Digital privacy – why it matters and what to do
Picture credit: ThisIsEngineering via pexels.com
By Rusere Shoniwa
You can read more of Rusere’s work at https://plagueonbothhouses.com
John Nugent (interviewed here) is carving out a new niche in the digital services market – helping to defend the public against an all-out assault on our online privacy rights. He is the founder of the Institute for Digital Privacy and has just written a book entitled Digital Privacy Self-defence – Why it matters and what to do.
I interviewed John to raise awareness of the growing threat to privacy and, equally importantly, what steps we can take to fight back. You can watch the full conversation here. The starting point for a serious debate on Big Tech’s and governments’ dystopian digital surveillance is a clear statement of why privacy matters. That’s where I began the discussion with John, and while this article touches on some key points we discussed, I have chosen to add some additional thoughts in this article. Obviously I recommend watching the interview as John explains how Big Tech has evolved, how it operates, the nature of the threat we face and a few jaw-dropping facts that should frighten us all.
Why does privacy matter?
You would think the answer to that is simple – privacy is a human right. It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 12), the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 7), and the European Convention of Human Rights (Article 8), which is incorporated into English law under the Human Rights Act 1998. Surely this makes the right to privacy a self-evident truth? To an extent yes, but sadly the encroachment on this right is forcing those who care about it to restate the case for privacy. And the paradox of a self-evident truth is that it is difficult (though not impossible) to construct arguments to support it precisely because it is, or should be, evident without proof or reasoning. That’s the meaning of self-evident!
Privacy advocates were not really put to the test until the US national security state weaponised the 9/11 crisis to subvert privacy rights in the name of fighting the so-called war on terror. After 2001, the surveillance state told us that the only way to be kept safe from terrorism was to surrender your right to privacy. The specious argument advanced to justify the burgeoning surveillance state was that surrendering this right would only affect the bad guys – no privacy problem exists if a person has nothing to hide. Ed Snowden’s brilliant retort to that is:
“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different to saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
People also easily forget that privacy and liberty are essentially entwined – you cannot be free if the state and Big Tech are privy to all your conversations, social media interactions and records of financial activity. Sadly, the glib nothing-to-hide mantra gained traction among large swathes of the unthinking public who seem incapable of grasping what Benjamin Franklin meant when he said: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” He was saying that individual liberty is a fundamental human need that cannot be subordinated to a false and unattainable quest to reduce the risk of all harm to zero. Enduring the risk of harm is the price we must pay to preserve the ultimate human good – individual freedom.
Seventy-five years after basic human rights were codified by the UN in the wake of the catastrophe of WW2, we once again find many of these rights like privacy and bodily autonomy under attack. Why then is the so-called march of human progress proving to be a cruel illusion and the veneer of civilisation much thinner than even cynics like me thought? Has the memory of state brutality been lost? Have we had it too good for too long?
I think this is partly true, and privacy is an instructive example. Back in, say, 1955, conservative social mores would have rendered many relationships, practices and thoughts taboo and even unlawful. Consequently, I imagine that most people would have defended their privacy fiercely simply because a great number of people were secretly thinking about or dabbling in something that was regarded as taboo or even illegal at the time. Perhaps people didn’t need to be convinced of the need for privacy. Thankfully, moral and legal judgement of taboos has declined over the generations to the point that very little is now taboo.
However, I can’t help thinking that the mistake of a new generation is to think that if nothing is taboo, then the need for privacy falls away. The fallacy is that nothing is private if nothing is taboo. This misses a fundamental point about privacy. It isn’t just a right that imparts dignity. It is a need rooted in healthy psychological development. The process of individuation – arriving at an understanding that we are separate, autonomous individuals – occurs naturally in humans very early in life, manifested in ‘the terrible twos’. This separation of our identity from that of others is an essential and unavoidable precursor to forging respectful relationships. We are obliged to accept and respect differences and uniqueness. Failure to respect privacy in personal relationships is regarded as an intrusion or violation. Being able to put a wall around our identity and to share aspects of it with those we choose to is a fundamental part of our development and of being human. Ask any parent who gets caught rifling through their teenager’s room without permission.
To those who say you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide, I would ask:
- “Do you have curtains?”
- “Show me your credit card bill for the last year.”
- “Allow me to eavesdrop on intimate conversations between you and your partner or doctor.” (Amazon’s Alexa is probably doing some of that anyway.)
Human rights like privacy are, therefore, not mere concessions grudgingly made by those in authority, subject to hasty withdrawal when expedient. Human rights are synonymous with human dignity. Human dignity is foundational to a civilised society. The codification of human rights marks the moment at which humanity recognised that it could never elevate itself above the barbarism of the first half of the 20th century unless dignity was restored to as many people on the planet as possible.
