Online Privacy, Mass Surveillance, and the Future of VPNs
VPNs are on the rise; democracy is declining. As “civilized” Western democracies turn police into the force of oppression, the Internet into a tool of censorship, and technology into the means of mass surveillance, the concept of privacy is being meticulously ridiculed and devalued.
Nothing to Hide?
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” said Eric Schmidt, Google CEO. “Privacy is dead,” echoed Mark Zuckerberg. Get used to being watched, they say. If you have nothing to hide, why would you mind surveillance?
The people in the avant-garde of unaccountable mass surveillance, however, go to extraordinary lengths to protect their privacy. Schmidt, for instance, used his position at Google to blacklist CNET in the search engine’s search results when the website published a contradictory piece about his salary, hobbies, political donations, and residence.
Ironically, CNET only Googled the publicly available information on Schmidt. Likewise, the Facebook CEO bought four adjacent properties around his Palo Alto mansion to have more… privacy.
Google, Facebook Et Al. Thrive on Data Trading
The value of privacy gets diminished every time a tech company offers something “for free” in exchange for your private data. People either got conditioned to accept or are oblivious to the fact that:
- Google reads user emails
- Chrome is Google spyware
- Facial recognition at Facebook is the world’s largest mass surveillance tool
- Twitter keeps unpublished tweets
- WhatsApp and Facebook share user data
- Encryption in WhatsApp has a “design feature” that allows third parties to intercept messages
- Popular fitness apps are selling user data
- Audio beacons in YouTube commercials and TV ads trigger certain apps on your gadgets to ping back to advertisers’ servers
Audio beacons are particularly good – if you have one account for your desktop computer, another for your laptop, and then the third one for your smartphone, audio beacons urge the three devices to report to the advertiser’s server that all three devices belong to the same household.
Data is the New Oil
Nearly every piece of technology can – and does – track and profile its user. When your data isn’t analyzed to show you better-targeted ads, it’s sold and re-sold to numerous data brokers and analytical firms that go as far as influence presidential elections.
Your data has tangible monetary value for tech companies and data brokers, marketers, surveillance agencies, and analytics companies. Your data is their product, and this product is the baseline of a whole industry that trades, analyzes, and uses data to manipulate, control, and thrive.
Making matters worse, malicious third parties can and do exploit the backdoors, spyware, and other “design features” of mainstream apps while going after easy money. Identity theft, credit card
fraud, ransomware, cyberbullying, honeypots at public Wi-Fi – the hoard of ill-intentioned and sick people successfully exploit the mass surveillance capabilities in our devices.
Last year, consumers lost more than $16 billion to identity theft while this year, ransomware rose 250%, hitting the U.S. hardest. So, VPNs aren’t going anywhere any time soon, as online threats become increasingly devastating and sophisticated.
Every time you register a new Google or Facebook account, install new software or buy a new device, you expose parts of your private life to third parties. And the irony is you consent to the extensive data collection and profiling.
When ticking the box “I Agree” next to any app’s or service’s Terms of Service, do you ever bother to read the document? If no, who’s to blame you have no privacy online?
The anecdotal case only highlights the fact that data collection, profiling, and mass surveillance are legitimate because users sign away their privacy willingly.
The Fourteen Eyes
Sitting on top of the hackers → tech giants → mass surveillance pyramid is an octopus representing a splice of corporations and states. These countries legitimized mass surveillance by signing an agreement to collect, analyze, and share intelligence cooperatively. Note: these states not only spy on their citizens but also spy on each others’ citizens and exchange that intelligence to avoid breaking domestic privacy laws. The pro-privacy groups dubbed the members of the treaty The Fourteen Eyes. The alliance currently consists of:
- New Zealand
- United Kingdom
- The United States of America
These states share quite a few things in common. Namely, an appetite for control and data retention laws. And you want to know about data retention laws when using a Virtual Private Network.
Why You Want to Avoid VPNs Based in The 14 Eyes Countries
VPNs headquartered in the Fourteen Eyes countries are not recommended due to extensive data retention laws, and gag orders that forbid the VPNs to talk about the state requests for user data.
- The US National Security Letters, gag orders, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the FISA Amendments Act make Americans one of the world’s most monitored nations. Monitored by the state and the corporations.
Last year, the FCC introduced rules to block ISPs from selling customer data to advertisers. But the moment Donald Trump set foot in the White House, the pro-privacy rules were nullified.
In the Orwellian fashion, the Department of Justice pulls private account information of potentially thousands of Facebook users it deems as “anti-administration” while Google reports a record-breaking increase in state data requests for personal data in 2017.
At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security updated the Federal Register. DHS now collects “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” on immigrants, naturalized citizens, and permanent residents. That’s basically a list of people’s pseudonyms and online aliases they ever used online.
DHS also updates its Intelligence Records System database to store “public-source data” on citizens. This includes information from social media, commercial data providers, news media outlets, and the Internet. So, besides your name, date of birth, credit score, and Social Security number, the government wants to store your online identity and all the things you ever said online.
