A new tribe of people are making a defiant effort to keep their personal data personal, meet The Privacy Conscious.
Less than three years ago, The Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald and a certain computer analyst by the name of Edward Snowdon sent shockwaves around the world by revealing that the both the United States and British governments had been quietly spying on us for years — amassing personal data, phone logs and private emails — often in collaboration with, or in spite of, the big tech businesses. Any notion that the information on our phones and computers is either safe or private has been rapidly eroded by each successive leak.
William Binney, a fellow NSA whistleblower, has warned that the UK’s new Investigatory Powers Bill is not only “totalitarian” but, thanks to the overload of information, will actually make us less safe. The UN, meanwhile, has insisted that the bill will “ultimately stifle fundamental freedoms”. And the government aren’t the only ones interested in your personal data; a backdoor for one, many argue, means a backdoor for all.
Take the Ashley Madison hack, in which the details of some 32 million secretive users were leaked online, leading to multiple suicides. Or the Washington Post, who discovered that the NSA’s treasure trove was so insecure that their journalists were able to peruse over 10,000 innocent citizen’s emails, web chats and pictures, which they claimed included stories of mental health crises, religious and political conversations and photos of infants in bathtubs.
In light of such widespread data mining, public opinion is beginning to shift. In a poll by the European Commission last year, 81% of respondents felt they had only partial or no control over the information they provided online. Only half felt they could trust European institutions to protect their information, while four fifths did not trust online business.
Yet an increasing number of people are making a defiant effort to keep their personal data personal. And, after years of broadcasting their every move across social media, it is millennials who are leading the charge. A joint study by Contagious and Flamingo found that 48% of British 25–34 year-olds said they had switched product or service because of concerns about how their personal data is being used, compared to just 33% of the general population. For 49% of people in the UK and 57% in the US, citizens say that protecting their privacy online is something they invest time and money in.
Thoughtful about the personal data they share online, pragmatics are nevertheless happy to tradeoff a certain amount of information in return for the convenience and entertainment that the “stalker economy”, as Al Gore calls it, offers. Unwilling to close their Facebook or email accounts for the sake of removing a few digital breadcrumbs, they use the Internet as much as the next person. They simply do what they can to mitigate the risks.
Less concerned about prying government eyes, they’ll use pseudonyms and incorrect dates of birth to avoid being found by potential employers, old flames and nosy extended family. On Facebook, for example, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to browse their tagged photos or even be able to see what they look like. They rarely share links or like pages — preferring private messaging — so their personality, tastes and opinions remain by and large a mystery to the uninitiated. If they have an account with a music platform or video streaming service, it won’t be connected to their social media profile. In doing so, they also limit the information that third parties can gleam from them for targeted advertising and user profiling.
They are also mindful to regularly change passwords to avoid falling prey to hackers and scammers. But so long as their lives are enriched by the same services that mine their data for profit, they’ll remain regular users. Instead, they choose to be as in control as possible as what that data will be. And if an invented name or fake age is enough to confuse online businesses and unwanted snoopers, that’s good enough for them.
They’re happy to continue using data-mining services for convenience or for as long as they benefit their social life, but they wish to be as in control as possible as what that data is. If an invented name and a false place of birth is enough to confuse businesses’ profiling, that’s good enough for them.
The Online Ghosts
If you use the Internet, you’ll have a digital footprint. Online ghosts, however, refrain as much as possible from having any sort of online presence. You’d have to be incredibly persistent to discover anything about them, because they are in what’s been dubbed as “stealth mode”. They have deactivated and deleted all of their social media accounts and avoid email providers like Google, who connect all of your searches and online habits together. In fact, newcomers to this tribe may have even taken advantage of the company’s “right to be forgotten”.
They still use the Internet for work and leisure, but never sign their email up to websites or download apps without a thought. If they do use a service, they’ll comb the web and small print to ensure that it respects their privacy. Reddit is a popular forum where they can discuss ideas openly and even seek out the products and brands that interest them in subreddits. While Facebook, Yahoo and Skype are all happy to hand over your personal data to third parties — GCHQ even has a database of screenshots taken without permission from private and often sexual Yahoo video calls — services like Whatsapp claim they don’t even know their own encryption key, riling governments who demand a backdoor.
They are also likely to have ditched smartphones in favour of old Nokias and Motorolas, stripping their mobile connectivity down to SMS and phone calls. In doing so, they undermine attempts to track locations and gather data on the go. Some even go further and can only be reached by landline.
But this privacy comes at a price. After ceasing to exist online, their social circle dramatically shrinks. One online ghost explains that the effect is similar to going vegan: “people don’t include you because of the extra effort”, Another wonders how you can explain “stealth mode” to dates and family members without being branded as paranoid or putting up with rolling eyes. “I had a girlfriend threaten to leave unless I got a cell phone,” one quips. Nevertheless, they believe the freedom of anonymity they’ve gained from corporations outweighs the downsides.
Deeply suspicious of the motives of both the government and big business, fundamentalists don’t simply go off-grid. For them, privacy and anonymity is a human right worth fighting for. They’ll keep up to date on new legislation and ways to circumvent snooping, sacrificing a good deal of time and money in the process. “We really can’t talk about the open internet because it does not exist anymore,” says Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde. “The trend is going in a one-way direction.”
They use Tor to surf the dark web, make online purchases in BitCoins and only sign up to social media sites like Cloaq, which doesn’t even require an email address. Surprisingly, they are an extremely active community online, eager to share knowledge and discuss the best approach to activism. By necessity they are adept at IT, having learnt how to encrypt data and create ‘air gaps’, which physically isolate computers from unsecure networks and are commonly found in medical equipment and stock exchanges.
Some will only buy second-hand computers, which they pay for in cash to ensure that there is no paper trail linked to their name. Others will remove the microphone, webcam and WiFi capability from their computers to be in complete control of how others can or can’t access their data. One of the most popular devices on the market is the Blackphone, an end-to-end encrypted smartphone that now runs Android. For the home, San Francisco-based Prism Skylabs has developed CCTV software that erases people from the images and can only be seen by an authorised person.
Despite what outsiders may think, their caution is well founded. Merely searching the Internet for privacy-enhancing software or reading articles about them is enough to get the NSA to label you as “extremist” and track your IP address. The system in question, XKeyscore, has reportedly amassed data on everyone from journalists and their sources to political dissidents in oppressive countries.
Concerned by revelations like these, fundamentalists are instead creating an online world of their own. This year, for example, ProPublica became the dark web’s first major news site. They envision, as inventor David Chaum describes, a “civil society electronically without the possibility of mass surveillance”.
Words by Jonny Wrate
Illustrations by Jan Buchzik