JOHN Nugent, the founder of the Institute for Digital Privacy, is carving out a niche in the digital services market. Helping to defend the public against an all-out assault on our online privacy rights, he has published a book, Digital Privacy Self-defence – Why it matters and what to do.
Privacy is a basic human right. It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 12), the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 7), and the European Convention of Human Rights (Article 8), which is incorporated into English law under the Human Rights Act 1998. Surely this makes the right to privacy a self-evident truth? To an extent, yes, but the paradox of a self-evident truth is that it is difficult (though not impossible) to construct arguments to support it precisely because it is, or should be, evident without proof or reasoning. That’s the meaning of self-evident! Yet governments across the Western world are forcing us to mount a defence of our digital privacy.
Nugent’s book explores the erosion of our rights, explaining Big Tech’s operating model and providing context for why so many people over the past 25 years have come to accept a permanent state of digital surveillance – the ‘New Normal’.
Privacy advocates were not really put to the test until the US national security state weaponised the 9/11 crisis to subvert privacy rights in the name of fighting the so-called war on terror. After 2001, the surveillance state told us that the only way to be kept safe from terrorism was to surrender your right to privacy. The specious argument advanced to justify the burgeoning surveillance state was that surrendering this right would affect only the bad guys – no privacy problem exists if a person has nothing to hide. Ed Snowden’s brilliant retort to that is: ‘Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.’
Privacy and liberty are inextricably linked – you cannot be free if the state and Big Tech are privy to all your conversations, social media interactions and records of financial activity. Sadly, the glib nothing-to-hide mantra gained traction among swathes of the unthinking public, who seem incapable of grasping the Benjamin Franklin quote: ‘Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ Individual liberty is a fundamental human need which cannot be subordinated to a false and unattainable quest to reduce the risk of all harm to zero. Accepting the risk of harm is the price we must pay to preserve the ultimate human good – individual freedom.
Since 2020, the word ‘fascism’ has been bandied about by freedom advocates, and for good reason. How much clearer does the fusion of state and corporate power in the digital world need to be? A newly released report by agencies of the US National Security State revealed that that the US government is using taxpayer money to purchase commercially available information (‘CAI’) containing highly sensitive data on American citizens. In their own words, this data ‘can reveal sensitive and intimate information about the personal attributes, private behavior, social connections, and speech of US persons and non-US persons. It can be misused to pry into private lives, ruin reputations, and cause emotional distress and threaten the safety of individuals’.
They’re collecting it regardless.
Nugent highlights that these abuses didn’t start yesterday and that anyone who still thinks our Big Brother government can be trusted is living in La-la land. Here in the UK, NHS medical data is now being shared with Google and Amazon. While we are told that the data is anonymous, researchers have repeatedly shown that anonymised databases can be very easily and accurately de-anonymised. (See Nugent, p16.) Data is the oil of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the chains of control for governments. Corporate and state interests are perfectly aligned.
What to do
The right to privacy is a key pillar of human dignity as Big Tech and the state collude to trap us in a digital gulag, stamped with an ID, recording every keystroke and reined in for wrong-think. A vital tactic to stop their power grab is to fight to preserve our privacy. In Nugent’s book you’ll find ways to do this by mitigating everyday unwanted tracking and profiling. It’s not the kind of defence you’d need to evade targeted surveillance by state security services, but it’s a good start for the average person.
Nugent suggests treating these tactics for increasing digital privacy ‘as an initial 20-hour project spread over a few weeks’. Breaking it down into bite-sized chunks over a reasonable timeframe makes it achievable. For my money, the top tip is switching your operating system to Linux. There is of course no magic bullet, and there are other things you must do. But creating more distance between yourself and the Microsoft/Google data net is a good start.
The ultimate safeguarding of every person’s digital privacy lies in decentralised and encrypted services run on free and open-source software. In the meantime: ‘Privacy remains your own responsibility. We all need to take it back merely by exercising our privacy rights with whatever tools are at our disposal’ – Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Pirate Party.