On-line surveillance, whether by companies, criminals or governments, is a worrying reality of our present time. A recent survey showed that feelings around government surveillance are quite mixed, though I’d say too much in favour. The same survey’s results on privacy (generally not related to government surveillance) seem more heartening but show large disparities between different countries.
In this context of widespread surveillance, I think it is important to have some idea of tools that can help protect oneself while on-line. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has released a new tool, Privacy Badger, which aims to help protect against third parties tracking your browsing across multiple sites. This should help protect against “canvas fingerprinting” which records your information about your computer (and in Slate) and settings which may allow it to be identified on different sites.
One further note on the erosion of privacy and large-scale government surveillance. Perhaps the most famous literary example is the world imagined by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. I recently began reading it to see how that dystopian future compared with some of the stories coming out in the present. I would much rather live in our current world than that of the novel but I do not think we are doing better in all areas all the time, sometimes the novel is remarkably prescient.
In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a blue-bottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the Police Patrol, snooping into people’s windows.
That comes from the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Compare that with what the FBI had to say about drones and warrants.
The FBI’s Stephen D. Kelly replied that the FBI believes that people watched by drones do not have “reasonable expectation of privacy” because “there is no physical trespass involved.” So if a drone hovers quietly above your backyard, filming everything you do, it’s just fine — because it never actually touched your personal property.
That should be very concerning. Another part of Orwell’s novel concerned the government rewriting history. History books, newspapers and more were constantly updated to reflect the “truth.” If the government said X would happen and then Y happened, they would rewrite the records to show that they had said Y would happen. There would be no record of them ever saying that X would happen. Our advantage is that we can use technology to keep tabs on what the government is saying.
New Twitterbots are becoming popular that monitor government IP addresses and report on Wikipedia edits, the go-to source of knowledge on the internet. Obviously there are ways around it, the same as there are ways for citizens to circumvent government blocks and spying, but it is still a useful tool for accountability. Now we know when the Canadian government tries to remove criticisms or when the Russian government edits the article on MH17 to blame Ukrainian soldiers.