks to protect their homes."

To be fair, government security and personal censorship are not on their own innately horrible. On the contrary, I get the national security argument: the desire to protect citizens from threats of terrorism, to intercept communications before plans spiral into very real actions that threaten human life. Likewise censorship, while overall a dirty word, on some level won't be going away anytime soon. I self-censor my own self a lot on social media, with most snarky comments & drunk texts getting the 'draft, what was I thinking?' treatment, never seeing the light beyond the delete button. I am aware, as we all should be, that there are others watching my words online: prospective clients whom I never want to burn bridges, friends with different opinions I still highly respect, and associates that I'd like to keep with an air of professionalism.

I should never however, write to a close acquaintances with organizational criticism, and fear I will be professionally blacklisted or worse because of a third party looking at my views. Human beings should never have to worship in utter secrecy, unable to speak via electronic communications on issues of their faith for fear that the wrong sign will be picked up on and get them deported. Yet if we close off privacy, allow business and government to watch our every move, in combination with the very real increasing racist, sexist, xenophobic attitudes being harboured by growingly powerful political factions, that's what will happen. How can we possibly say that people have free speech if their every move, even when NOT intended for public discourse, is being spied upon? If we say “we are okay with business and the state monitoring us” to the point of our private lives, how long before we say it is okay for business and the state to try and change us to fit their ideals, using carrot and stick? Make no mistake: freedoms are hard won, and once surrendered are not easy to revive. If we want free speech, we must protect the foundations that allow it to thrive; and that's privacy at the core.

Posted in Aware, Privacy.

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