How intelligence agencies have infiltrated every aspect of the modern communications system

Have you been caught in acts of “privacy nihilism”?
Have you been caught in acts of “privacy nihilism”?
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

We live in an era where simply sending an email, doing Christmas shopping searches, sharing a photograph, or commenting on a news story on a social network generates enough data for advertisers, hackers, and certain government agencies to take an interest in your private life.

Privacy advocates and experts acknowledge that the public faces a very real threat and now stands on the edge of a slippery slope. In a time when the Five Eyes alliance–an intelligence consortium of the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia–is prying into private communications, and meta data is treated as virtual gold, adopting a laissez faire attitude toward surveillance threatens to bury privacy.

“Every single communication” occurring in US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand is being shared among—and perhaps beyond—the intelligence agencies of the Five Eyes, according to Eric King, Director of Research for Privacy International.

“Intelligence sharing is at the heart” of how our privacy is being compromised, and politicians “need to stand up to these bullies,” King told an audience at the recent 2014 Mozilla Festival, held in London.

According to Privacy International, Five Eyes has “infiltrated every aspect of the modern communications systems” including “directly accessing internet companies’ data” and “tapping international fibre optic cables,” all while steadfastly failing to reveal the rules of its game. The harm is as much or more to “our democracy” as to us; “privacy is an essential condition we need,” King said.

It’s the public-private nature of the surveillance industry that is most worrisome, added Raegan MacDonald, EU Policy Manager for Access Now. “Corporations are very much involved in this—and the more we use technology, the more data is collected on us.”

With Amazon, LinkedIn, and other social media and e-commerce sites offering connection, opportunity, and convenience, “there is no free lunch,” MacDonald said. “Surveillance is the business model of the internet. We are the product. We’re trading valuable data for these services.”

The outcome can be frightening: a recent study found analysis of Facebook “likes” can reveal individuals’ sexuality, politics, tobacco use, past drug use, and even whether their parents had been divorced. Data brokers “suck up metadata on you and sell it to advertisers,” MacDonald said; Google is collecting data, too; and groups like the NSA are trying to access those sensitive troves.

What about that “no harm, no foul” reaction that many have to internet privacy issues.

“It’s easy to slip into privacy nihilism” when we feel the trade-offs are embedded in the use of the technology, said Danny O’Brien, International Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But O’Brien and MacDonald agree it’s not a wise philosophy.


So, how do people shed their “privacy nihilism”?

O’Brien recommends wider use of encryption devices, protected networks such as Tor, and distributed social networks.

O’Brien also pointed toward regulations and laws to “rein back” surveillance. The national intelligence services, he said, have had very little oversight from elected bodies, which want to offload to them the “dirty work of democracies,” facilitated by off-the-books “black budgets.”

MacDonald offered another strategy: no more free lunch.

“If data is the currency of the 21st Century, we should have a stake in that,” she said. “We should rethink this business model of the internet.”

Richard Bennett, Visiting Fellow with the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy, says an internet overhaul may be required.

“Now that the general public relies on the internet to mediate social and commercial transactions, the temptation is to harvest and use personal information for commercial and governmental ends—some of them unsavory,” he said. “We have to face the fact that the internet needs to be redesigned to serve new goals.”

Bennett stressed the importance of “efforts to recast the internet’s design in terms of a model in which the default state of network interactions is private rather than public.”

This article was originally published in The Open Standard by Mozilla, a global community of technologists, thinkers and builders working together to promote openness, innovation and opportunity online. It was not produced by the Quartz editorial staff.

{Full Disclosure: The 2014 Mozilla Festival is put on by the parent organization of The Open Standard.}