We’re under assault!
Our rights are being taken away! Our privacy is being invaded!
Somebody do something!
We learned last week that several western governments are collecting information about what we’re doing on the internet.
The US and the UK, even Canada, are keeping tabs on our every move.
Gasp! The horror!
Seriously? We’re surprised by this?
We’ve had the internet’s patron saint, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, delivering dire warnings about this for years.
In 2010, Schmidt told The Atlantic, “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”
A year earlier, in an interview with CNBC he said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know maybe you shouldn’t be doing it [online] in the first place.”
Most chillingly, “Just remember when you post something, the computers remember forever.”
In other words, everything you do online is recorded, monitored, and available for analysis by any number of businesses and, yes, governments.
That’s just the painful truth about the internet.
And, really, it’s our own fault for having let it evolve to this state. The piper had to be paid somehow for all these “free” services like Gmail and Facebook that we’ve become addicted to.
So none of us have the right to feign horror when US President Obama gets caught digging through our dresser drawers and sniffing our briefs.
That said, it’s not too late for us to at least make an effort to defend ourselves.
We’ve become accustomed to the internet’s easy factor, though, and establishing even a modicum of personal security online requires knowledge and effort.
But even if you begin to alter your online behaviour and build yourself some virtual defenses, it may just be to exchange the devil you know for the one you don’t.
Google, for example, publishes information about the information it releases to governments. Nothing specific, of course, but at least it lets us maintain an understanding of the degree to which public servants want to dig into our private lives.
But if you dump Gmail for another service that touts itself being “secure” and “private,” what do you really know about that alternative service provider?
A great first step to protecting yourself online is to establish a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, connection.
That will hide your online activities in an encrypted state from any agency that is collecting data traffic, even if it is stored and reviewed later.
But your browsing patterns, if not the data you transfer, are monitored and collected by the business providing the VPN service.
So, again, would you rather the US Government tracks your online antics, or the Great East India VPN Company?
Many of us are now dependent on cloud storage services like Dropbox and Flickr to make our files and photos backed up and easier to access.
These are all US-based services subject to US anti-privacy legislation.
There are alternatives out there, that claim to be more secure and private, like the heavily-encrypted MEGA.
But, again, it’s a case of pick your poison. Do you trust US businesses and federal agencies, or a lunatic New Zealand millionaire who legally changed his name to Kim Dotcom?
In the end, no matter the service you subscribe to or the network you use, it boils down to one thing: assume that whatever you do online may one day be seen by someone you never intended to see it.
But, wait: as long as you’re not doing anything “wrong” online, you probably won’t attract attention, right?
The rights and wrongs of any age have a habit of changing.
Consider this current trend in our western world towards conservatism. If it accelerates to a more fundamentalist mentality, such as that in a country like Iran, what of our data then?
What might be made of our collected history of online behaviours that are tolerated by a contemporary government by a regime with a stricter, narrower moral view?
As Google’s Schmidt said, computers never forget. The internet is forever. So that gives any government, present and future, the memory of an elephant.
Conduct yourself accordingly.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, June 21, 2013.