Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Tech Tuesday: Surveillance Capitalism and the Erosion of Privacy: What Will Tomorrow Bring?

A Digital Design by Kathy McTavish
In the summer of 2016 I wrote a Tech Tuesday article titled, "Has Moore's Law Run Its Course." One of the things that is rewarding about blogging is how the material you share seems to have a near eternal shelf life.

This past week the article drew a response from a company called TechWarn, in the cybersecurity niche of the tech sector. Founded in March 2014, TechWarn is a digital safety advocate warning tech users of the dangers in the digital world and empowering users to take control of their digital lives.

Lexie is the tech expert from ExpressVPN, a vocal advocate for internet freedom and privacy. He writes for ExpressVPN's blog and gets excited about empowerment through technology, space travel, and pancakes with blueberries. Links to more of Lexie's blog posts can be found at the end of this interview.

EN: What is “surveillance capitalism”?

Lexie: Surveillance capitalism the unstoppable trend driving a growing appetite for data collection, mining, and selling. The market’s transparency makes it easy for surveillance capitalists to feed on user data, but to the producers of such data, on the other hand, the market is invisible. Most do not realize what they are giving up and how it could harm them; most are unable to make that connection.

EN: When did people become aware that this was a problem?

Lexie: Some people realized this was a problem very early on -- the fear of an all-knowing state or corporate apparatus is as old as modern technology itself -- while the rest still don't see it. Recent years have seen an increasing pushback on data collection and surveillance thanks to whistleblowers like Snowden, and companies like Apple have demonstrated that respecting consumer’s privacy is not only feasible but a superior business model.

The biggest headache is China. The Communist Party has established a massive surveillance apparatus and is aggressively enhancing it with "AI" that is equipped with facial recognition and social credit scoring technology. The country seems also to be on a road to abolishing cash. Nobody can escape it; there is barely even an option to get a secure phone on the market. The government and corporations are working tight together to control their populace, and nobody will be able to break out. Most of the advice we give to our international readers is useless in China.

EN: You stated that the Internet doesn’t work correctly unless we sacrifice some of our privacy. What do you mean?

Lexie: If you are keen on ensuring privacy, you would have to give up a lot. Speed is a major compromise on the Tor Browser. Site access is another issue with Adblocks. If you opt to pay for online content, not only will you have to share your legal name, address, credit card number, you will also be tracked subsequently. Without a credit card, Paypal, Gmail or Facebook account, you cannot function seamlessly in the online world. The list is endless. Sure, you could run your own Jabber server and only accept incoming chats that use the OTR protocol for end-to-end encryption with perfect forward secrecy, but you'd be alone.

EN: Social Media has done its share of eliminating a lot of our privacy, and the public has been complicit. In what ways will the Internet of Things contribute to the continued erosion of privacy in the future?

Lexie: The main reason for our privacy erosion is that we are not in control of what information we give up. When we buy an internet-enabled fitness armband or a home thermostat, we have no idea what kind of information they are collecting and who’s reading it on the other end. A lot can be inferred from somebody’s air purifier readings at home, for example, such as how many people are in the room or whether someone is cooking.

All this information is made available to third parties. In harmless cases, they simply want to make money from it. But there were times when it enabled uncontrollable epidemics of serial killers and unfettered domestic abuse where victims can only escape if they removed themselves from the internet completely. This might lead us down a path of isolation that comes with an abundance of accompanying mental health issues, and women might get the shorter end of the stick.

EN: What are people doing to push back against this loss of privacy?

Lexie: The battle for privacy can sometimes feel like a Goliath fight. As I said earlier, today it is impossible to fully reclaim your privacy and become invisible online, but there are easy ways to make great strides with just a few steps. For instance, using Facebook in your incognito window makes it harder for the platform to track you outside of their site. You can also use EFF’s Privacy Badger to allow cookies and block third-party resources and scripts, and UBlock Origin to get rid of ads that track you in a manner that is way out of proportion.

Use Bitcoin when it's available and start paying for a well-run email provider instead of revealing yourself to Google. You can opt for encrypted messaging platforms and use a VPN. Ditching your smart fridge is a good idea as well.

Plenty of times, we should just be less vain. Collecting air miles is only worth it if somebody else is paying for your flight, and we don’t need to check into every restaurant we visit, do we?

Related Links
What will happen to internet privacy in the future?
Five Famous Whistleblowers Who Risked Everything
How to Detect Devices Spying On You In 2019

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