The greater heroes principle.

I’m not super concerned about the government listening to my phone calls, reading my emails, and tracking which sites I visit. I don’t lose sleep over these things being done to me.

I am however EXTREMELY concerned about the government listening to phone calls of the next Martin Luther King Jr., reading the emails of the next Thomas Jefferson, and tracking the browsing habits of the next underground railroad. These brave souls were all enemies of their governments, they hid people and information from the long arm of the law, but they were right and the government was wrong. With modern technology, the government is able to obliterate such people. It’s them I’m concerned about. Edward Snowden said it best.

History shows that the righting of historical wrongs is often born from acts of unrepentant criminality. Slavery. The protection of persecuted Jews.
But even on less extremist topics, we can find similar examples. How about the prohibition of alcohol? Gay marriage? Marijuana?
Where would we be today if the government, enjoying powers of perfect surveillance and enforcement, had — entirely within the law — rounded up, imprisoned, and shamed all of these lawbreakers?
Ultimately, if people lose their willingness to recognize that there are times in our history when legality becomes distinct from morality, we aren’t just ceding control of our rights to government, but our agency in determing our futures.

The next Oskar Schindler may not have a chance to save lives, the next Mark Felt may never don the nickname Deepthroat and expose government corruption. Why? Because the technological abilities of surveillance today are scary. It is the job of us, the citizens, to preserve the abilities of extraordinarily brave men and women to stand up to injustice.

Not only must we hold our politicians to account for illegal unwarranted bulk surveillance. We must make popular the channels through which such hero’s can communicate. Today, the next Nelson Mandela does exist: they are journalists, whistleblowers, and community organizers. Increasingly they have to hide their communications using encryption. If the only people using encryption are the people who should be targets of government surveillance then it makes these important contributors to our society stand out like a sore thumb. Our job as citizens to help the next Lech Walesa organize Solidarity while hiding among a giant crowd of people using encryption. You and I, all of us, should use encryption regularly in our communication so that the people who need it most, are not unfairly branded for using it. Who knows, maybe that next Alexander Hamilton is you?

Even if you aren’t doing anything wrong then you still have much to hide.

You and I are not doing anything wrong, but we have many things to hide from the bad guys. The world is unfortunately full of people who can and do use information about us to hurt us because they disagree with us, because they want something we have, because they think we are their enemy, because they want power over us or because no reason at all (e.g. “for the lulz”). What can you do to keep yourself safe?

Case Studies.

For example, in 2014 many people who supported the cause of fixing sexism in video game culture were targeted by armies of misogynistic trolls who disagreed with them. Many people who simply expressed their belief that sexism has no place in gaming found themselves harassed online, had their emails hacked, had their personal documents leaked, had their addresses revealed, and had phony police complaints filed anonymously to their houses. This is what it looks like to have your privacy violated, and this is just the beginning of a bigger trend. The victims here didn’t do anything wrong when they stood up for their beliefs but as it turns out they had very much to hide.

Another example, in 2014 the number of personal records which were leaked had sky-rocketed up by 60%. Companies which had computer security in place, such as SONY, Chase Bank, Target, Home Depot, and several hospitals, all had their data stolen. What does this look like? 7 million dropbox accounts were hacked and people’s private photos, documents, videos, and more were accessible to everybody. Hundreds of thousands of SONY employees had their embarrassing emails leaked, and found their private, confidential communications to be on the front page of tabloids everywhere. These people weren’t doing anything wrong, but they too found out that they have much to hide.

Data brokers are buying and selling our data at an increasing rate. Currently this information is “anonymous” in the sense that it doesn’t have your name on it. Today it’s being used to serve you ads that are very custom fitted to your psychology, and to find your mental weaknesses where you can’t resist buying something. The advertising technology being developed right now is exponentially more insidious. It will be everywhere, it will follow you around on screens throughout the world, it will gamify your life to reward you for being a good consumer and will punish you (by denying you services) if you don’t respond well to ads. You’re not doing anything wrong, but you already try to hide your phone number from telemarketers, and you should start hiding everything else from whatever the telemarketers of the future will look like.

Governments are increasingly monitoring their own citizens, often without a specific warrant that establishes probable cause. History is replete with people hiding from governments because they are Jewish, socialist, have the wrong friends, voted for the wrong party, or attended the wrong protest. We learn history so that we can learn from the past: therefor we know that in the future people who have done nothing wrong will have cause to hide things from governments because this is how it has always been in history. Also, to turn the question around, if you didn’t do anything wrong then why are you being searched digitally?

What can we do about it?

After nude photos of celebrities were leaked people said “well, they shouldn’t be taking nude photos” as if it’s somehow a wrong way to express ones self intimately. After people’s emails were leaked for tabloids to read people said “well they shouldn’t have said that” as if censoring yourself in private communications is a healthy way to live your life. After gamergate people said “well they shouldn’t have said so publicly” as if standing up against injustice is somehow the wrong thing to do. It’s been said “well nobody should be using facebook” or “just keep your political opinions to yourself, don’t criticize the government, and then it doesn’t matter if the government reads your emails” etc. etc. Clearly these are wrongheaded and misguided answers.

Every human being gets naked sometimes, has intimate secrets which they share with their loved ones, has said something in private that they later realize is wrong and that they do not want to be in a permanent record about them, and every human being has a desire to speak up for justice. If the answer were “stop doing these things” then such an answer means “stop being human”. If you are human, you have things to hide. Period. So the answer is not to stop being human, but the answer is to better protect your privacy.

What you can and should do is to take a few hours to learn about how to protect your privacy in this new digital world. There is a fantastic technology called OTR which keeps your online chats confidential. Another great time-tested technology called PGP protects your emails from prying eyes. A brand new technology called ZRTP will keep your phone calls from being listened to. These technologies are increasingly being integrated into many solutions. For example 25 chat clients currently support OTR, so you can use them for Facebook chat, or google chat. The number of PGP-supporting email tools is through the roof so you can protect your emails from hackers, leakers, data brokers, and spies, in any number of ways. ZRTP is pretty new so only a handful of companies and apps provide such solutions.

You’re not doing anything wrong, but you have plenty to hide from the bad guys. You should take some time to try an OTR chat, a PGP email, and a ZRTP phone call. You may not have needed these before, but the world is changing rapidly, and you need to adapt. Protect your privacy, and thus your humanity, today.