Digging Out From the Snow[den] Blizzard
With the recent release of Snowden, Oliver Stone’s new docudrama, Edward Snowden’s name once again has been in the headlines. But this movie raises more questions than Stone probably intended.
Is it entertainment or a call to action? Will we remember only the story of Snowden’s tortured romance with girlfriend Lindsay Miles or will we internalize the film’s overarching issue? Will we finally realize that we must protect our right to privacy by enhancing our online freedom from governmental intrusion, and if so, how?
The Beginning – 2013
A quick review. Edward Snowden is a young computer whiz who worked for the CIA as a technical assistant for IT security and then spent four years at the NSA doing similar work. In January 2013 he sent an encrypted email to documentary film producer Laura Poitras offering insider information about the U.S. government’s illegal wiretapping and digital surveillance programs. Poitras and two colleagues flew to Hong Kong in June 2013 to interview Snowden in the hotel room where he was hiding out, having left the U.S. with numerous NSA computer files copied onto a flash drive hidden inside a Rubik’s Cube.
When the interview concluded on June 9, Snowden asked to be identified to the media and the blizzard began. All the cable news networks rushed to report the shocking NSA scandal. On June 21 the U.S. government asked for Snowden’s extradition, but he was spirited out of Hong Kong and put on a plane to Ecuador. His passport was revoked en route and he wound up stranded in the Moscow airport. Russia granted him temporary asylum on August 21 and he has lived there ever since. The videotapes of the four-day interview evolved into Poitras’ 2014 film Citizenfour that won Best Documentary Feature at both the Academy Awards and the Critics’ Choice Awards.
Three Years Later
In the three years since Snowden’s initial revelations we have learned a great deal about our government’s apparently insatiable zeal to spy on everyone everywhere under the guise of national security. Secret FISA courts and telephone metadata gathering blend seamlessly with the opening line of CBS’ long-running drama Person of Interest: “You are being watched. . .”
All of us continue to rely heavily on our computers and cell phones for emails, web surfing, entertainment, online purchases and banking, quick search results, and conversations with the vast number of people who are not standing three feet away from us. But our paranoia grows every time we use one of our electronic devices. “You are being watched. . .”
Which brings us back to a paraphrase of the original practical question. How do we protect our fundamental right to privacy by minimizing our risk of governmental intrusion into our digital activities?
The first part of the answer is encryption. As Golden Frog president Sunday Yokubaitis said in his 2015 Daily Dot article Encryption is the 2nd Amendment for the Internet, “Encryption is how privacy-conscious Internet users fight back against the unblinking eye of government mass surveillance and protect themselves online. ... Encryption is a form of self-defense. In the same way that firearms are synonymous with the Second Amendment and protecting yourself, using encryption to protect your data should be a fundamental right.” But he went on to warn against tech companies that build backdoors into their encryption programs, explaining that “A backdoor is a deliberately introduced security vulnerability into an otherwise secure ecosystem. ... Backdoors are based on knowledge. Whoever knows the secret knock can open the secret door, but the door doesn’t care who knows the secret knock.”
He was talking about the second part of the answer: Zero Knowledge products and services. In his March 28, 2016 Celebrating 10 Years of Privacy at SpiderOak blog article, SpiderOak Co-Founder & CEO Alan Fairless asserted that “SpiderOak was (as far as I know) the first company to commercially use the term Zero Knowledge to help explain the benefits of end-to-end encryption to customers. Our most important design choice was that you alone held the keys to your encrypted data. ... Our backup product SpiderOakONE is still evolving, but this year we are becoming even more – a privacy company. With the introduction of Kloak we provided a social media alternative that would protect users from data mining. We also knew that storing passwords safely is important, so we released Encryptt. And because we know that real-time collaboration is essential for businesses and organizations, we will be launching Semaphor to protect your ideas that matter.”
Snowden himself gave SpiderOak an unsolicited endorsement of its flagship backup system in an interview for Jemima Kiss’s 2014 article in The Guardian entitled Snowden: Dropbox is hostile to privacy, unlike ‘zero knowledge’ Spideroak. “Spideroak has structured their system in such a way [that] you can store all of your information on them ... but they literally have no access to the content. So while they can be compelled to turn it over, the law enforcement agencies still have to go to a judge and get a warrant to actually get your encryption key from you.”
While we can’t all be Snowdens in the fight to preserve our privacy rights, we can effectively thwart governmental overreach. Online privacy tools are available and their numbers are growing. It’s our responsibility to find and use them!