The removal of those rights therefore marks a return to barbarism. That barbarism will likely take a different form to the world wars of the 20th century, but it will be barbarism all the same when governments seek to dehumanise their citizens by stripping them of the dignity inherent in human rights. If you accept that the transhumanist future envisioned for us by the backers of the Great Reset, including our craven captured governments, cannot be achieved without obliterating basic human rights, then you must also accept that this erosion of human rights poses an existential threat to humanity by plunging us into a new form of barbarism.
That’s why I stopped paying attention a long time ago to the screeching climate alarmism of the organ grinder’s monkeys typified by the likes of George Monbiot, whom I regard as the high priests of a death cult. I simply wasn’t interested in prioritising ‘saving the planet’ over ending the barbarism of the war of terror, which was the first trojan horse for delivering the surveillance state. And I am now certainly less interested in what they call ‘saving the planet’ when, humming along very nicely in the background, is a transhumanist agenda whose goal is to put an end to humanity as we know it. It seeks the ultimate and perpetual invasion of privacy in which data from the mind and body is harvested in real time as humans are assimilated into a collective Borg race plugged into an internet of things.
A truly civilised human race will, by virtue of its dignity, take care of the planet. Conversely, a human race that subordinates human rights and dignity to a pretence of ‘saving the planet’ is barbaric. Either it will destroy itself, or the planet, or both.
How we got here and where it’s heading
To understand how we got here, we must return to the nothing-to-hide fallacy. There is a good reason why so many fell for it, or at least didn’t see any point in resisting it. Those who advocated for state surveillance as a prerequisite for security offered up an appealing argument that reduces the problem to a seemingly rational trade-off – giving up innocuous data in return for a lot of security. They argue that the nature of the information being gathered is not sensitive and therefore, if disclosed, not likely to cause embarrassment to a law-abiding individual. Many of us who feel passionate about privacy would probably have to admit that data such as the phone numbers we dialled in the past 6 months, what we bought, and where we stayed when we were on vacation isn’t that spicy! In other words, the insidious argument is that the type of data collected and the way it is used is just not threatening to individual liberty, so if the state can sift through this mountain of data to filter out bad actors, why not let them?
A huge chunk of the fallacy of trading liberty for safety is rooted in a grave misunderstanding of the true nature of government. There are two ways to think of the functions of government. The first is that government is a bureaucracy that tries, and often fails, to deliver services for which we pay taxes: policing, justice, hospitals and so on. At best it’s a clumsy but necessary cog in the civilisational wheel, putting aside the evil that can flow from the propensity for the Vogons operating the levers of government bureaucracy to compensate for the lack of autonomy in their own lives by being little Hitlers at work. And even that is regarded merely as an inconvenience to be tolerated as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. This is the mainstream, benign view of government.
The second and more apposite way to think of government for the purpose of understanding the data privacy threat, and most other threats to freedom, is this: it is a small group of individuals – a ruling cabinet with a majority of MPs at their command to vote in legislation – with the vast machinery of government at their disposal to shape the economy and society in accordance with their will and, more importantly, that of their corporate paymasters. The MPs are, for the most part, stooges who are whipped into doing as they’re told by the cabal of 17 Secretaries of State and the PM. This small cabal understand who they’re really working for, and it’s not you and me.
To this cabal, information and data is power, and the more data about us that is concentrated in the hands of powerful entities like the government and corporations, the more those entities will leverage that data to exercise power and control over us. Understanding the true nature of government highlights two basic laws. First, it’s incredibly difficult to get power back from government once you’ve given it away. Second, that power is always extended into areas which have nothing to do with the pretext on which it was granted in the first place.
The past three years have been a painful lesson in just how abusive the government, working in concert with its master, global corporations, can be. The government and Big Tech colluded in industrial scale censorship to censor narratives that didn’t align with the official public health narrative. Paypal censors people who say things it doesn’t like by withdrawing financial services from them. The Canadian government froze the bank accounts of the Freedom Convoy truckers and the citizens who donated to the truckers’ anti-mandate protest. That’s a small taste of things to come in a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) world. To those who disagree with the people who were censored by PayPal and the Canadian government, I ask you this: can you be so sure you will never have anything to say that might contradict the government’s official narrative of the day?
