I am deeply susceptible to New Year’s Resolutions. Actually, I am deeply susceptible to resolutions, period—it doesn’t even have to be New Year’s. The first day of the month carries as much promise to me as the Jewish New Year and my sister’s half birthday: all three connote the hopeful possibility that this time, this month, this particular year, I will stick to the goals I commit to. Except, of course, I never do.
This New Years, however, the landscape has shifted. The stakes are much higher, and while I’m tempted to use all this heightened anxiety to improve my physical self (Run a marathon! Learn French! Read Orhan Pamuk!) I’ve decided to focus instead on protecting my digital self. At the end of the day, it’s probably more important for my long term success anyway.
We Are What We Post
Our digital identity is the accumulation of data we create on the web. It’s the first status we posted on Facebook and the last purchase we made while online. It’s our browsing history and our favorite metro stops and our myriad embarrassing searches and all of the many digital actions we take that reveal who we are and what we do and whether or not we are pregnant, before our families even hear the big news. More importantly, it’s the accumulation of our digital communications—our emails to family members, our texts to our peers, our Skype calls to loved ones abroad. Which is why it is so important, given the current political landscape, to communicate with tools that cannot be easily hacked, surveilled or intercepted. Tantek Çelik, Web Standards Lead at Mozilla, says that he expects surveillance to increase by as much as 100x under the Trump administration. Our digital selves need encryption—the process of scrambling a message so it’s gibberish to all but the sender and receiver—like our physical selves need locks, doors and passwords. Just as we would not wait for someone to try to break into our apartments to get locks for our front doors, so we should not wait to see how Donald Trump feels about digital privacy before we protect our data online. If Çelik’s prediction is even partially correct, by then it will be far too late.
Speech vs. Surveillance
But Zoë, you might be thinking, I don’t care if the FBI (NSA/Obama/Trump) reads my texts. And I hear you, I do. You think that you have nothing to hide, right? So what if the government reads your texts, right? Wrong. We all have something to hide. You don’t need to be actively breaking the law to want your private emails kept private.
Surveillance leaves us vulnerable to an administration that might, given the opportunity, change the legislation surrounding “free speech.” Why take the risk? Even today, surveillance affects what we say and do online. When we know we’re being watched, when we realize our communications could be intercepted, we limit our speech, even in private messages. This process makes it easier for mainstream media to control the conversation, as more of us go silent for fear of what might happen if we speak.
The Future is Dark (We Hope)
Later this week, Donald Trump will begin meeting with tech leaders from Silicon Valley. It’s unclear what they will discuss—the tech community was almost universally opposed to Trump’s candidacy, though they did little to stop his election. That said, we have no reason to believe he will be a proponent of digital privacy, or that he will forgo mass surveillance in a way the Obama Administration did not. As the year ends and Trump’s Presidency begins, it’s more important than ever that we protect ourselves from potential government surveillance, third-party cyberattacks, and other digital hackers. End-to-end encryption, in this era, is the bare minimum. At the very least, it will likely outlive that gym membership you were planning on buying (Happy New Years).