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Diane Moalem
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Big Brother Bullies Online Privacy

11 June 2014, 21:00

Last year, Edward Snowden released top secret NSA documents to the world about US and UK surveillance. Ever since then, shocking revelations of spying by international governments spill out more frequently than anyone would like.

Vodafone’s revelations added another dimension to show no one can avoid Big Brother’s prying ears, neither online or on your phone. With Big Brother’s ever watchful gaze, is there such thing is true privacy within this surveillance ridden world?

The very notion of Internet privacy refers to Personal Identifying Information (PII) like your name and address or non-Personally Identifying Information (non-PII), which is your behaviour on a website. Whether you can maintain both these types of privacy hangs in the balance.

Vodafone’s latest revelations show us how easy it is for governments to obtain phone information as some countries do not require the network operator’s permission to access the data. The network giant spans across 29 countries and over three continents. Vodafone’s report issued last week said "In those countries, Vodafone will not receive any form of demand for lawful interception access as the relevant agencies and authorities already have permanent access to customer communications via their own direct link."

The citizen’s right to privacy is cast aside, not by the network itself but by the government agency. You have to question the citizen’s fundamental right to privacy when a government body can obtain private data without legal means such as a subpoena.

Snowden caused the world to revolt at the concept that their government and foreign governments could spy on their Internet habits, phone calls, and all electronic network use. Yet, as Mike Silber, a telecommunications specialist lawyer told Mail & Guardian in 2013, South Africans suffer this fate every day. Apparently once we go through the legally required RICA process (Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision), our information can be monitored through big data.

This is non-PII information, namely, what phone numbers you called, when you called that number, and the duration of your conversation. Although obtaining this data should be bound by court ordered subpoena, Silber says this is not always the case. This was substantiated in a 2008 ministerial review on intelligence where Silber said that democratic principles were appallingly disregarded by South African intelligence services.

The latest revelations revealed by Vodafone showing the wide extent of Big Brother’s surveillance of citizens across the network’s international reach reveal less about government spying and more about vulnerabilities open to hackers. If the government is able to get their hands on your private information, hackers, who often use malware, will be able to obtain it just as easily.

The best rule of thumb, according to TechCentral’s interview with Dominic White, the chief technology officer at an information security firm, SensePost, is that if you don’t want your private information available to anyone online, don’t put it online in the first place. He further warns against what Edward Snowden revealed to be ”dragnet surveillance” where the content of emails, text messages, credit records, phone calls, and webcam recordings were collected en masse by government bodies such as the NSA.

In an age where we as a society share so much online, our governments spy on what we say, where we say it and how we say it, is there still such a thing as “privacy”? The notion of anonymity and the right to keep your own business to yourself dangles at the very edge of a dangerous precipice.

Yet, can you really escape Big Brother without becoming a technological recluse? At this point, the average citizen holds little to no power against government organizations and hackers, the only thing one can do is use as many encryption tools as possible to combat this surveillance assault.

You can take proactive steps to protect your information from hackers including basic things such as being more careful where you submit private and personal information. Always make sure your social media and other site accounts have strict privacy settings.

Especially take note of the sites where you enter private information such as your address and credit card information. If you think that a website may be unsecured, contact the admin on the page or leave the website. You can use fantastic online anonymity tools like Tor, which boasts over 120 million downloads since Snowden revealed the true nature of electronic network privacy. Encryption tools are becoming increasingly available but it is imperative that you be weary with what you share online.

©Diane Moalem

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