Risk of internet surveillance increases under President Trump

The matter of cybersecurity has long been present in the minds of Americans, especially following the election. Leaked emails defined the negative narrative for Hillary Clinton, and President Donald Trump’s bumbling attempts to discuss the issue have been a source of humor. As the United States begins to demonstrate less democratic national values, it is necessary to understand personal cybersecurity and the consequences of surveillance at the national level.

The internet and related mediums for telecommunication exist in both the public and private spheres. Only in recent years has the division of purpose been made clear, with social media at the public end of the spectrum and email or private messaging at the private end. A lack of sufficient cybersecurity at any level allows individuals to infringe upon someone else’s private internet space.

A philosophical issue arises when institutions attempt to define the level of online privacy to which individuals are entitled. The theory of cyber sovereignty states that national governments should have complete access to all online content, public or private, as an issue of national security. Pure cyber sovereignty can be observed in China. A less absolute example can be seen in the United Kingdom. In December, the Investigatory Powers Act was passed, giving UK intelligence agencies increased online surveillance authority.

In democratic societies, it is standard that individuals are entitled to their private online spaces. To guarantee that, encryption software such as The Onion Router (Tor) and Signal can be used, but there are currently no government-enforced protections for users in this country. Worse, there is plenty or evidence of the National Security Agency using the internet to keep an eye on potentially-dissenting American citizens.

The issue with government surveillance, to any degree, is not that it is a direct infringement of peoples’ rights. Instead, surveillance is the first step towards stricter government control.

“Intellectual surveillance is especially dangerous because it can cause people not to experiment with new, controversial or deviant ideas,” Neil Richards, a professor of law at Washington University at St. Louis and an expert in the fields of privacy and information law, said. “To protect our intellectual freedom to think without state oversight or interference, we need intellectual privacy.”

Along with other fears of growing fascist sentiment in the U.S., risk of surveillance playing a part is not unfounded. The attitude of free and open thought has defined U.S. culture and economics for over a century. It has allowed for the rapid development of new technology and the creation of new social structures and cultural institutions. It is the cornerstone of the liberal-democratic form of government that the U.S. has been spreading globally from the 20th century on.

One argument in favor of some degree of internet surveillance is that it can be used to improve national security. It is clear that, given the rapid development of new encryption software available online, the vast majority of legitimate terrorists are not going to be caught via government surveillance. Short of absolute national cyber sovereignty, this approach is inefficient for reducing terrorism.

Trump has taken a lax approach to national cybersecurity so far, despite claims on the campaign trail that he would take a hard stance on it. The stated motivation for tightening cybersecurity would be protecting American interests and the identities of American citizens. It is more likely that Trump’s execution of cybersecurity would act as a deterrent to radical activism and the pursuit of social justice.

On a more optimistic note, it is clear that Trump will not be enforcing hardline cybersecurity measures in the next couple of months. As he works to get his White House staff sorted out, it would be in the best interest of everyone to begin protecting their data. According to Freedom House, internet freedom has been on the decline for the past six years, and that isn’t likely to let up soon.

This is an opinion article and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo. Kathryne is a senior at Newcomb-Tulane College. They can be reached at [email protected].

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