On 1st September, we reported that the UK’s most senior judge (Supreme Court President Lord Neuberger) was making dark intimations about a major overhaul of privacy law. He said we needed to keep up with the ever-shifting dynamics of information exchanged on the internet.
Is law really the answer though? Author and privacy activist Cory Doctorow suggests that it might not be the most effective solution; what we need, he argues, is user-friendly privacy technology to keep sensitive content safely encrypted from prying eyes.
Taking issue with the orthodoxy, which argues that online privacy is irreducibly complex, Doctorow argues that after Snowden’s revelations, nobody needs to be persuaded about threats to internet privacy anymore. All of us, Doctorow observes, need privacy, irrespective of our level of technical expertise. As he puts it:
“Every communications session has at least two parties, the sender and the recipient(s), and your privacy can leak out of either end of the wire. It doesn’t matter if I keep all my email offline, encrypted on my laptop, if it all ends up in the inboxes of people who leave it sitting on Gmail’s servers.”
The answer resides less in new statutes (which will almost inevitably have unintended consequences, no matter how well intentioned) than in developing what he calls “privacy tools for normal people.” Privacy tools that aren’t usable, he cleverly notes, just won’t get used.
To that end, Doctorow now sits on the advisory board of a new nonprofit outfit, Simply Secure (you can see it here: www.simplysecure.org), which launches this week. It brings together some of the brightest minds in cryptography and usability with the aim not of overhauling privacy laws à la Neuberger, but of revamping the user interface of the best existing internet privacy tools to extend the accessibility to “normal people”.
As a start, Simply Secure has reworked the UI of one of the most secure chat privacy tools out there, OTR. It keeps each conversation secure by assigning unique keys so that breaching one conversation’s keys doesn’t enable snoopers to eavesdrop on any others.
The bottom line, for Doctorow, is that your computer should do what you ask it to do. Keeping private information secure is a reasonable request.
As he says: “Making privacy technology usable by anyone makes everyone more secure.”