A valuable document was stolen. The authorities wanted to find the recipients of the stolen document, so they got a blanket warrant and went fishing. The Secret Service executed a warrant against the innocent Steve Jackson Games and took all electronic equipment and copies of an upcoming game book from Steve Jackson Games’s premises. They found nothing, but held onto the material long enough to cause the company to miss its deadline, lay off half its staff and nearly go bankrupt. When their property was finally returned they found that personal information had been accessed and deleted. No charges were laid because no evidence was there to be found, but many innocent people suffered. They were punished for someone else’s crime and the people who ruined their lives were acting as if they deserved it. There seemed to be nothing they could do but accept the injustice.
But some people heard about it and began discussing it online. Fortunately they were smart and capable people who had the knowhow and ambition to do something. They got together and formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the first thing they did was file a lawsuit against The United States Secret Service on behalf of the company and other innocents harmed by their actions. The EFF won that case and now the authorities have to give electronic communications as much respect as they do telephone calls. They have to get specific warrants and can no longer go on fishing expeditions.The EFF has represented people in many cases since then, helping to establish the laws that protect the rights of people against governments and corporations. Here’s how they describe where they are focused today:
“While early threats to our right to communicate came from the government, current threats come also from industry, as it seeks to control and expand current revenue sources at the expense of traditional fair use. The trend has been for industry to use a combination of law and technology to suppress the rights of people using technology. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of copyright law, where the movie and recording studios are trying to dumb down technology to serve their “bottom lines” and manipulate copyright laws to tip the delicate balance toward intellectual property ownership and away from the right to think and speak freely.” – EFF
Tempest in a Teapot
When people hear about these threats to our liberty and privacy, there is often the tendency to think that it’s all a little precious. All these alarmists are just running around telling us that the sky is falling. Why can’t they find something useful to do? Here’s what the EFF has to say to them:
“A lot of well-meaning types think that this is all a big hoo-hah and we donâ€™t need such strong defensive measures. Here are the arguments they typically use, and ammunition against them.” EFF
â€œIâ€™m not afraid of Government X or Company Y!â€
Good for you, but you donâ€™t know what X or Y will become in the future. You might have a decent government at the moment, but what happens with all the data theyâ€™re collecting about you when someone else takes power? Would you still want all of these surveillance laws and communication monitoring techniques in place when a party that you deeply dislike takes over? The same applies with companies â€“ you might think Company Y is doing well currently with privacy issues and your data, but how will it behave in 10 years with a completely different set of top management?
“If youâ€™re doing something online that you donâ€™t want people to know about, maybe you shouldnâ€™t do it in the first place.â€
We all have a right to privacy, and there are plenty of legal, valid reasons why youâ€™d want to do things on the net without being tracked and monitored. You might want to look up an awkward health problem, for instance, without related adverts appearing everywhere in the future. You might want to secretly book a holiday or buy a gift for a loved one and leave no trace of the purchase until the surprise moment. Perhaps you want to research something politically or historically sensitive, without red lights going off at government HQ.
â€œIf Company X starts screwing me over, Iâ€™ll just move to Company Y.â€
If only life were that simple. This isnâ€™t like changing to a different shop for your groceries â€“ it can be extremely complicated. What happens to all of the books and music you bought from X, which only work on Xâ€™s devices? Can you easily get all of your data out and easily import it into Y? What happens to all the profiling data that X gathered about you over the years â€“ can you easily get it deleted? Itâ€™s rarely this simple.
â€œOh no! Wonâ€™t somebody PLEASE think of the children!â€
Calm down. Iâ€™ll make you a lovely cup of tea.
Tilting at Windmills
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a small organization funded by donations. What chance has it got against big government and big business? While it has some victories and successes in the United States, won’t the big villains there and elsewhere just overwhelm them eventually? Possibly. Maybe it’s an ultimately vain effort in the face of the lust for power, but that doesn’t mean it’s pointless. The fight for freedom is always worth it and I’m glad that there are people like those who founded the EFF who are willing to make the effort.
Want to see how easy it is to track you on the Internet? Try out the EFF’s Panopticlick.