Taking Back Our Privacy

from The New Yorker

Walking down Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the retail strip in Venice, California, can feel like scrolling through Instagram. One afternoon this July, people sat at outdoor tables beneath drooping strings of fairy lights, sipping cocktails and spearing colorful, modestly dressed salads. The line for Salt & Straw, a venture-funded, “chef-driven” ice-cream shop, stretched up the block, and athleisure-clad twentysomethings photographed themselves eating waffle cones, fabric masks pulled down around their chins like turkey wattles. A month earlier, Abbot Kinney had become a central gathering place for protesters during the mass demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism. Moxie Marlinspike, who firmly supported the protests, noticed that many of the high-end businesses, fearing looters, had boarded up their windows, then decorated the plywood with murals and messages in support of Black Lives Matter. “It kind of reminded me of how, right after the Russian Revolution, a lot of the zeks—the sort of criminal underclass—would get full-chest tattoos of Marx and Lenin and, later, Stalin because they thought the Bolsheviks would be less likely to kill them,” he joked, as we wandered along the Venice Beach boardwalk.

Marlinspike is the C.E.O. of Signal, the end-to-end encrypted messaging service, which he launched in 2014; he is also a cryptographer, a hacker, a shipwright, and a licensed mariner. Tall and sinewy, with the build of a natural athlete who abstains from team sports, he was wearing black jeans, a black T-shirt, black Teva sandals, a denim jacket, and a white N95 mask. He has blond dreadlocks, which he had tucked under a blue cap. An avid surfer, he had been living in the neighborhood with friends for about two years, but, aside from the ocean, it held little appeal for him. “Living in Venice is like living at the end of the world, the end of history,” he told me, dryly. “All the decisions have been made. This is the world we get.”

Signal’s growth has corresponded to periods in which decisions are questioned or undone—to moments of social and political upheaval. With end-to-end encryption, the content of every communication—a text message, a video chat, a voice call, an emoji reaction—is intelligible only to the sender and the recipient. If an exchange is intercepted, by a hacker or a government agency, the interloper sees a nonsensical snarl of letters and numbers. Signal does not share growth metrics, but in late 2016 Marlinspike told the Times that the number of daily Signal downloads had grown by four hundred per cent since the election of Donald Trump. This summer in the U.S., the service was flooded with an estimated several million new users. In early July, after China imposed a sweeping national-security law, Signal was briefly the most downloaded app in Hong Kong. The Electronic Frontier Foundation includes Signal in its “Surveillance Self-Defense” guide; Edward Snowden, a friend of Marlinspike, has endorsed it for years.

All this has given Signal a halo of subversion, but Marlinspike believes that encrypted-communication tools are necessary not just in times of political tumult. Most people who use social networks and chat services, he argues, assume that their digital communications are private; they want to share their thoughts and photographs with their friends—not with Facebook and Google, not with advertisers, and certainly not on the dark Web. “In a sense, I feel like Signal is just trying to bring normality to the Internet,” he said as we sat on a patch of grass near the beach. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is just square the actual technology with people’s intent.” He plucked two small feathers out of the grass, rolled them between his fingers, and planted them upright in the dirt.

More here.

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3 Comments

  1. People of all ages use computers and the web in their daily lives whether it is for school, work, shopping, or interacting with others. The web and online services have made our lives extremely easier because of the amount of information there is to offer. There is an answer to almost every question and problem online. It just continues to develop more and more each year. It is crazy how fast the web has grown in such a short amount of time. However, there is one main downside to online services: privacy. Companies like Google and Facebook are notorious for using the information we search for and the websites we browse to collect data on us. It happens to everyone where we are searching for one thing and later we go on Facebook or Google and see an add for the product we were searching for. These companies have faced lots o backlash over the years for the data they collect on us. We recently had a discussion abut this topic in my business ethics class. It was all about surveillance capitalism and how they companies collect so much data on us that the algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. It was not too long ago where Google was caught having hidden microphones installed in their home security systems which were not needed at all. These microphones were used to listen in on people to collect data on our habits, interests, likes and dislikes. Privacy is a big thing now a days and there has to be a line drawn for these major tech companies not to cross. It is bad enough that they use our search history to show us what we want to see. These companies probably have enough data on us to never have to collect a bit ever again. It is crazy that they are even allowed to do all this. Something needs to get done, whether it is a policy or restriction to limit the power these companies have. By letting them collect all this data, we are giving them all the power in the world to do whatever they want with it. If nothing is done it will only get worse in the near future.

