The future looks grim for digital privacy and the open Internet in the United States. Even before President Trump took office, Standing Rock water protectors were targeted, while streaming protest actions on social-media and activist networks experienced routine surveillance by police forces across the country. But this administration has signaled a troubling intention to further empower the surveillance state, as well as to deepen its collusion with powerful corporate interests—a terrifying prospect given the already-robust apparatus established under NSA programs like XKeyscore and PRISM (not to mention the revelations by Wikileaks last week of the terrifying extent to which the CIA uses smart technologies to spy). The number of people having their phone searched at the border has skyrocketed, with some visitors reporting that their Facebook profiles were screened for political beliefs. Members of the Trump administration have even reportedly suggested making visitors from certain countries “disclose all websites and social media sites they visit” before entering the United States. Congress is also making some disturbing moves, such as attempting to roll back key privacy protections implemented by the FCC under the Obama administration.
Thankfully, there are people who have long been in the fight and are taking active steps to help safeguard our digital rights. Here are six ways you can get involved:
1. Call or e-mail your congressional representatives, especially if they sit on a committee or working group that deals directly with privacy or surveillance issues, to let them know that digital rights matter to you. The Federal Privacy Council has a legislative membership list of committees and subcommittees related to privacy and surveillance issues, and you can check if your congressional representatives sit on any of them. Whether or not they do, consider raising some specific issues:
a. Oppose the reauthorization of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which is currently set to expire on December 31, 2017. Section 702 has been used to justify mass surveillance by the NSA, including the collection of phone calls and emails from communications providers. The ACLU has more information on the law.
b. Support the Email Privacy Act. This bipartisan legislation proposes to update and reform the radically outdated ECPA of 1986, which allows the government to intercept and access a wide range of personal information from cell phone providers, search engines, social networking sites, and other websites. The Email Privacy Act is currently in the Senate after easily passing the House of Representatives for the second year in a row. You can read more about the act at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website.
c. Stop the Customs and Border Patrol from screening the social media accounts of travelers. EFF has a campaign asking Congress to pass legislation to ensure that border agents have to get a warrant before conducting digital searches.
d. Voice your opposition to a new Congressional Review Act resolution that threatens not only to roll back Obama-era consumer privacy protections that require internet service providers to get customer permission before selling sensitive data, but to bar the FCC from issuing similar protections in the future. Introduced by Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), the resolution requires only a simple majority in both chambers to pass. The media advocacy organization Free Press has a call tool and talking points to help you get in effective touch with your representatives. (UPDATE: This resolution passed in the Senate and is expected to come up for a vote in the House as early as Tuesday, March 28. Click here to access Free Press’s call tool to call your representative.)
e. Defend encryption and keep secure communication channels open to the public. These days, a right to privacy means public access to communication channels that are truly secure from sophisticated surveillance techniques. Proposals like the Secure Data Act and ENCRYPT Act promise to expand access to these kinds of services.
2. Contact FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon advisor who has said that net neutrality’s “days are numbered,” and tell him to defend net neutrality, end his aggressive campaign against essential communications regulations, and support the 2015 Open Internet Order. The Trump appointee has been hard at work gutting the consumer-friendly victories of Tom Wheeler’s progressive FCC, turning the body into a lapdog for corporate interests and enabling a further consolidation of power by private communications giants that have become complicit in mass government surveillance. The FCC is not an elected body, but there is a precedent for effective lobbying by the public: in late 2014, the voices of nearly four million Americans were essential in pushing the previous FCC to back stronger federal safeguards for net neutrality. With the current chairman enacting an agenda that enables monopolistic zero-rating practices, exploits prisoners, and antagonizes consumers, it is essential that we rekindle this public pressure. Pai can be reached by phone at (202) 418-2000, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send him a message regarding the importance of net neutrality through The Nation.
3. Check out digital-rights groups, many of which offer resources on government surveillance and privacy rights.
a. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) defends individuals and new technologies from legal abuse, advocates for privacy legislation, and publishes resources on digital security.
b. Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) deals with issues relating to intellectual property and the ownership of information. It was originally founded by Ralph Nader as the Consumer Project on Technology (CPT) in 1995.
c. International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) is the world’s largest association of privacy professionals, and a central hub for developing information management policies.
d. Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is a DC think tank that brings public attention to emerging privacy-related human rights issues. One of their current cases concerns the obligation of the Federal Aviation Administration to establish privacy regulations before using commercial drones in the United States.
4. Pressure tech companies to do the right thing and refuse to aid and abet Trump’s digital agenda. This public pressure can work; after a campaign launched by a coalition including the ACLU, Color of Change, and the Center for Media Justice, Facebook recently announced changes to its policies to clearly prohibit the use of their data for surveillance. Here are ways to pressure tech companies to do even more:
a. Sign this SumOfUs petition, which demands that Silicon Valley companies refuse to collaborate with the Trump administration.
b. Participate in boycotts of tech companies that support and profit from the Trump administration. This is a good way to ensure that the tech sector continues to oppose the president’s agenda, such as when the #UberBoycott successfully pressured Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick to step down from Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum.
c. 2,843 tech workers signed a pledge refusing to help build a database targeting individuals “based on race, religion, or national origin.” Promote the pledge, encourage tech workers to endorse it, and hold them accountable if they fail to follow through.
5. Know your rights and protect your communications. Do police need a warrant to search your phone in your state? What if you’re at the border? The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a printable guide that answers these questions and many more, and a helpful blog post with digital security tips for protesters. It also has also created Surveillance Self-Defense, a comprehensive project to help you learn digital security skills.
6. Stay engaged with cyber security developments, and track the expansion of the surveillance state.
a. Get EFF Action Alerts to stay on top of how to help defend our privacy rights.
b. Sign up for the EPIC Alert for biweekly updates on emerging threats to privacy and informational civil liberties.
c. Join the IAPP’s Privacy List to become part of the global conversation on privacy issues and protections.
d. The TED Blog published a reading list on the surveillance state in the wake of the 2013 Snowden leaks. It remains a good resource for history, context, and understanding the state of digital privacy.
e. Follow investigative reporting on government surveillance to keep up with the shifting landscape. Some recent highlights include Craig Timberg, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Ellen Nakashima on the implications of the latest WikiLeaks revelations, Ava Kofman on the FBI’s real-time employee database, Marissa Lang on the difficulties of safeguarding privacy in the digital age, and a massive release of documents detailing the unchecked powers of US law enforcement by The Intercept.