- In a similar way, French ISPs store user data for a year. State agencies can access that data without a warrant. Moreover, the ISPs are obliged to monitor online behavior of their users and report anything they deem as suspicious. Law enforcement and ISPs install spyware and keyloggers on users’ devices. The French Intelligence Act and emergency powers allow authorities to search electronic devices of citizens without warrants.
- Germany’s BND has extensive surveillance privileges, too. The German data retention laws let authorities keep user data for up to 10 weeks, while BND is allowed to spy on Germans and foreigners without a warrant.
- The Australian state surveillance and censorship laws grant authorities unprecedented powers. The Australian Data Retention Act obliges ISPs to store user data for two years. In the meantime, any state entity from law enforcement to the post office have unrestricted access to that data.
- The UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, aka the Snoopers Charter, grants the UK authorities permission to spy on all means of communication, including the Internet.
The combination of laws and international treaties allow the governments of the 14 Eyes countries to force VPNs to secretly hand customer data to spy agencies. This effectively turns VPNs into a powerful tool for mass surveillance.
The bottom line? Always research a VPN provider’s HQ location and the data retention laws that govern the company’s activities.
Countries That Have Banned VPNs
Traditionally authoritarian regimes such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran have banned or are in the process of enforcing new laws that ban the use of VPNs and other anonymizers.
Why countries ban VPNs:
- To monitor citizens’ online activities
- To censor the free speech
- Silence the dissidents
- Manipulate information
- Cap protests
- Out of religious considerations
For instance, Oman, Sudan, Singapore, Yemen, South Korea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, UAE, and Pakistan censor the free speech to preserve traditional social values. While Jordan, Lybia, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, and China – to maintain political stability. Cuba, Russia, Morocco, Turkey, North Korea, and India ban VPNs out of considerations of national security.
Top Internet-Censoring Countries
Well-intentioned users, bloggers, and journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to access the content that’s beyond the state-imposed limit of “permitted” information. Internet censorship is not just about blocking objectionable material because average people get prison sentences for blogging (which is why blogging anonymously is downright necessary at times).
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, top censoring states are also top countries with record numbers of jailed journalists for “crimes against the state.” China and Middle Eastern nations, as well as Muslim-dominated countries, are prominent censors of “subversive” content online.
- North Korea is, unsurprisingly, one of the world’s leaders in Internet censorship, with only about 4% of the population enjoying access to the Internet, whereas the rest can only access the tightly controlled intranet.
- Saudi Arabia censors the Internet out of religious considerations, blocking nearly 500,000 websites containing anti-Islamic content. The Royal Decree on Press and Publications, the Basic Law of Governance are boosted by the Ministry of the Interior Affairs that routes the Internet traffic of an entire nation through a central point, where it gets analyzed. To be a blogger in Saudi Arabia, you need a special license from the Ministry of Culture and Information.
- Iran cracks down on journalists and bloggers. If you want to blog in Iran, you also need a license from the Ministry of Art and Culture. Posting content that’s anti-government and anti-Islam is a criminal offense that leads to a prison sentence.
- Vietnam allows its citizens to access the Internet, but tech companies like Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft have to hand over the names of bloggers to the Vietnamese authorities.
Various social media sites are banned in China, North Korea, and Turkey. In the Western countries, the right to be forgotten sends shock waves across the nations. The French National Committee on Informatics and Liberties (CNIL), for example, ordered Google to comply with the EU rule, which makes it possible to manipulate publicly available information. The critics of the right to be forgotten say it is a powerful tool for the politicians, as any official competing for an elected position can “fix” their past.
The Future of VPNs
Considering the scale of tracking, censoring, and profiling, it’s no wonder that the VPN industry has exploded in the past few years. By encrypting your traffic and hiding it from Internet Service Providers, hackers, and snooping governments, VPNs restore the online freedom and privacy we lost.
More than 80% of Americans are concerned about how companies use their data while ad blockers, VPNs, and anonymizers are becoming the new norm for average users seeking privacy.
Every year, Global Web Index polls more than 200,000 Internet denizens in 34 countries about their online behaviors, including the use of VPNs. In 2017, the industry is booming since one in four people globally use a VPN to access the Internet. That’s 25% of the world’s population.
Asia and the Middle East are the leading consumers of VPNs, with Vietnam, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, and UAE topping the charts.
The countries with least VPN usage are Canada, Australia, Japan, Poland, France, and the Netherlands. The respondents use VPNs to:
- Access geo-blocked streaming services
- Access state-censored networks and sites
- Browse anonymously
- Communicate with relatives abroad
- Access news websites restricted by the government
- Bypass employer-imposed restrictions when at work
- Have privacy when going online
The demand for online privacy continues to grow. At the same time, the urge to access geo-blocked streaming services will keep fueling the VPN industry even further. Even the governmental crackdown on VPNs doesn’t seem to be capable of closing the lid on the blossoming market – a market that sells online freedom and privacy.