Eroding online privacy will hinder security not improve it, experts warn

Freedom on the internet has deteriorated for 12 consecutive years now. Some US states have started requiring ID on PornHub, the UK has attempted to curtail end-to-end encryption, and even X (Twitter) works on ID verification features. Recent symptoms of eroding privacy, a basic human right, may worsen with AI’s hunger for data.

Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption?

This question was, until recently, not up for debate. It’s included in Freedom House‘s checklist used to measure freedom on the internet and evaluate countries’ scores.

This test itself is being tested as the UK‘s Online Safety Bill exerts pressure to open end-to-end encryption in messengers to protect child safety. Australia also wants similar powers over tech companies.

Another checklist question: Does the state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy?

While hard to answer with yes or no, in 2022, even democracies such as the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan, all scored just 2 points out of a possible 6.

Next year, the scores are unlikely to improve.

“We have made the difficult decision to fully block our site in Virginia and Mississippi, as we have also recently done in Utah. We are sorry to let our loyal visitors in these states down but have opted to comply with the newly effective law in this way because it is ineffective and, worse, will put both user privacy and children at risk.”

That’s a quote from Pornhub's announcement on June 30th, in protest against laws requiring users to verify their age with government-issued ID.

The advocacy organization for the adult industry, Free Speech Coalition, also filed a legal challenge in Texas recently over the state’s unconstitutional age-verification law. Its executive director Alison Boden claimed that not only is privacy at risk, but “they are forcing them to broadcast misinformation and pseudoscience about sex and sexuality.”

Elon Musk’s X (Twitter) also works on ID verification features to fight impersonation and disinformation.

“Zoom’s most recent fiasco about using our private discussions to train their AI is only the latest in privacy-destroying behaviors. If they or any other company truly guaranteed end-to-end encryption, then they would be unable to exploit our data and private communiques,” said Denis Mandich, CTO and Co-Founder of a quantum secure encryption company Qrypt and a former intelligence community member.

Global internet freedom declined for the 12th consecutive year in 2022. The sharpest downgrades were documented in Russia, Myanmar, Sudan, and Libya, Freedom House and a network of more than 80 researchers concluded.

Users in at least 53 countries faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online, often leading to draconian prison terms.

Together with a tighter grip on privacy, users are subjected to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattacks. Countries like the US and Australia scored just 1 point out of 3 in this cybersecurity regard.

Privacy is a fundamental right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation.”

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Pseudo-anonymity, the struggle for privacy weaken freedom of speech

Anonymity and privacy are not the same. Anonymity ensures that an individual cannot be identified, while privacy describes the ability to control his information, access to it, and how it is used.

Mandich argues that: “Anonymity hardly exists at all, and that’s been the case for a long time,” while privacy violations online are increasing.

“The internet and violations of privacy continue to become beyond pervasive by collecting more detailed information on all of us. The most recent requirement is to source more data into AI’s biggest large language models,” he said.

Ani Chaudhuri, CEO at Dasera, agrees that anonymity “is on the endangered list.”

“The future may hold a “pseudo-anonymity,” where one’s identity is known to entities but not readily accessible or public,” Chaudhuri said.

He distinguishes a critical paradox brought by the accelerated evolution of technology – the more interconnected we become, the more vulnerable our digital identities and data seem.

As governments face challenges in managing large amounts of data, they respond by reevaluating the equilibrium between privacy and security. We’re witnessing a “global tussle between the individual's rights and the collective's perceived needs.”

According to both experts, attention now should be focused on protecting privacy and, ultimately, the freedom of speech.

“We must defend the freedom of speech, especially content we disagree with the most, including hate speech. We want the most despicable people to publicly out themselves for what they are, rather than pushing them to conspire underground and in secret. We cannot compromise on privacy, which is the right to have unfiltered, unmonitored discussions among ourselves without fear of reprisal,” Mandich concluded.

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“End-to-end encryption is non-negotiable”

UK’s Online Safety Bill is supposed to protect children and adults online. However, its current state it threatens free knowledge, privacy, freedom of speech, and the strength of civic society in the UK, Wikimedia Foundation argued.

Many tech firms also say that monitoring online activities for harmful material requires eliminating encryption, representing a serious threat in terms of surveillance, identity theft, fraud, and data breaches.

“End-to-end encryption is non-negotiable. It's the digital age's fortification against unwarranted intrusions. Compromises can be made in areas like content moderation but with strong checks and balances. Anonymity can be relaxed for platforms where the impact of falsehood is high, but blanket surveillance is not the answer,” Chaudhuri says.

