When the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program made headlines worldwide, the general public suddenly became very interested in their digital privacy. Are digital havens the answer? Should we all move to Iceland?
In June of 2010, the Icelandic Parliament passed the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a resolution that would bring widespread reform designed to protect freedom of expression in the current digital climate. Iceland is home to the International Modern Media Institute, the advocacy group that helped draft Iceland’s Modern Media Initiative, and seems to be the ideal country for such a data haven–where legislature and infrastructure combine to offer protection from surveillance like the NSA’s. Smari McCarthy, the executive director of the IMMI, certainly thinks so.
Speaking to Dell’s TechPageOne, McCarthy has coupled his legislative efforts with advocacy for increased encryption. Kyle Chayka writes:
McCarthy hopes to “raise the average cost of surveillance” by creating roadblocks for blanket operations like the NSA and PRISM. By helping users employ encryption to make their data harder to decode and forcing groups like the NSA to spend more on data tracking resources, McCarthy wants to make global blanket surveillance so expensive that it will be impossible.
He’s not alone in his approach. The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has both compiled the most extensive archive of documents detailing the NSA’s surveillance practices and taken legal action against the NSA for non-PRISM related surveillance of citizens. The Foundation actively maintains an updated list of major Internet companies like Apple and Google and the status of their data protection measures compared to their “best practices” criteria.
Unfortunately, a company can follow sound encryption protocol and have it all be for naught. Such was the case for Lavabit, the secure email provider that had Edward Snowden listed as one of its members–which led the U.S. government to demand access to Lavabit’s private SSL keys. This would have effectively given the government complete access to the private information of all of Lavabit’s customers, just to get at one. Lavabit founder Ladar Levison decided to give the government the keys, and then immediately shut his service down.
Cases like Lavabit’s make the idea of a data haven even more appealing, but there are problems with having that haven be an actual country. Political ones, to be exact.
But what of solutions independent of a country? After all, no one owns the Internet. Is the recently resurrected, independent data haven HavenCo part of a new wave of mercenary privacy protectors, offering a full suite of privacy protection services in order to protect users from increasingly intrusive governments? Granted, HavenCo isn’t a perfect example–allegedly based in the self-declared (and unrecognized) principality of Sealand, it’s hard to put much stock in what kind of protection could be afforded when push comes to shove.
So the problem remains: There is a demand for privacy online and a failure on behalf of our government to provide or respect it. While the legal battles rage, the alternatives that are hacked and cobbled together may very well be a key part of how we’re connected in the future.