With the 20-year war of terror now past its shelf life, governments in the West are gearing up to brand all government dissent as domestic ‘right-wing’ terror. Australia already has a law that grants its government the power to monitor the internet activity of a ‘suspect’s’ network or device. How low is the bar for being labelled a ‘suspect’? The Daily Sceptic says that the UK’s Online Safety Bill will herald the end of online privacy. I agree and have said so many times. But after you’ve read John’s book, you’ll realise we don’t have online privacy right now. In addition to all the other examples provided in this article, we now know that the UK government uses taxpayer money to outsource its surveillance monitoring of the social media posts of its citizens. I suppose the distinction between the worst-case end state and the current state we’re in is that we haven’t yet seen a blanket turning off of the lights. But all the preconditions for that are there.
We know things are bad on the privacy front, but how many of us know that the Government maintains a National Pupil Database (NPD) which is shared without our consent with universities, media companies and other commercial organisations. Information in the database includes sexual preference, religion and exam attainment data.  The Wikipedia link above provides ample evidence of how widely the data is shared. While the government has powers to share raw data from the NPD, the Wikipedia page states that “the data when released, however, are not anonymised, but are sensitive and identifying” and gives instances of “controversial [read illegal] collections and distribution of identifying personal data from the database”.
NHS medical data is now being shared with Google and Amazon, and while we are told that the data is being shared anonymously, researchers have repeatedly shown that anonymised databases can be very easily and accurately de-anonymised.  Anyone who still thinks our Big Brother government can be trusted is living in La-la land. The governments doing this are the same governments that brutalised Julian Assange for doing what journalists are supposed to do – expose government criminality. They are the same governments that made Ed Snowden a fugitive for whistleblowing about the very subject matter of this article – spying on citizens through illegal bulk data collection.
Crushing free speech by terrorising journalists is on the increase – ask journalist Kit Klarenberg who was recently detained for five hours at Luton airport and subjected to interrogation about his political views and his reporting for The Grayzone.
We are living in a fascist state. If you don’t know it, it may simply be because you haven’t yet been directly targeted. But, at some level, we are all being targeted because our online data and activity is not private. Based on the current trajectory outlined above, it’s not difficult to see where all of this is heading. Governments across the West are putting in place sweeping censorship to stop uncensored information reaching you. There is an agenda to bring about sweeping social and economic changes which would be rejected by most if they were subjected to transparent and democratic scrutiny.
To bring about these changes, Western governments, in league with global corporations, are waging an information war on us. Unlike the wars of the 20th century, they can no longer rely on brute force alone to achieve their objectives, although we have seen they aren’t shy to deploy force, or the threat of it, when necessary. But brute force alone is both ineffective and inefficient when the battleground is human consciousness. Once you control the software of the mind, it’s a simple matter to control the hardware of the body. That’s why the human right to digital privacy is being stripped away from us. They want nothing less than full spectrum dominance of the flow of information to succeed in this war, and the developments highlighted above provide ample evidence of this.
They will stop at nothing, and the next step on the road to total information control is to have the ability to efficiently target individual information offenders in real-time using a combination of a digital ID system integrated with financial controls in a CBDC payment system.
What to do
The right to privacy is a key pillar of human dignity in an age in which Big Tech and the state are colluding to trap us in a digital gulag, stamped with an ID, recording every keystroke, reined in for wrong-think and penned in like livestock in 15-minute cities. The only way to curb Big Tech’s and government’s appetite for power is to limit its ability to exercise such power over us.
John Nugent’s book, in addition to exploring some of these themes, provides practical tips to greatly enhance your online privacy. In his book, you’ll find ways to achieve a level of privacy to mitigate everyday unwanted tracking and profiling. It’s not the kind of defence you’d need to evade targeted surveillance by state security services, but it’s a good start for the average person in defending online privacy. In John’s words, you should treat these tactics for increasing digital privacy “as an initial 20-hour project spread over a few weeks.” Breaking it down into bite-sized chunks over a reasonable time frame makes it achievable. For my money, the top tip is switching your operating system to Linux. There is of course no magic bullet, and there are other things you must do. But moving away from Microsoft and Google is a good start.
The ultimate safeguarding of every person’s digital privacy lies in decentralised and encrypted services run on free and open-source software. In the meantime:
“Privacy remains your own responsibility. We all need to take it back merely by exercising our privacy rights with whatever tools are at our disposal.” Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Pirate Party.
 John Nugent, Digital Privacy Self-defence – Why it matters & what to do, The Institute for Digital Privacy, 2023, Part I, page 16.
 John Nugent, Digital Privacy Self-defence – Why it matters & what to do, The Institute for Digital Privacy, 2023, Part I, page 16.
 John Nugent, Digital Privacy Self-defence – Why it matters & what to do, The Institute for Digital Privacy, 2023, Part II, page 99.