A jour­nal­ist’s story of be­ing watched on­line—and why it mat­ters to you.

Why you should care about who’s watch­ing you on­line. by bethany Horne

ELLE (Canada) - - Contents - ByBethanyHorne

when I was six years old, my par­ents, who worked as Chris­tian mis­sion­aries, moved our fam­ily of five from Kingston, Ont., to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Grow­ing up, I re­mem­ber build­ing kites with bam­boo sticks and garbage bags dur­ing long af­ter­noons at the beach, climb­ing into wob­bly-branched mango trees to re­trieve the golden fruit and tak­ing fam­ily hol­i­days in the An­des. But there were also na­tional work­ers’ strikes that over­threw gov­ern­ments and land­slides that wiped out roads and vil­lages.

While this may sound ex­otic to some, it was the only life I knew. Grow­ing up in Guayaquil meant we were lim­ited to lo­cal news­pa­pers and a few chan­nels on tele­vi­sion to help us un­der­stand our world—that is, un­til the In­ter­net ar­rived. To say I loved the In­ter­net at first sight would be an un­der­state­ment. I was only 12 years old, but within mo­ments of log­ging on, I be­gan to feel like a global cit­i­zen. Sud­denly, let­ters from my grand­par­ents in Canada took sec­onds in­stead of weeks to reach us. We could even livestream CBC Ra­dio with some suc­cess.

Through­out high school, to my par­ents’ dis­may, I’d hog the dial-up for hours to talk to strangers in chat rooms. While many of these chats were about in­no­cent top­ics like The Lord of the Rings and Nar­nia, it still felt lib­er­at­ing. A pale-skinned blond kid with blue eyes, I stuck out wher­ever I went in Ecuador. But on­line, I felt like I could be anony­mous and ex­per­i­ment and com­mu­ni­cate with just about any­one without the sense of be­ing watched or judged. Those were the early days of the In­ter­net, though, and it would take around 15 years for me—and the rest of the world—to learn about mass surveil­lance.

In the sum­mer of 2013, I was work­ing as a Web ed­i­tor at an Ecuadorean news­pa­per when the now in­fa­mous Ed­ward Snow­den story broke world­wide. Snow­den, who fled his job at the U.S. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency (NSA) with thou­sands of top-se­cret doc­u­ments, blew the whis­tle on the NSA’s il­le­gal mass-spy­ing ini­tia­tive. Find­ing out that the plat­forms I had en­trusted with my pho­tos, love let­ters and pri­vate thoughts were be­ing co- opted by Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence ser­vices felt like a be­trayal. These were places where I had built iden­ti­ties and friend­ships, and not only were h

they be­ing mon­i­tored but the in­for­ma­tion was also be­ing used by pow­er­ful gov­ern­ment agen­cies for their own po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests.

To­day, as a Ber­lin-based Cana­dian jour­nal­ist who cov­ers hu­man-rights and civil-lib­erty sto­ries, I am of­ten asked “Does mass surveil­lance on­line mat­ter?” And, more of­ten than not, this is fol­lowed by “But don’t we need surveil­lance to pro­tect our­selves?” Yes and no. With the at­tack on two Cana­dian sol­diers in Ot­tawa in 2014, the Char­lie Hebdo shoot­ing in early 2015, the mass shoot­ings in Paris last Novem­ber, as well as a num­ber of more re­cent at­tacks in Brus­sels, Or­lando, Fla., the Is­tan­bul Ataturk Air­port, Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Nice, France, to name but a few, on­line surveil­lance has now be­come a key com­po­nent in the way gov­ern­ments wage war against ter­ror­ism. But what hap­pens when or­di­nary cit­i­zens get caught up in the surveil­lance?

Shortly af­ter I left my news­pa­per job in Ecuador, my heart was tugged by a story about a mas­sacre in the coun­try’s Ama­zon rain­for­est: Un­con­tacted indige­nous peo­ple had been killed by a neigh­bour­ing tribe, and two small girls had been kid­napped. In Jan­uary 2014, I wrote an ar­ti­cle for Newsweek in which I high­lighted the short­com­ings of Pres­i­dent Rafael Cor­rea and the Ecuadorean gov­ern­ment’s han­dling of the af­ter­math as well as the gov­ern­ment’s harm­ful oil drilling in the rain­for­est that ig­nited the ten­sions be­tween the tribes in the first place. Hav­ing his fail­ures laid bare to an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence an­gered Cor­rea, and he spent 12 min­utes dur­ing an Ecuadorean-tele­vi­sion broad­cast dis­miss­ing my ar­ti­cle.

