I do have something to hide, and I’m sure you do too
After being blackmailed by a hacker, I spent the weekend half thinking that my entire internet activity would be broadcast to everyone I knew. It got me thinking about how much privacy we have sacrificed for the sake of the internet.
“I'm is very good coder. I hacked this mailbox more than six months ago and have been spying for you a very long time.” As I read the email on my phone, the hair on the back of neck bristles. A stupid reflex makes me look all around, with the sudden feeling that somebody is watching me. Of course, in 2018, most spies aren’t ones you see on the street. “I have access to all your accounts, social networks, email, browsing history. During your entertainment there, I took screenshot through the camera of your device, synchronizing with what you are watching. Oh my god! You are so funny and excited!”
The email went on to tell me that if I didn’t send $600 to an bitcoin address within 48 hours, my embarrassing web activities and photos would be leaked to all my contacts. Although I immediately thought it must be a hoax, I admit that I slept uneasily all weekend.
What if someone did have access to everything I had done over the past six months on the internet ?
They would know what I looked like, my age, my political affiliation, my religion. They would know where I had been and when and what I was working on and my plans for the future. They would have followed the ups and downs of my romantic rollercoaster. They would know the little questions that were bugging me (“How much alcohol is too much ?” “Why do boobs change size ?” "What does inconoclast actually mean?" ) and the fears and existential worries Googled late at night when they’re keeping me awake. They would know more about me than even my closest friends.
We treat computers and smartphones like toasters and calculators, just another tool making life easier. But a toaster can’t watch you back. Computers can. Although a lot of emails similar to the one I received are complete rubbish, some people really have been blackmailed by someone with access to their computer and webcam.
Documentary maker Anthony van der Meer once installed a Find my Phone and malware app on a phone, then let someone steal it. He then spied on everything the thief did, day in, day out, using the phone’s camera and microphone. The result is a disconcerting short documentary, where you can follow the persons’ every move, from work to intimate family moments.
It is scary to think that there is a very real possibility that a hacker, somewhere in the world, is watching you at night. What is even more alarming is that all that information is readily available to governments and major corporations.
Do you ever get the feeling that Facebook and Google are listening through your microphone ? Maybe after something you mentioned in passing comes top of your search suggestions, or an advert for some obscure thing you told a friend about appears on your newsfeed. Well, the companies have denied it, and experts say that they don’t need to listen to you anyway. They have enough data to predict with astonishing accuracy what you’re likely to be thinking or talking about. Which is somehow even more scary to me than the apps that are listening to us. Big corporations now have a way of predicting how we think and what we like, turning us into puppets that can easily be nudged to consume given the right, tailor-made advertisement.
State surveillance, too, has risen in recent years in many countries, including the UK and France. Government’s justify the shift by saying that surveillance is necessary to detect terrorists, even though experts say that mass spying is counter-effective for security. To reassure citizens, governments are quick to say you have nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide. Many individuals say the same thing: “No one is interested in what I’m doing anyway.”
"You have nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide"
My weekend showed me that this simply wasn’t true. I don’t want my entire contact list to receive photos of me watching British Bake-off semi clad, eating ice cream in bed, nor the State to know which political movements and protests I am involved in. I'm sure everyone has a limit as to what they wouldn’t want people to know. That limit can be anything from not wanting people to see your weird google searches or very average genitalia, or not wanting Facebook to be able to predict when you will die so that your health insurance plan can charge you more.
As internet expands further and further into our lives we’re losing the spaces where we can truly be ourselves, alone or with friends. Psychologically speaking, we become individuals through the discovery that we could hide something to others, says philosopher and psychoanalyst Emilio Mordini. "Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are on your own terms,” said Edward Snowden in a Q&A after the release of the film Snowden. “For them to understand what you're trying to be and to protect for yourself the parts of you you're not sure about, that you're still experimenting with.”
But even if you decide that you don’t care about your own privacy on the web, you need to think beyond your individual self. “To say fundamentally that you don't care about a right – even if it is truly of no value to you – is probably the most antisocial thing I can imagine,” Snowden continued. “It’s basically saying that you don’t care about other people.” You might not have anything to hide, but people around you do: from political activists to minorities. The “Nothing to hide” argument is selfish, and it is also inherently an argument of the privileged. Minority groups know that they don’t necessarily have to have anything to hide to be targeted. The US surveillance of Muslims or the Black lives matter movement are solid proof of this.
The fact of the matter is that, although we may not yet be living in Authoritarian states, government is already using mass surveillance against people it sees as a threat. Following the November 2015 attacks, France used its “state of emergency” extended powers to target environmental activists. Joel Domenjoud was amongst them. In the documentary Nothing to Hide, he narrates how he was followed for months. During a court trial, he discovered the “white notes” taken by the surveillance officers that had stalked him. “The person concerned has actively taken part for several years in actions taken against the institution of the State”, wrote the report.
Again, we are not yet living in an Authoritarian state, but what is happening is already frankly worrying. If a leader does decide to do away with the checks and balances of our democratic systems, they will find themselves with all the apparatus of a police state. Letting these tools develop means hoping that we will always be able to trust our leaders. Looking at the US right now, I don’t.
Faced with services which are free and enjoyable and practical, it is hard to eschew internet because of some abstract, future danger. But it’s also necessary, and there are easy steps that you can take right away. The documentary Nothing to Hide suggests just a few: from switching to an encoded messaging like Signal, to using a search engine that doesn't track you, such as Disconnect. It's available to watch online, so if you’re mildly freaked out by all of this - or not freaked out enough- check it out: