On Privacy

Posted by Viktoria Michaelis on August 4, 2013 in Guest Writers |

This last Friday, Germany ended a spy pact with the United States and the United Kingdom. The recent disclosure of the American NSA’s activities and the ensuing protests forced the hand of foreign minister Westerwelle who declared the 50 year old pact had to be ended as “necessary and proper consequence of the recent debate about protecting personal privacy.”

There is little doubt that other democratic countries will announce similar pious intents.

I propose to examine here what is personal privacy as well as explain why it does not and cannot exist, especially as digital telecommunications become ubiquitous and the “Internet of things” grows larger than the Internet of people.

Deep roots

A bit of technology, just to get it out of the way: to spy on a Duke’s correspondence, you make an imprint of his seal with quicksilver, melt the seal over hot water, read the letter, and then re-seal from the imprint. This practice was systematized in all the courts of Europe during the 18th century. Reading correspondence is the reason the office of the Postmaster-General was created.

Assuming you do not seal emails with wax, what then is personal privacy on the Internet? You may choose your own definition. However, there will probably be passive and active “sliders” involved.

On the passive side, you may consider it invasive that the ads you see online are entirely about the Fountain of Youth (as of age 16 if you are a woman) or priapism induction (if you are a man). If you push your sliders all the way to 11, you may ban all cookies and prevent JavaScript from executing (and then might as well not use the web at all).

Active sliders are more complex. You try to defend your private life with firewalls, anti-virus software, encryption, avatars, several email addresses, advocacy, online opinions about online privacy… You may even want to go all in and completely disconnect your real and online personae.

Whatever your concerns and actions, you can distil them to: you want who you are and what you do privately to remain private.

It is, technically, impossible.

Tapping your phone

Your mobile operator knows where, when, and what you do, to whom, with your phone and stores it in a database. About 30 times per second and the location accuracy is 50 metres or better. Why? Because there is no other way to operate a digital cellular network: without this data, your phone simply would not work. The data has a half-life of ten days or more: the quality of the service depends on it.

It gets worse if you use a smartphone. The mobile operator has to bridge communication protocols for you. What that means in real life is: the applications you use and the sites you visit get stored as well. Again, without this data, your smartphone’s performance would slow down to a crawl (imagine molasses climbing a hill).

In most countries, this data can be subpoenaed in 24 hours or less. A long time compared to how fast an employee of the mobile operator can steal it.

Here is looking at you

You are a fellow Bronze Ager and use a box or laptop?

God forbid it ever gets stolen (or just looked at closely when you are out of home). Your operating system stores absolutely everything you do in its events logs. Again, because it has to: there would be no way to fix bugs otherwise.

Whatever you deleted on your hard disk is still there forever, even if you overwrote it. There are tools, hardware and software, that can read and restore it. As to your Internet connection, to the network’s backbone you look and feel like smoke signals and tom-toms in the jungle: otherwise, the Internet could not respond.

Hardware does not understand privacy. Telecommunication hardware is the antithesis of privacy.

Of course, that is not what you have in mind when you mean privacy. You really mean that your creative procurement of applications and entertainment content are nobody’s business. Your online forays into amateur gynaecology and tuition on probability theory training sites (online casinos) are for your eyes only.

As to your email, of course it is privileged by law (if not by manners.)

Sorry, no. Trace back an email you received and see how many severs it went through on its journey. I say no less than five. Now ask an IT lawyer who owns the data. Please do it: it is good clean fun to make lawyers weep. There is no real answer other than “possession is 90% of ownership”. As to porn sites and online casinos, yes, they are operated by Good People, of course.

Besides your loved ones who have physical access to your phone or computer, the weakest link in your Internet privacy is… the Internet: it is a distributed, redundant network and there are no real legal frameworks as to the rights of owners of intermediate machines.

Privacy, nowhere in site

By now, everyone should have had enough of sanctimonious media sensations about the evils of Google and Facebook and I will not flog those fossilised horses.

Except to ask you if you really think they will provide free services and take nothing in return?


You are entitled to privacy on privately-owned social networks? Yes: exactly as much privacy as the owners are willing to give you. Same applies to every single site you use.

Here, for example: where you were before, how you entered, and where you go when you leave is recorded. So are your location, time spent, number of pages visited (and which), as well as your demographics. You have to give a well-formed email address to comment. And there is targeted advertising. Why? Ask the Management. However, part of the answer probably is: rent and food are not free.


All the outrage at privacy invasion by authorities, with the active cooperation of your service suppliers, is a misunderstanding. It is not new, it is not growing, and it is not rational and deliberate: holding executive power induces a form of paranoia in which opposition becomes insurgency.

I have taken you on a brief tour of the vulnerability of your privacy chain. I hope you took a bit of time to reflect upon the many ways they can be exploited by people you have never heard of and certainly did not vote into office.

As to authorities and constituted bodies: welcome to the Age of Scrutiny: you did it to yourselves.

Your elected officials and their administration have no privacy at all. You consume every aspect of their lives: sexual peccadilloes, golf scores, academic records, shopping habits, birthday events, religious beliefs, holiday destinations… All of it as if they were valid and equally important metrics of their work performance.

Of course, they return the favour.

Author Bio: François Demers requires no introduction. If you require one, he will answer any question you ask with perfect candour.

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