While child safety is paramount, using this argument as a universal excuse for surveillance is problematic. Increased restrictions, aimed at curtailing cyber threats, scams, and misinformation, also stifles freedom of speech and personal privacy.

And on the contrary, end-to-end encryption protects users as it ensures that private data is safe from harvesting, categorizing, and trading by advertisers, hackers, and even nefarious nation-state actors, Mandich added.

He does not believe that giving up privacy would contribute to security, but rather the opposite.

“The issues are intimately connected. Continuing to grow the internet into a larger surveillance state to feed data-mining companies (social media, AI, etc.) is unsustainable and leads to more criminal behavior. Achieving privacy and exponentially better security is easily within reach if we severely limit access to personal data,” Mandich said.

The online future may look like “Orwellian society”

30 countries have declared to work, among other affirmations, toward an environment that: “Secures and protects individuals’ privacy, maintains secure and reliable connectivity, and resists efforts to splinter the global internet.”

Both US and the UK are the signatories of a Declaration for the Future of the Internet, proposed last year.

And, at present, as described in Freedom House’s report last year, “Governments are breaking apart the global internet to create more controllable online spaces. A record number of national governments blocked websites with nonviolent political, social, or religious content, undermining the rights to free expression and access to information. A majority of these blocks targeted sources located outside of the country.”

Heading into the future, the internet, according to Mandich, will become even more invasive “as it transitions to an “always-on,” “always-tethered” state promised by 5G and 6G network connectivity and smart cities.”

High-quality, contemporary information from real people is an asset that tech companies seek, not blogs and posts generated by chatbots.

Image by Shutterstock.

“Restrictions will be based on country-specific requirements like GDPR and data collection, while countries like North Korea, Russia, Iran and China will further limit access and accessible control content. The former is a benefit to privacy, while the latter is a further degradation of human rights in those countries.

Chaudhuri expects to witness an ebb and flow in internet restrictions in the foreseeable future, as countries with authoritarian tendencies may clamp down harder, and more liberal democracies experience oscillations depending on the political climate.

“Erosion of trust in digital platforms, chilling of free speech, the potential misuse of personal data for manipulative advertising or even political manipulation, and the rise of an Orwellian society where every action is monitored,” Chaudhuri listed potential risks.

And there is little an individual can do.

“Assume that the principle of "digital permanence" applies to all actions. It's not about fear but about conscious data responsibility. Understand the implications of sharing and be aware of one's digital footprint,” Chaudhuri advised.

Alternatives: better tools, Web3

Alisdair Faulkner, CEO of financial security startup Darwinium, believes that we're entering an age of consumer primacy. This means that businesses, their products, and services will be under far greater scrutiny to protect customer safety, security, and privacy. Consumers, according to him, will have more tools and ways to encrypt their data.

“It’s not about restricting consumers, or asking them to accept less privacy or security when transacting online, but more about looking at ways we can protect consumers using the very best technologies and innovations available to ensure their data remains private and secure,” he said.

Lars Seier Christensen, Chairman and Founder of the Swiss non-profit Concordium Foundation, sees Web3 as a viable alternative to the centralized traditional online experience, calling it “a beacon of hope for data privacy.”

I look forward to seeing the adoption of decentralized ID verification, which enables users to verify their identity without handing over sensitive information to centralized platforms. I believe this will be the silver bullet to unlocking secure and accessible online trade,” he said.

He gave an example – using zero-knowledge proofs (ZKP), users can verify their age while purchasing alcohol online without accessing other sensitive data.

And Big Tech, according to him, has too much power over consumers. This can have far-reaching and unforeseen consequences, such as the incident last year when Apple and Meta accidentally handed over consumer data to hackers posing as law enforcement.

“It is increasingly common for law enforcement to request data from social media platforms for criminal investigations, and while this is part of due process, it is worth considering whether these platforms can handle this responsibility. After all, Apple and Meta handed over data without a subpoena or search warrant under the guise of an “emergency data request,” Christensen said.

Some countries are even trying to momentarily curb the efficacy of tools like VPNs. So far, innovation, fueled by the resilience of freedom-seeking individuals, has managed to keep up and win the eternal cat-and-mouse game.

“In the push and pull between freedom and control, we must remember the foundational ethos of the internet: to connect, to share, and to empower. Let's not lose sight of that in our quest for a safer digital universe,” Chaudhuri concluded.

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