Is The Government Meddling with Your Private Digital Data?

With the global trend of governments becoming increasingly autocratic and intrusive, the issue of the government’s access to your private data is becoming more relevant every day.

A quick review of the political trends of China, Russia and the US shows the recent tendency to elect authoritarian leaders.

This trend puts the digital privacy of billions of people all over the world at risk.

It’s not just about catching international criminals, terrorists or dissident political activists (of the wrong party). Instead the Web has become a major arena for governments seeking to affect people’s behavior and opinions.

Government digital intervation

Recent examples of government’s use of the internet to affect public opinions

After the US presidential election, it became very clear that foreign governments had affected the election both by hacking the Democratic Party and posting leaks and by planting fake news in various channels.

The New York Times posted on Jan. 6, 2017:

“WASHINGTON — American intelligence officials have concluded that the president of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” and turned from seeking to “denigrate” Hillary Clinton to developing “a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The business insider posted, John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, comment at a hearing on foreign cyber-threats to the United States: “Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s attacks on our nation.”

According to CNBC, massive amount of fake news were published in the Trump vs. Hillary presidential campaign.

CNBC quotes Buzzfeed’s estimation:

“These stories boasted nearly two million Facebook engagements, in the three months leading up to the U.S. election. To put that figure into perspective, during the same period, the top performing Facebook story for the New York Times racked up just over 370,000 engagements. A Buzzfeed investigation traced some of these fake publishers to a small town in Macedonia called Veles – where it discovered that over 140 fake news sites are based.”

One of the best articles about the fake news trend can be found here.

It’s beyond doubt that public opinion can be and has been affected by foreign government intervention.

Google vs. US Department of Justice: welcome to the digital jungle

Not too long ago, Google warned the public against the Department of Justice’s request to expand its federal powers. Google understood this action as a license for ‘hacking any facility’ in the world.

This request came as part of Rule 41. Federal law requires police who investigate a property crime to produce a warrant authorized by a judge in the same district as the property.  This law created difficulties when cybercrime was involved since it’s hard to determine the crime location and both victim and victimizer might be very far apart.

Obviously, it becomes harder when the criminals or victims are not on US land.

Rule 41, passed in November 2016, therefore gave law enforcement and the FBI permission to hack computers outside of the jurisdiction where the warrant was issued.

Even though the reasoning behind the request seems logical, it has effectively given government investigators access to anybody’s online data.

The FBI’s new surveillance technology and how it already affects your privacy

Over the last 15 years, the FBI has developed highly effective computer surveillance techniques (NIT).   Among their methods are installing malware software on web users devices that allow agents to gain full control over their devices. It allows the agents to download the entire database, access links, control over device cameras and recording functions.

Google is concerned that these strategies will risk innocent parties whose information will be exposed in a large scale data sweep.

This concern is not entirely altruistic. Yielding to government’ request for data contributes to the growing public mistrust of Google’s protection of personal digital data.

Google is fighting this by making the issue public and taking the side of the privacy advocates.

The truth is that government involvement with personal data is way beyond Google’s influence. Honestly, there is little that Google can do about it.

Can government involvement harm me even if I’m a law abiding citizen?

The answer is yes.

As the internet became the primary tool to sway public opinion, it is very likely that the ruling party will make use of personal data to influence our opinions and decisions, the same way advertisers do.

So how can you protect yourself from government meddling?

Using incognito or private mode in Google will only partially protect your privacy.

Even though browsing incognito seems promising, it actually gives minimal protection.

The best way to stay protected is not to use Google or other data collecting search engines (Bing, Yahoo) at all. Even privacy search options in these tools such as Incognito mode don’t really protect you. You can learn more about the disadvantages of these options in this article.

Luckily, some trustable companies have foreseen the present situation and the market has a reasonable selection of private search engines that do protect your privacy. The best of them don’t even keep your data at all. So your information can’t be abused even in extreme circumstances.

If you feel that it’s time for you to minimize your digital footprint, you should consider switching to a private search engine.  They’re as simple as using Google and much safer.