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Privacy in the Digital Age

Interview with Matthijs Pontier, Meer Democratie, Pirate Party, Netherlands

Matthijs, tell us a bit about yourself and your involvement in politics.

I have a background as a scientist. I studied artificial intelligence and psychology and I worked on emotional intelligence and ethical decision-making for computers and robots. Next to that I’m on the board of Meer Democratie, a co-founder of Idea Synergy and active for the Pirate Party. I’ve been a candidate in the elections since 2014 and currently represent the Pirate Party on the water authority, which is a regional political body for the management of water resources.

How difficult is it to get people to take their privacy seriously considering the internet of things and all the many devices that monitor and respond to our needs?

It is more difficult than it should be, and that is because the benefits are quick and easy, and the risks are long-term and a bit abstract. But you can deliver the same service without harming people’s privacy.

For example, you can have a good email service without reading people’s emails and using that to sell advertisements.

While encryption is something we hear a lot about in regards to digital privacy, it seems somewhat difficult for the average person to use encryption tools themselves. Do you have any suggestions?

There are services though that they can use. For example, Protonmail works like any email service. There is also Signal which is like other messaging apps, but is encrypted. So it’s not too difficult. There’s also a very good toolbox from BitsofFreedom that I am sure also exists in other countries, and which is full of plug-ins and tools you can use to protect your privacy better in just a few seconds.

How would you go about getting people to use these tools?

Advertising as much as possible. There’s also an alternative for Office called Cryptpad. It has many office applications, it is opensource and not from Google. There are a lot of privacy friendly alternatives out there.

What about online voting? Is there any way to balance privacy with this or are these two things incompatible?

If there isn’t too much at stake, it isn’t an issue to use online voting as a kind of advanced idea-box to let ideas get from bottom to top. If you are using it to elect representatives or a President for that matter, then you can’t do it electronically, because there will always be problems with security and there is a very high incentive to manipulate the vote. So either you don’t have voting secrecy or you don’t have full security. And you definitely want both in this case.

Do any of us ultimately really have a secret vote though? I know parties here in Ireland are pretty good at figuring out who voted for them. And in the US elections, the Obama campaign claimed to know the names of every single voter who voted for him.

You can predict probably with 90% certainty based on what people say online who they voted for, especially in the US where there are only two major parties. In the Netherlands it is more diverse and of course many people don’t share political information about themselves online. There is a difference between predicting how someone will vote and actually knowing how they voted. Some people use different profiles online for different activities in order to prevent this kind of analysis. It’s about the right to voting secrecy. If you give a lot of your information away then of course that is your choice and your freedom to do that, but people should have the right not to let others know who they voted for.

Does it seem to you that people care less about privacy than they used to? I see all kinds of people declaring who they voted for online, often even with a selfie.

I think people care increasingly about privacy. How social media use their platforms to let their advertisers manipulate you has become a very big topic in the media. There is also an increasing number of services that advertise themselves as being the privacy-friendly option. Privacy is becoming the new green. At some point it became hip to be green and some big companies began green-washing. We’re now seeing this with privacy as well. In some cases, it may be more genuine than others. For example, WhatsApp started using encryption, but is still owned by Facebook and it is impossible to check whether or not they use your information.

I come from a legal background. In the past we could put someone under surveillance with a warrant. We could tap their phones or open their mail. So, how would this work in an era of encrypted communication? I think this can be an issue for people in the legal community who are opposed to warrantless surveillance, but at the same time are wary of the possibility of people being able to communicate in ways that cannot be tapped if the situation requires it and the legal process is followed.

Smart criminals will be able to use encryption that hasn’t been hacked, so you basically only catch stupid people who use the same stuff everyone else has. We have to consider that who is a criminal to one person is a freedom fighter to others or could be an activist. Also environmental activists are looked into by the secret services who also look into terror. There are also journalists who cannot really do their work if their communication is not secure. If their government knows what they are communicating about it threatens their life. So, it is very important to have encryption to protect journalists, to protect activists, actually to protect anyone who needs secure communication. It is a very important aspect of democracy, actually.
Finally – do you think that governments will regulate sufficiently to protect privacy in the coming years as technology develops?

I believe they will, as long as we stay alert. Currently, several digital rights NGO’s have started the ‘#ReclaimYourFace’ campaign in which you can sign to ban facial recognition in public space and other forms of biometric mass surveillance.

Also upload filters are on the agenda in the EU. Upload filters are basically censorship machines that automatically filter content and censor it before it even gets uploaded. These censorship machines often fail, filterint clips that expose war crimes, or even a speech in the European Parliament on torture. Please, contact your representatives now!

Also with encryption, we are at a critical moment. Right now the European Union is deciding whether to keep encryption or whether to break it permanently. But I actually think and hope that we will be able to keep encryption. I would like to urge anyone to protest against the draft Council decision with this concept letter.


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