“The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. Economists and other social scientists have heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular opinion have largely ignored it.” (Rob Norton, Unintended Consequences, econlib.org)

“All your private online data—the websites you visit, the content of your chats and emails, your health info, and your location—just became suddenly less secure. Not because of hackers, but because Congress just blocked crucial privacy regulations. This will allow your internet service provider to collect all your data and sell that info to the highest bidder without asking you first. Welcome to a brave new world.” (Eric Limer, How to Protect your Online Privacy now that Congress Sold You Out, zerohedge.com)

The rest of Limer’s article, which you can read by clicking on the quote above, is about what each of us might do if he cares enough about the privacy of his browsing data. Instruct your ISP that you do not authorize it to sell your data, change to a more privacy-friendly one – if possible, encrypt your communication, use a VPN, use Tor to browse the Internet or any combination of the above.

Since I already had at least a vague idea about most of those but I had never before even heard of Tor I checked it out first.

“The Tor network is a group of volunteer-operated servers that allows people to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. Tor’s users employ this network by connecting through a series of virtual tunnels rather than making a direct connection, thus allowing both organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy. Along the same line, Tor is an effective censorship circumvention tool, allowing its users to reach otherwise blocked destinations or content. Tor can also be used as a building block for software developers to create new communication tools with built-in privacy features.

Individuals use Tor to keep websites from tracking them and their family members, or to connect to news sites, instant messaging services, or the like when these are blocked by their local Internet providers. Tor’s hidden services let users publish web sites and other services without needing to reveal the location of the site. Individuals also use Tor for socially sensitive communication: chat rooms and web forums for rape and abuse survivors, or people with illnesses.

Journalists use Tor to communicate more safely with whistleblowers and dissidents. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use Tor to allow their workers to connect to their home website while they’re in a foreign country, without notifying everybody nearby that they’re working with that organization.

Groups such as Indymedia recommend Tor for safeguarding their members’ online privacy and security. Activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recommend Tor as a mechanism for maintaining civil liberties online. Corporations use Tor as a safe way to conduct competitive analysis, and to protect sensitive procurement patterns from eavesdroppers. They also use it to replace traditional VPNs, which reveal the exact amount and timing of communication. Which locations have employees working late? Which locations have employees consulting job-hunting websites? Which research divisions are communicating with the company’s patent lawyers?

A branch of the U.S. Navy uses Tor for open source intelligence gathering, and one of its teams used Tor while deployed in the Middle East recently. Law enforcement uses Tor for visiting or surveilling web sites without leaving government IP addresses in their web logs, and for security during sting operations.

The variety of people who use Tor is actually part of what makes it so secure. Tor hides you among the other users on the network, so the more populous and diverse the user base for Tor is, the more your anonymity will be protected.” (Overview, Torproject.org)

Living the first 30 years of my life under communist rule taught me a lot of interesting things. Which seemed specific to that kind of society but which, paradoxically – only in an ostensible manner, are increasingly helpful when I struggle to understand what’s currently going on in the ‘free world’.
Among those things was the fact that ‘blanket surveillance’ doesn’t work. The communists were reputed for shamelessly listening in to our phones but we had learned very fast to talk in a coded manner, to refrain from speaking about certain subjects over a wire AND that they could never hire enough people to listen to everything that was said over the phone.
And this is why most dissidents were ‘smoked’ out almost exclusively by snitches – paid ‘traitors’ employed by Securitate to spy on us and presented by the communists as being ‘concerned citizens’.

Less than thirty years after the fall of most communist regimes we have an almost similar situation. ‘In the mirror’ kind of similar.

The Internet is the medium through which a lot of information is being circulated, some of it of very sensitive nature. Sensitive as in ‘personal’ but also as in potentially very disruptive. For corporations, for political organizations, for states but also for terrorist organizations.

Up to a few weeks ago the Internet was divided in two, very unequal, sections.
A mostly open one, where most of us – who do not have much to hide – used to dwell and one which was a lot more ‘walled in’. (A.K.A. heavily encrypted and tortuously rerouted)
The mostly open section was the hunting ground for the ‘advertisers’ while the ‘encrypted’ one was the playing ground where the ‘dissidents’ (of all ‘persuasions’) played cat and mouse with the ‘law enforcers’ (again, of all ‘persuasions’).

For the ‘free world’ this was a workable arrangement. The advertisers could do their job – as long as they stayed inside the rules, the individuals had their most sensitive data protected, the bona-fide dissidents had a reasonably safe opportunity to express themselves and the bona-fide law enforcers had a reasonably small traffic to sift through when searching for terrorists and all other sorts of law breakers.
For the authoritarian regimes it was not – the very advent of Internet was an abomination for them, but I couldn’t care less. Especially since most of the really proficient people sooner or later realize that authoritarianism simply doesn’t work and eventually ‘change colors’.

I’m afraid the recent changes enforced by the US Congress will unsettle this fragile equilibrium.

As more and more technologically savvy people will start using more and more the ‘walled in’ section of the Interned – not because they have anything really important to hide but to spite the more and more intrusive ‘data thieves’, the bona-fide law enforcers will have more and more difficulties in smoking out the really bad law-breakers. Including the terrorists.

The authoritarian regimes tend to solve these kind of problems by shutting down, or by ‘maiming’, entire systems.
If we, in the free world, will have to resort, even temporarily, to the same solution it will be – including for the advertisers – yet another instance of the golden goose being massacred by the excessively greedy.

“The only one you can really trust to protect you is you.

The short and uncomfortable truth is this: Until more robust privacy protections are put in place, the burden of protecting your online data falls on you. Keep it in mind, do your research, and remember that your monopolized ISP has every reason in the world to sell you out and wring your data for every dime that it is worth. The only one you can really trust to protect you is you.”