The Paradox of Privacy in a Digital World

The Paradox of Privacy in a Digital World

As we use more technology, the ability to maintain a veil of privacy around our daily lives is gone. Every modern convenience we take for granted, ranging from vanilla e-mail and cell phones to the latest cutting edge devices, can be tracked and examined in detail by governments, large corporations and more malicious cybercriminals. Publicly attempting to evade scrutiny is only an invitation to more scrutiny, but crypto fans and libertarians don’t seem to “get it.”  Paper mail may be the only truly relatively secure means of communication in a digital world.

Revelations from Edward Snowden describe what privacy advocates have long feared: A vast mechanism run by the NSA and its UK counterpart able to vacuum up electronic mail and Web traffic, call detail records, and other bits of data flowing between the U.S. and other countries around the world. Location offers no protection.  Skype’s (News Alert) purchase and integration by Microsoft has apparently stripped that program of any protections, according to numerous reports.


Image via Shutterstock

Encryption was once viewed as the shield against prying eyes, but companies such as Silent Circle have preemptively shut down their encoded email services for fear that a U.S. government court order would compel providers to hand over stored messages in encrypted form along with a means for obtaining passwords.

Silent Circle continues to offer encrypted phone, file transfer, and video services and it maintains that for a list price of $120 per year, those communications will continue to be secure. However, the assertion falls into a privacy paradox. If you announce to the world you’re setting up a service to keep communications out of the reach of prying government eyes, it is likely you’ve just put yourself on a monitoring list by those agencies.

 In a post-9/11 world, openly encrypted communications are likely to be monitored and scrutinized at a higher level than unencrypted ones, with the level of scrutiny proportional to where communications are exchanged. An encrypted phone call between the U.S. and a country such as Sudan or Pakistan is going to generate a higher level of attention than a call made between two points in the U.S., but the very act of trying to obscure communications is likely to raise alarm bells.

If you can’t trust network-based communications, who or what can you trust?  Moving information via any sort of portable device, be it cell phone, tablet, laptop, or even portable game player sounds like a good idea, but as demonstrated by the ongoing media circus between The Guardian and U.S. and U.K. governments, it invites trouble if you are someone already being watched. David Miranda, partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was stopped and detained in London’s Heathrow airport earlier this week. All of his electronic items were confiscated, including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.

Consumer electronics border crossing chicanery is not limited to the U.K. by any means. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can seize and search any electronic device coming into the United States without a “reasonable suspicion” or court order. Between the implementation of the rule in 2008 and 2010, 6,500 people had their devices searched, according to DHS data.  China may be the worst place to take electronics, with many organizations barring the transport of company gadgets into the country due to fears about hacking key data and providing an on-ramp into a secure network. Instead, they take “loaner” devices that will be wiped clean upon return to the U.S.

The safest way to communicate with someone might be the oldest — paper mail. Envelopes can be steamed and the contents copied, but letters can be sent through different post offices and layover stops to post office boxes or third-party addresses. Paper mail is slower, but it also has the advantage of being much more labor intensive for anyone trying to intercept communications.