Digital privacy in times of protest and pandemic.

Digital privacy in times of protest and pandemic.

We're all familiar with “contact tracing” in the context of COVID-19. In its purest form, a public health official retraces the steps of an infected individual to understand COVID’s spread and notify exposed persons.

This process is as privacy-invasive as it gets, but it's all in the name of health so there's no way it can be abused, right?

Just weeks into the pandemic, Apple and Google announced a partnership to create an automatic contact-tracing app and notification system. In true Silicon Valley fashion, they promised to protect user privacy, but what prevents the NSA or another agency from using this juicy, juicy data? Well, an NSA document from the initial Edward Snowden leak in 2013 describes a data-aggregation strategy known as “contact chaining”. Hmm. That sounds familiar.

Contact chaining is a system that determines the relationship between several people and their closeness. This contributes to metadata: the idea that singular bits of data on you are strung together to form the big picture of who you are and who you associate with (credit card transactions, phone calls, social media, GPS, etc).

Not convinced it's relevant? Here's a direct quote from John Harrington, Commissioner of Minnesota DOT just this week: "As we’ve begun making arrests, we have begun analyzing the data of who we have arrested, and begun, actually, doing what you would think as almost pretty similar to our COVID. It’s contact tracing. Who are they associated with? What platforms are they advocating for?"

This should concern you, big time. Governments have a habit of justifying problematic legislation by claiming it necessary for national security or public health (see Patriot Act after 9/11). And they're doing it again with the EARN IT act in 2020.

Whatever, "I have nothing to hide."

"Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say." -Edward Snowden

That “I have nothing to hide” argument is a common one and a post by DuckDuckGo (my favorite search engine) sums up my thoughts:

“It’s critical to remember that privacy isn’t just about protecting a single and seemingly insignificant piece of personal data, which is often what people think about when they say, 'I have nothing to hide.' For example, some may say they don’t mind if a company knows their email address while others might say they don’t care if a company knows where they shop online.

However, these small pieces of personal data are increasingly aggregated by advertising platforms like Google and Facebook to form a more complete picture of who you are, what you do, where you go, and with whom you spend time. And those large data profiles can then lead much more easily to significant privacy harms. If that feels creepy, it’s because it is.“

Considering private companies can aggregate that much data, imagine what government agencies can do.

Learn all you can about reclaiming your data. It's never too late.

Safe Protesting

Here are some easy ways you can protect your privacy while protesting:

  • Check out my mobile privacy toolkit post for end-to-end encrypted communication options (Signal all the way).
  • In a perfect world, don't bring your phone at all. Purchase a burner phone (in cash) and use it only if you have to. Police often deploy Stingray devices that identify phones and their locations by imitating cell towers. Disabling location services alone is futile.
  • Disable Touch-ID or Face-ID because you can be compelled to unlock your phone with these methods in an arrest. You cannot be forced to type in a passcode.
  • Avoid arrest. Once you're in the system, you're in the system.
  • Cover identifiable markings like tattoos and birthmarks.
  • Don't publicly RSVP to protest events on social media.
  • Remove metadata from photos and videos. Most social networks give you this option.
  • Wear a mask! You should anyway because of COVID, but this also has the advantage of disrupting facial recognition technology.

I'll continue to add to this list as I get updated info. Stay safe!

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