Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines privacy as "freedom from unauthorized intrusion." The United States government defines privacy as "freedom from unauthorized intrusion, except by us." Personally I prefer the former definition. Realistically, I have to deal with the latter. The question is how?
In my last blog, I lauded the leaders at email providers Lavabit and Silent Circle for standing by their principles, and destroying members' email accounts when the NSA requested access to their encrypted communications. In the Star Trek Universe, this was their response to the Kobayashi Maru test. They demonstrated character and grit and I commended them for their decision.
I however, fall more in line with Admiral Kirk's vision of the Kobayashi Maru. I don't believe in no-win scenarios. I do however, believe in due process. That is why I may have formulated a different course of action than my esteemed peers.
Let me take one step back first. I too am a privacy provider, however I have not poked the US Government by offering tight-as-a-drum encryption as a safe harbor. My company, sgrouples.com, is doing something disruptive and valuable: restoring personal privacy and respect for people, with no tracking, no stalking, no facial recognition--nothing creepy. We provide a privacy network for people to communicate with each other, share their photos, videos, and documents, and organize their online life into groups and circles, just like real life. FORBES calls Sgrouples the "possible next generation of social media."
I bring that up here because if the government came knocking on my door demanding everything, as it did Lavabit's and Silent Circle's, I would fight for the privacy principles I founded Sgrouples on. I would give our members the option of staying with Sgrouples or closing their account. I would point out that if you're a law-abiding citizen, you have nothing to worry about, regardless of the government's intentions. I would take the fight elsewhere, to the courts, not on our servers.
Lavabit and Silent Circle offered unprecedented levels of privacy through their rigorous data encryption, and their customers demanded that. Not wanting to hand over the keys to the government, they destroyed the data and their member's accounts. A remarkable and bold display. And by not yet offering encryption at Sgrouples, the NSA certainly may be able to work around my deterrence in such a scenario. But unlike the incredible data trove they get from Google and Facebook, they would not find any aggregated data on anyone at Sgrouples - because we don't do it. No packets of concentrated, highly individualized data on our members and their lives. Nada.
Bottom line, I would have stood up to the government not because I want to, but because I feel I have to, as an American citizen, protect the rights afforded to us within the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I can't do that from the sidelines. I have to stay in the game. And the rules of our democracy encourage me and you to stay in the game. It's all there in the Declaration of Independence, spelled out by Thomas Jefferson:
"Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
How many governments in the world today tell their people in writing "you can change or get rid of us to protect your safety and happiness?" Those words aren't meant as a dare. There's no punch line. What Jefferson provides is an open invitation to work within the system through the ballot, legislative halls, and courtrooms, to challenge or jettison inequalities and injustices. For our democracy to succeed Jefferson and our forefathers knew that government needed to exist as a living and breathing entity and evolve according to the times. Sure we don't always agree with the outcomes, the party politics, the machinations, but we do support the process, because it defines our country and reasserts our freedoms.
To win the privacy war in any fundamental way requires making changes from within our legal system. Nothing else will have any meat to it. This is not a war of arms, but one of technology, legislation, and votes. The privacy revolution we are facing may not put our physical lives at risk but it does threaten the essence of who we are. Peggy Noonan recently wrote in an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal that "Privacy is connected to personhood. It has to do with intimate things--the innards of your head and heart, the workings of your mind--and the boundary between those things and the world outside." I agree that sacrificing our privacy when our government demands it is analogous to sacrificing who we are as individuals.
That's why this is a principle worth fighting for and one I intend to champion and encourage all Americans to help put our government back on the tracks it was founded upon, through any and all legal channels. We can go after the bad guys without violating the good guys, and we must. I understand the addiction the good guys have to data, and we all want to be safe from criminal and terrorist activity. But that does not mean and has never meant egregious violations of our country's founding core values. Through proper channels and legal activism, we can win and must win the right to maintain it. America is distinguished by the freedom and the privacy it offers. That is what makes us America, and not China.