April 18, 2019

What is the future of secrets?

Cindy Cohn // WTF VICE

One of the themes of this issue is how many so-called vices are becoming more accepted. But there are still some vices, even legal ones, that carry a stigma, meaning we tend to keep some vices secret. And of course there are other corporate and personal secrets we keep for ourselves and others. But are secrets even possible in today’s digital age?

Cindy Cohn leads the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a sort of digital ACLU, which has been fighting for privacy and security rights for nearly three decades. When she thinks What the Future, she wants to reframe the security debate to focus on people.

GenPop: You framed this privacy question in a very unique way. Why?

Cindy Cohn: I’ve always had an intuition that despite the political framings, issues like these aren’t particularly political for people. I think that when it comes to questions around law enforcement, the question is often framed from a law enforcement perspective. I’m glad to see it borne out that when you ask people what [privacy] means for them, and you put them at the center of the question, you get very different answers.

GenPop: The thing you hear people say is, “I don’t really have any secrets. Who cares if hackers or the government know about the sports and recipe sites I visit?” Why is it so important to protect your privacy in the first place?

Cohn: It’s not just about privacy, it’s about security. People may not think that they’re ever doing anything that could get them in trouble with the law, but you can certainly get your mind around the fact that somebody coming in and stealing your data and impersonating you is a bad thing and can cause you a lot of trouble. Strong security and, specifically, strong encryption give you both of those protections. Even if your particular personal privacy might not be that important to you, most people have a loved-one for whom it is.

Cindy Cohn, Executive director, Electronic Frontier Foundation


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GenPop: Is this kind of an analog to vaccines?

Cohn: Privacy is a team sport. Even if you don’t care about your privacy, chances are you have stuff in your inbox or with the people you communicate with that can get other people in trouble, and in that way it is a little like the question about vaccines. Having a place for a private conversation, where you’re sure that nobody can listen in, just feels like a basic human right. The idea that you would deny people that right, and force them to prove why they need it seems to flip the world on its head.

GenPop: If I wanted to keep a secret today, how could I do that, and how much harder is it going to become?

Cohn: Well, it kind of depends on whether people are willing to dig in and say no to the governments. Today we have a pretty good way of protecting your secrets. If you use something like Signal or WhatsApp as a way to communicate a secret thing to somebody else, you have pretty strong encryption that’s available. But all of these platforms don’t tie together very well or seamlessly. One other challenge is that most people want to have their data backed up to one of the cloud services. It’s really wise as a matter of computer hygiene. [The data is] often encrypted. But the [cloud service] company has a way in, and then law enforcement takes advantage of that [access].

GenPop: As we’re having this conversation, I’ve got two phones that could conceivably be listening to me. I believe my TV has a microphone in it and possibly a camera. I could have a voice assistant nearby. So even if I’m using the best privacy protection tools, all these other devices can be tracking what I’m doing.

Cohn: We really need to set policies and laws and systems in place to make those systems just work for you instead of having a secondary agenda. I believe in technology. I think technology can help make our world better. But right now we have these technologies that pretend to be about you but they actually have a second—I would argue a primary— agenda about surveilling you sometimes for purposes of placing ads and sometimes for other purposes.

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Reframing privacy around people

Which would you prefer: Strong security and encryption, which makes it difficult for you to be hacked, but also more difficult for the government to be able to catch hackers.

Total: 80%

Republicans: 83%

Democrats: 79%

Independents: 82%

Or: rules that prevent strong security and strong encryption, which make it easier for you to be hacked, but also may make it easier for the government to catch the hackers.

Total: 20%

Republicans: 17%

Democrats: 21%

Independents: 18%

Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Feb. 7 and 11, 2019 among 2,010 adults in the U.S.

GenPop: The other thing you hear people say is, “I’m just one person. What can I do? If I say no to every privacy policy that doesn’t protect my privacy, I won’t have access to all of these helpful, modern tools.”

Cohn: I call this privacy nihilism. There is a real risk that the framing of this can really lead people to give up and not want to pitch in, or think that they don’t have any power and that the game is lost. I think that people underestimate how powerful they are. People tend to think that the government we have now and the rules now are the only rules that could ever be. But that’s not true. People have more power if they want it. We are in a time when people really want more control of their data and data about them. Overwhelmingly, people don’t want their security protections dumbed down just because it might give law enforcement a slight edge on catching the criminals.


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, Executive director, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Cindy Cohn is the Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. From 2000-2015 she served as EFF’s Legal Director as well as its General Counsel. Ms. Cohn first became involved with EFF in 1993, when EFF asked her to serve as the outside lead attorney in Bernstein v. Dept. of Justice, the successful First Amendment challenge to the U.S. export restrictions on cryptography.

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