According to NordVPN, a provider of virtual privacy networks, Internet privacy experienced a string of shocks and abuses around the world – Polish law that loosened spying restrictions for police, the UK’s controversial Investigatory Powers Bill, Rule 41 in the US that gives the FBI wide hacking powers, and Belarus blocking TOR networks.
Restricting Internet privacy and interfering with people’s lives by mass surveillance techniques brings fear to society and dramatically increases the likelihood of criminal activity by giving new easy tools to access people’s data not only to governments but to whoever can hack, intercept or otherwise manipulate the new surveillance systems.
NordVPN has provided a review of the Year in Online Privacy and some suggestions about how people can protect themselves online.
Germany’s, new data retention act requires public telecommunication and internet providers to retain various call detail records (CDRs). These include phone numbers, the date and time of phone calls and texts, the content of text messages, and for mobile calls the locations of call participants. Also, Internet providers are required to store user metadata such as IP addresses, port numbers, and the date and time of Internet access.
Poland’s law expands government access to digital data and loosens restrictions on police spying. Collected metadata will be kept for up to 2 years. One doesn't have to be an official suspect to be placed under surveillance for up to 18 months. Also, the person being monitored will not be informed about it, compromising the protection of journalists¹ sources and deterring potential whistleblowers.
On 7 July, President Vladimir Putin of Russia signed into law several bills designed to help the government take measures against dissent online and demand unprecedented levels of data retention from the country’s telecom companies. For instance, the legislation warrants tougher sentencing for online commentary deemed as an incitement to hatred or a violation of human dignity. Such convictions now carry a minimum prison sentence of two years. The law requires service providers to monitor and store all calls, texts, chats, and Web browsing activity. Retained data can be accessed without a warrant by several government agencies.
UK’s Investigatory Powers Act received Royal Assent on 29 November, opening the gate for a disturbingly intrusive surveillance system. Among other things, the so-called Snoopers Charter gives the state the ability to hack indiscriminately, intercept, record, and monitor the communications and Internet use of all of the UK population. The entire browsing history of every resident of the UK will be stored for one year. Almost 50 police forces and government departments, including the Metropolitan Police Service, GCHQ to ridiculously the Food Standards Agency are authorized to access the data.
In the US, a new amendment to the Rule 41 of the US Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure quietly went into effect on 1 December. It allows the FBI to secretly use malware to hack into thousands of computers with one warrant. There is no need to identify specific computers to be searched. That means the FBI can hack into as many computers as they wish, whether their owners are suspected of some criminal activity or not.
New surveillance laws have also been passed and/or enacted in Belarus, China, Turkey, Ethiopia and elsewhere this year. Australia also has strict metadata rention laws.
Dangers of surveillance states
Citizen control and surveillance, especially “suspicionless” surveillance, whether physical or digital, has not proved to be an effective way to control criminal activity history tells us it has always turned out to be counter-productive, endangering lives and causing fear and insecurity.
For example, when the government opens a backdoor to citizens' data, it means that this backdoor could potentially be used by anyone else, and can fall into the hands of hackers. Once the information is in the wrong hands, it can be used to steal people’s identities and rob them of their bank accounts, for example. Data can also get misplaced; systems can crash, endangering everyone.
There are solutions to bypass some of these restrictive laws. The most reliable is using a VPN service that sends your data through a securely encrypted tunnel before accessing the Internet. This protects any sensitive information about your location by hiding your IP address.
Connecting through a VPN tunnel hides your online activity from your Internet service provider (ISP). The only information visible to the ISP is that you are connected to a VPN server, while all other information is encrypted by the VPN¹s protocol. This prevents ISPs from collecting potentially sensitive data and passing it onto any third parties.
It is also important to use a VPN service that does not store activity records to ensure your data is not logged and forwarded to any agencies. NordVPN has a strict no-log policy and could not supply any information on your online activities even if requested.
Besides VPNs, it is also crucial to use anti-spyware software, to make sure to use a firewall, to help keep unapproved programmes off the computer, and to be vigilant about the kind of information one shares and opens online.