Digital Privacy at Election Time

The US will be electing a new president this fall, and this means that the media – including social media – is going to be increasingly abuzz with talks about each candidate’s platform. One of the biggest policy issues that should be addressed is digital rights. Voters should be fully aware of all that surrounds this issue so that they can factor privacy, security, open access, copyright, freedom of speech, and other concerns into their choice of leadership. The person who sits in office for the next 4 years can greatly influence digital rights, which are now in a very sensitive place.

Some Issues to Consider

Mass surveillance is still a very hot issue although the buzz has died down in the 3 years since Edward Snowden shocked the world with his cache of NSA documents. We now have the USA Freedom Act as a result of massive protests and actions by Congress to rein in the surveillance activities of government agencies. But this is far from enough to ensure that the public is protected from unlawful domestic surveillance. The fight against overly intrusive surveillance activities is not over by a long shot. Voters need to think carefully about where they stand on this issue so that they can select an appropriate candidate. For instance, should the NSA be allowed to continue conducting secret domestic surveillance as authorized by EO12333, which was actually issued to cover the surveillance of foreign targets?

Our privacy is greatly affected by the degree to which government agencies are authorized to conduct surveillance operations. This authority extends beyond the spy programs themselves, however, and stabs at the heart of our privacy rights. The government has attacked encryption in general and is lying in wait to launch its next offensive. Government agencies are meantime going after companies like Apple which have been singled out as threats to their omniscience. Changes have been proposed to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, but a new president may not encourage its completion. Voters need to think about what this all really means for them personally, and not only for the next 4 years but in the long-term future.

The Internet was opened to the public as a tool for the free sharing of information, yet so many government moves have stifled it and its users. Possibly the worst move against the Internet and its users is going after those who most passionately seek the truth and wish to share it with others. We saw recently how the government went after whistleblower Snowden when he exposed their shady activities. The information that he shared was true and very significant, and the word needed to know, but the government’s reaction was to try and shut him down. Yet people like him – whistleblowers, journalists, activists – risk their careers and their very lives every day in the interest of helping people gain access to important information that should not be kept secret. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a good example of this harmful secrecy. Should trade agreements that affect everyone in the US and many more in other countries not be open to democratic scrutiny?

There are so many lies and deceptions and secrets in government, and so many get away with it. For instance, there is yet no resolution to the case of the CIA hacking Congress to conceal evidence of their torture, a.k.a. enhanced interrogation techniques, that violate human rights. Voters need to carefully consider whether they want a president who cares that the people know what’s really going on or not, and who cares to make sure that offenders are properly punished for their abusive misuse of technology and power, their deliberate deceptions, and other various instances of misconduct.

The free sharing of information is regularly squashed by government initiatives. Billions of dollars go into education, culture, and federal research, yet the public whom it is supposed to benefit is not granted access to the results. Should publicly funded research and other content not be made available to the public under open licensing terms? Copyright has always been a sensitive issue, but surely any activity funded by federal grants must be treated differently. The people suffer enough having to deal with content owners taking advantage of the open Internet to peddle their wares freely while being completely deaf to the side of the users who also want to benefit from this original purpose for the World Wide Web. Then there’s the issue of patent reform that makes copyright even more complex. Digital freedom is another crucial aspect of the future of the Internet. Who should control our digital freedoms? Who should maintain power over the hardware that we carry with us – including implants – and that we have in our homes? Voters need to think hard about who can properly handle the knotty issues of content ownership, fair use, and digital rights and freedoms.

We need voters this year who will make the effort to look long and hard into the many different issues that can affect our families and our country for many years to come. If you are not yet convinced, consider just one small part of the policy issues above – the privacy of your vote. We often take for granted that because we hold the right to an anonymous vote that we are protected while casting our ballots. The truth is that information on who is walking into those booths is very valuable and can be taken and kept by political campaigns. This information includes basic information like your name and contact details, but often also includes your supposedly private political leanings. Candidates for all levels of office like to know about their voters, but collecting this data means that they can also do research on who is supporting their opponents. Voter records are not private, and campaign tracking has developed into a huge industry in this digital age.

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