Julia Angwin Attempts to Remain Anonymous Online and Proposes that We Reconsider Privacy Rights as Human Rights

On February 19, 2015, journalist Julia Angwin presented on her recent project as part of the BCLT Lunch Speaker Series. Angwin built her reputation as an investigative journalist in the world of privacy issues when she led a Wall Street Journal series called What They Know. She has also written two books, the latest of which, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance, was the subject of her talk.

In today’s world, it seems no secret that parties are selling our data and the government is surveilling our behavior. The “free” apps we download on our smartphones are paid for by third parties who buy our data from the developers. Maybe users don’t have a problem with programs using the data necessary to run the app, but the situation might be more disturbing than people realize. First, the developers might be mining more data than necessary to run the apps. Second, the Snowden papers revealed that giant data aggregating companies like Google might have to turn over their data upon a secret request. Even worse, when the government can’t get access to the data they want from these companies, there is evidence that they can break into the servers to access the data without formally requesting it.

With all this in mind, Angwin sought to discover exactly what she could do to prevent the collection of her data; how could she evade surveillance in a world with pervasive tracking? Dragnet Nation illustrates Angwin’s quest for online privacy. Angwin used a plethora of techniques to try to remain anonymous. First, she quit using Google, and instead used a service called DuckDuckGo. She disconnected her LinkedIn and deleted all her friend connections on Facebook, leaving only a shell of a profile page to indicate that she was no longer using the service.

Through this process, Angwin encountered a few unexpected hurdles. For example, she created a new identity, taking the name of famous muckraker Ida Tarbell, responsible for exposing the abuses of the Standard Oil Company in the early twentieth century. (Angwin consulted a lawyer to make sure all her activities using this new name was legal.) Angwin emphasized that she simply wanted a way to conduct activities in public without using her real name. She soon abandoned this quest, however, partly because a friend reminded her that companies work by tracking behavior; because she hadn’t changed her patterns, it was actually easy for a company to link Ida’s activities with Angwin’s. She also had a hard time figuring out how to handle her phone. She tried just turning it off, but after hearing that the CIA can track phones even when turned off, she purchased a faraday cage to stop all signals to and from her phone.

She also tried to find an encrypted email service, but could only find one; Rise Up is a service run be a Seattle-based anarchist collective. Since the service was funded by donation, she would have to remember to download all her emails if she wanted to save them because the site would occasionally drop out. To save all this data, she signed up for an encrypted cloud service called SpiderOak. This service alone cost her $200 per year, which made Angwin realize that she was paying a significant amount of money for all these tools to shield her data.

In one year, Angwin totaled that she spent over $2,500. She also noted that this was likely on the low side of what it would cost for privacy protection, because she employed as many low cost services as possible. There are probably many services that can provide even more protection, but the prices start to spike. This made Angwin wonder: is privacy becoming a luxury good?

Angwin concluded that privacy is actually a fake luxury good – at the end of the day, she couldn’t even truly secure her privacy. In order to truly minimize any data collection, she would have to take steps such as convincing friends to also use encryption so as not to undermine her efforts, finding better security measures for her cell phone, and better identifying and avoiding data brokers who were still able to collect her data after all her efforts.

Against the backdrop of these struggles, Angwin came to realize that perhaps she wasn’t looking for privacy, but rather for assurances. She described the problem as a feeling of lack of control. “The more data is collected,” Angwin explained, “the more hopeless people feel. They don’t feel like they have the ability to do anything about it.” She proposed that society could address this problem by considering privacy rights as broader human rights over our data – the right to control what is collected and how it is used in a way that still allows us to use the amazing technology that pervades the market today. If we were able to recharacterize the way we think of privacy rights, this could allow the internet industry to innovate towards giving individuals the assurance they seek when using online services. Angwin’s story is proof that even money can’t buy perfect privacy – the solution will have to come from shifting the paradigm of what society expects will be done with our data.

For more information on Julia Angwin, see http://juliaangwin.com.