On Online Privacy, Snooping

We are gradually entering an age where data generated by an average person about her/himself will just be beyond anything we could have imagined twenty-years ago. From mobile phone towers to cashless transactions, we leave trails and pointers to ourselves all over the world now. There used to be a time when there were only a handful of touch-points for non-cash transactions, everything else was done using cash. CCTVs were a rarity, phones were connected to wires and not mobile and there was no internet.

We have not yet grasped the degree of this change in its entirety, while the impact it has on an individual’s privacy and safety is far beyond what we can imagine today. Just take the case of the internet, everything from your DNS lookups to requests made to another computer online is logged and in the case of unencrypted traffic it can easily be examined too. It is not just spyware and backdoors that are a threat these days, the entire intermediary infrastructure is open to abuse by both the good guys and the bad guys equally.

In a manner of speaking, privacy really does not exist and nothing is really a secret anymore. Any secure system is only as secure as its weakest link and our basic communication infrastructure is riddled with multiple weak points. Does that mean it is wrong to have an expectation or to ask for privacy? I don’t think so. As citizens of a free country we have every right to ask for it. More importantly, it is more important for enforcement and law to not criminalize the citizens of a country, by default, if they have to have an easier time of nabbing the bad guys.

Coming from that line of thinking, I don’t find the overtures by the government to somehow censor the content on the internet more as a case of having no idea of a scary new world than an outright attempt at curtailing dissent or any such thing. As people who publish content, we often don’t have a clear handle on how to deal with things that are written on our sites by the vistors and also what is written about us on other sites. If we don’t have a clear cut idea on this, it is easy to imagine the confusion of people in power, who have to deal with this on a much bigger scale.

I had a first-hand experience of this in 2008 when we were dragged into a case regarding some defamatory comments published on my then-employer’s website. Both parties in the case were well-meaning, but neither of them had a clear understanding of how these things work, nor did the people who were enforcing the law. I do advise a law firm on issues related to technology and I find the same problem there. Both law and enforcement  are dealing with issues over which they have little understanding or clarity. When you work backwards from “this needs to stop,” you are a hammer and the world is full of nails.

The risk in all of this a blanket criminalization of anything anonymous or pseudonymous in the digital world as these are the favourite paths taken by people who abuse the wonders of the digital world. Laws are increasingly being made or drafted that look at abuse as the rule and everything else as an outlier. There are enough individuals and organizations that are willing to help governments and agencies bridge this crucial gap in understanding the inner workings of the digital world. I hope that we can find a better tomorrow where we can all work together to bridge the gaps and progress towards a healthier place.