I in­stantly be­came a tar­get. Af­ter the broad­cast, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers vis­ited my for­mer work­places to try to find out in­for­ma­tion about me. I be­lieve they mined my so­cial-media pro­file and that my phone calls were in­ter­cepted. My so­cial­me­dia and email ac­counts were in­un­dated with hate­ful mes­sages and al­lu­sions to vi­o­lence and de­por­ta­tion threats. Con­tent call­ing me a liar was up­loaded to YouTube. As a re­sult, I gave up my smart­phone for a while. Ecuador has an ac­tive do­mes­tic spy­ing agency called SENAIN, and I found my pic­ture and a pro­file in leaked doc­u­ments from the agency. (These were pub­lished by an Ecuadorean whis­tle-blow­ing web­site.)

When my work visa ex­pired in April 2014, I de­cided not to re­new it. I didn’t feel safe in Ecuador any­more and re­turned to Cam­bridge, Ont., to try to re­gain some con­trol over my dig­i­tal self. The In­ter­net is a pow­er­ful tool for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and self-ex­pres­sion, but when it’s turned against a peo­ple or an in­di­vid­ual, it be­comes for­mi­da­ble. While I can’t say that what hap­pened to me in Ecuador would ever hap­pen in Canada, a plat­form this pow­er­ful is ripe for abuse by pow­er­ful states and cor­po­ra­tions.

This is not to say that we don’t need on­line surveil­lance. But I be­lieve that the type of surveil­lance we need to pro­tect our­selves should be lim­ited in scope, ap­proved by a judge and its re­sults made avail­able for re­quests so it can be ex­am­ined by the pub­lic to en­sure its com­pli­ance with our demo­cratic val­ues. Just be­cause we have the technology to do the equiv­a­lent of kick­ing down the doors of ev­ery house­hold world­wide and lis­ten­ing in on their con­ver­sa­tions doesn’t mean we should. Our com­put­ers and our phones con­tain as much in­ti­mate de­tail as our homes—the pro­tec­tions should be equiv­a­lent.

But we seem to be mov­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion—even in Canada. Take, for in­stance,

Our com­put­ers and our phones con­tain as much in­ti­mate de­tail as our homes—The pro­tec­tions should be equiv­a­lent.

the con­tro­ver­sial anti-ter­ror­ism act, Bill C-51, which re­ceived royal as­sent in Ot­tawa last year and is now law. When it was first in­tro­duced by the then Conservative gov­ern­ment in early 2015, many re­acted neg­a­tively, say­ing the new laws en­acted by the bill would un­der­mine the ba­sic hu­man rights of Cana­dian cit­i­zens. And even though the law was passed with both Lib­eral and Conservative sup­port, more than 100 aca­demics, as well as Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, have spo­ken out against the bill, out­lin­ing con­cerns over pri­vacy rights and free­dom of speech both on­line and off. Be­fore the fed­eral elec­tion last Oc­to­ber, Justin Trudeau’s Lib­eral Party cam­paigned with prom­ises to “re­peal the prob­lem­atic el­e­ments of Bill C-51 and in­tro­duce new leg­is­la­tion that bet­ter bal­ances our col­lec­tive se­cu­rity with our rights and free­doms.” But the party has yet to re­veal its pro­posed amend­ments—and a pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion is ex­pected to con­tinue un­til the end of the year.

To­day there is a grow­ing re­sis­tance against mass surveil­lance. Af­ter be­ing trailed by state se­cu­rity in Ecuador and trolled on­line even while I was liv­ing in Canada, I de­cided to move to Ber­lin, Ger­many, where there are stricter pri­vacy laws. The cap­i­tal has be­come a hub for hack­ers, jour­nal­ists, ac­tivists and hu­man-rights work­ers who have gath­ered to­gether to col­lab­orate and ex­change ideas about on­line surveil­lance and the fu­ture of the In­ter­net. Some peo­ple here are work­ing on tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions to the prob­lem of surveil­lance by build­ing de­cen­tral­ized com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems that al­low for strong en­cryp­tion. Others work on pol­icy so­lu­tions by help­ing to write leg­is­la­tion or estab­lish case law that pro­tects peo­ple’s pri­vacy. A lot of the cur­rent work in this field in­volves try­ing to roll back the power of in­tel­li­gence agen­cies like the NSA, Canada’s CSIS or the Ger­man BND. Others, like my­self, work on pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion: We write sto­ries and cre­ate media that teach peo­ple about the dan­ger we all face if the In­ter­net be­comes en­tirely coopted by pow­er­ful or­ga­ni­za­tions.

For me, my fight for free and pri­vate spa­ces on­line is, at first, a self­ish one. I’m fight­ing to save that early In­ter­net I fell in love with—the one that showed me the beauty of hu­man con­nec­tion and the power of col­lec­tive ac­tion. But it is also a fight for democ­racy. Be­cause how we col­lec­tively view and use the In­ter­net is in­trin­si­cally linked to how we de­fine equal­ity, free­dom and jus­tice.

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