An ill wind is blowing in places that have championed freedom.
This erosion of civil rights didn’t start in the era of Donald “Burn the flag, go to jail” Trump, though he’s made clear his intentions to accelerate it (particularly when it comes to freedom of expression). And the United States isn’t the only place it’s happening.
Some of the most disappointing moves to limit people’s human rights have already taken place in Europe. The United Kingdom—which gave the world the Magna Carta—just enacted its so-called “snooper’s charter,” which will enshrine what can only be called the first full-on surveillance state among Western democracies. Among other notable intrusions into people’s privacy, it will give government vast new authority to hack people’s devices; force companies to decrypt personal information when the government asks for it; and require telecommunications companies to store users’ online activities, with a host of government agencies being able to fish around in that data without a warrant. As Jack Schofield observes in the Guardian, “It more or less removes your right to online privacy.”
Even before Trump takes office, the U.S. has been heading down some similar paths. As Edward Snowden showed, American surveillance services have been longstanding abusers of privacy and the law while Congress has, in general, winked at it all. For example, beginning Dec. 1—barring an unlikely last-second miracle in Congress—federal law enforcement will have a legal right to hack remotely into everyone’s devices with just a wink and nod from any magistrate who’ll authorize it. You probably haven’t heard about this, because our news media have largely failed to notice it except in passing.
In fact, Congress has, with few exceptions, been a champion of surveillance for years. Democrats and Republicans have supported all kinds of incursions on the privacy not just of foreigners but of Americans as well, in the name of protecting us. So it would be foolish to expect much pushback from our national lawmakers when Trump takes power, even though what’s coming should alarm anyone who believes in basic liberty. (Congress does occasionally do the right thing on freedom of speech, as it has with the just-passed legislation forbidding companies from gagging their customers’ right to post negative online reviews.)
If Congress is feckless about liberty, Trump looks reckless. He’s has been clear throughout his campaign: He will be as authoritarian as he’s permitted to be, using the levers of government—including our vast surveillance apparatus and law enforcement—to accomplish his goals.
His campaign tirade against Apple when the company was battling with the FBI over the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone was telling. Apple and some other tech companies are moving to help users encrypt more of their data, a trend that governments, especially authoritarian ones, hate with a passion. It will not surprise me at all if Trump insists that Congress pass a law banning the use of encryption that the government cannot break. Never mind that security experts overwhelmingly agree that compromising strong encryption leaves everyone less safe in the end.
In a climate for liberty that can only be called chilly, we have to start planning for the worst even if we hope for the best. Given our climate of fear, I suspect most people don’t care enough. But what should you do if you do care?
As Schofield notes, there’s relatively little you can do if the government individually targets you. A nation-state has more than enough resources to overcome almost any measure you might take. But we do have some ways to make mass, pervasive surveillance and hacking more difficult—and thereby be safer from criminals, not just governments we may not trust.
Some of the measures are easy. We can be certain to keep our software up to date; unpatched operating systems and applications are a favorite way for criminals—and government—to penetrate our devices.
We can use virtual private networks that encrypt data in ways that our ISPs can’t decipher. (You should absolutely do this in any case when you’re using a public Wi-Fi hotspot and hotel connection, and probably even at home as well given the notorious insecurity of consumer routers.)
Activists and others whowant to challenge the people in power will face sterner test. As the Intercept explained in an article titled “Surveillance Self-Defense Against the Trump Administration,” it is vital to encrypt mobile devices; use encrypted messaging such as an app called Signal; move away from Facebook discussion groups for sensitive conversations, and much more.
But technology is not enough. As Snowden told European investigative journalists last month, they can’t win surveillance arms race against the National Security Agency or the U.K.’s GCHQ or other powerful government bodies. They have to lobby for privacy-protecting policies. So do everyday citizens who want to preserve liberty in this scary time.