  2. Many technological agencies and companies have started to work on end-to-end encrypted communication, since privacy has started to be more difficult as the digital companies and state agencies have started to create tools that finds anything on your messages, and they can see whatever you are sending to the other person. Encryption has started to be one of the next technological pattern, since most of the companies have created new features that will ensure their privacy. The first type of encryption that has been in discussion about six years ago, and it has been creating big money movements by investors. Crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin, which has been growing really fast, have ensured privacy on transactions, so governments cannot find who has made the payment, or why this payment has been made. Furthermore, companies have been developing more features that are characterized by encryption. Telegram is a communication app that ensures people’s privacy while they are talking, or while they are sending something, but some regulations have made it less efficient during the past years, since they are forced to give some date when investigations are conducted. However, this company has influenced many communication companies such as Whatsapp, which has been purchased by Zuckerberg. The Facebook creator has inserted in Facebook and Whatsapp a feature that gives the users the power to encrypt their communication. Encryption has been a tool of self-defense over new tools that empower agencies to see whatever they want. However, I am diffident about how encryption is working at its hundred percent capabilities, since governments and tech companies would have the power anyway to find whatever they want about us. Encryption would be another tool that those companies would use on their favor as they have done with the social media on the past years. They would find a way to get more data on us, and they would sell data more expensive than ever, since it can be used for many scopes. Encryption would be another technological pattern that would lead new investors to get richer, but it will not guarantee our privacy against companies and state agencies.

  3. The application of encryption in regards to technologies used by society brings about various complex concerns that I had not thought much about until reading this article. As the digital age advances and our data continues to increase in value for corporations, the government, and potentially malicious individuals, it is natural and essential for us to be concerned about our privacy. Encryption seems to offer an effective means of maintaining data privacy, with end-to-end encryption in messaging making it impossible for anyone aside from the relevant parties to review the exchange. Yet, as the article mentions, criticism has been directed towards such encryption methods on account of them concealing data that could reveal criminal activities.

    As someone who is concerned with data privacy themselves, it is hard not to acknowledge the validity of these concerns. Though increased surveillance does indeed put our privacy at constant risk, advancing technologies and utilization of data are able to play a key role in solving and preventing malicious and criminal acts. For example, the 2016 murder of Karina Vetrano was solved on account of the victim’s cell phone records, as well as 137 relevant links found across her Internet browser (https://towardsdatascience.com/how-data-analytics-are-solving-murders-1cdac5432d6e). If this data were encrypted and not intelligible by authorities, it is possible that the case would never have been properly solved. Essentially, we are faced with determining some form of balance in regards to preserving our data privacy while not entirely restricting the appropriate authorities or parties from accessing our data.

    Eoghan Casey of Knowledge Solutions had noted back in 2002 that criminals are learning how to use encryption specifically to hide evidence (https://www.utica.edu/academic/institutes/ecii/publications/articles/A04AF2FB-BD97-C28C-7F9F4349043FD3A9.pdf). They are able to actively work against forensic examiners and authorities in their efforts to encrypt key evidence. With almost two decades having passed since this paper had been written, encryption methods have only advanced, allowing for malicious use to be fueled further. This ultimately develops a dangerous layer to encryption, even if it can be used to maintain data privacy for the average person.

    Though the noted criticisms of encryption are not the main point of the article, this had emphasized for me that data privacy efforts must still acknowledge the importance of certain parties or officials being able to access data. The dilemma expressed by criticisms of encryption will likely maintain a sense of conflict in regards to regulation of data use across the coming years.

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