Defenders of the Digital Age
A new social movement has emerged, borne out of neither discrimination nor public unrest, but out of a systematic abuse of power so pervasive and ominous that it threatens every form of communication known to modern society. The identities of this movement’s participants are shrouded in secrecy, hidden behind layers of obfuscation and redirection. The channels of communication that connect one member to another are sealed and fortified many times over.
What are they fighting for? Privacy. The right to say, go, and do whatever they want without the ever-present eyes of Big Brother watching them. In recent years, with court case after court case defining what it means to be monitored and the seals on once-confidential documents blown wide open by whistleblowers, there is more desire than ever to evade governmental and corporate surveillance.
This sentiment is not derived from an inherent desire to flout the law—most activists in the digital rights community are law-abiding citizens, donate to charity, and don’t convene to perform nefarious acts. The ideology they subscribe to is instead one of consent and moderation: they believe that surveillance is permissible only with the approval of the surveilled and a system of accountability for the surveillers. The problem, the digital rights movement declares, is that the government has overstepped its constitutionally and morally permissible bounds in collecting information about the public through surveillance and purchase of data through private entities.
Digital rights activists are not unjustified in their paranoia—the use of surveillance programs is at an all-time high, and with cameras constantly widening the ubiquitous gaze of the government, the U.S. is slowly but surely transforming into a national surveillance state. As data storage costs decrease and avenues for monitoring expand, America progresses further down the path to becoming an entity that neither forgives nor forgets.
“Our culture underestimates the risk of a Big Brother society,” said digital rights activist Randall Rose in an interview with The Politic. Rose works with an organization called Rhode Island Rights that supplies information and resources on how to secure personal data. He has rather bleak views about our current state of affairs, describing why he thinks we’re destined for a national surveillance state and the few barriers that remain in the way.
“The only reason why we don’t a have Big Brother society already in 2017 is because we have strong cultural norms of freedom,” he said. To strengthen that “culture of freedom,” Rose regularly works with Rhode Island Rights and a coalition of like-minded groups to lobby for pro-privacy legislation at various levels of government.
On the flip side are activists like John Bogil, who founded a civic tech startup that enables people to take collective action to pressure their elected officials. Compared to Rose, he offered a more optimistic outlook when speaking with The Politic. “Your vote and your voice have value,” he asserted. In addition to legislative advocacy, Bogil’s work with TryVoices and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) involves educating the public through workshops. He’s trying to “inject more hope into the community” by showing people that offensive strategies can yield positive results and that activists cannot hide behind pseudonyms when opposing government surveillance.
That’s not to say Bogil trusts the government any more than the next digital rights activist—members of the movement are well-versed in the arts of encrypting messages, creating secure communication channels, and obscuring their digital footprints. When requesting interviews for this article, I had to use PGP to send encrypted emails that could only be decoded by me and the intended recipients. Many of the people I spoke with mentioned using DuckDuckGo (a search engine that doesn’t track search queries), uBlock Origin (an ad blocker), WhatsApp (a mobile messaging app that promises end-to-end encryption), and Tor (an anonymous web browser that allows access to parts of the Internet hidden from the likes of clearnet browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox). It’s not as excessive as it seems: the concept of threat modeling encourages each individual to gauge the level of security that different messages, channels, or topics warrant and to use the tools necessary to ensure that security.
Ultimately, one can never be sure one’s online identity is completely hidden. “There is no one tool to keep yourself safe online,” Shahid Buttar, Director of Grassroots Advocacy for the EFF, said in an interview with The Politic. “There are only tools to keep parts of yourself safe. It’s a dynamic exercise.”
Embedded in this culture of niche technicality is an element of mainstream politics that one might not expect to find—that of inclusivity, intersectionality, and democratization of power. “Privacy tends to be a bipartisan issue, and you get people from all walks of life who are interested in it,” said Kevin Gallagher, an independent activist and security research Ph.D. student, when interviewed by The Politic.
Everyone I talked to echoed this sentiment: Rose mentioned how important it was for the digital rights movement to make alliances with other causes and not delegate disproportionate power to white men; he also noted that the emphasis on being good at coding and computer science affords more privilege to the wealthy and technically inclined. Bogil said the digital rights community was “the most inclusive community [he’s] part of,” and that he’s grateful to have been exposed to various different groups through digital rights activism, such as the transgender community, that he might not have connected with otherwise.
Buttar spoke about his experiences with other social causes and witnessing digital rights being aligned with issues pushed by Black Lives Matter and other communities of color, explaining that digital rights is often encompassed in the goals of other social movements. He believes that “cyberspace anonymizes and liberates people.” Indeed, due to the spread of sharing and collective action platforms, one no longer has to be able-bodied or wealthy to participate in advocacy, and digital rights activists are trying to expand this access in every way they can.
Finally, a question of ideology: how much data do these activists think the government deserves, in the name of national security or otherwise? What about industry? (And what justification, if any, would there be for corporate surveillance?)
For government, there seems to be a consensus that surveillance is acceptable with popular consent, that governmental agencies need warrants to collect data, and that information needs to be gathered on a case-by-case basis. That is, if phone calls are tapped to determine the whereabouts of an individual, data from those phone calls cannot be used for any other purpose without a warrant. Buttar also points out that the purpose of surveillance, historically, has not always been national security, and that the public has no way of knowing exactly how effective surveillance is in preventing terror attacks.
On the industry side, opinions become more scattered on the spectrum of permissibility. Bogil just prefers that there be regulations on what companies can do with collected information, while Buttar wants users to have full control over their data, and Gallagher doesn’t believe that companies are owed any information from users. Since the government is increasing its practice of buying data from private entities to skirt surveillance regulations, Bogil’s focus on the post-collection processing of data by private companies is especially pertinent.
Going forward, there remains significant work to be done to unify the digital rights movement and educate potential allies. “The most important thing that people need to do is to curate independent news sources,” says Buttar. “After that, find common cause. Even getting one or two other people who agree with you to do something together makes a difference—and that’s the essence of engaged citizenship.”