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Tech and legal site shuts down, citing government email surveillance

Aug 21, 20135 mins
Data and Information SecurityEmail ClientsMicrosoft

Privacy is a fundamental human right, but because government surveillance makes email privacy impossible, the tech and legal site Groklaw said 'There is now no shield from forced exposure' and closed its doors.

There are many ways and varying shades of how a person can be violated—burglarized, mugged, stalked, terrorized, raped—and if you’ve ever been truly violated, then you feel like you can’t get the nightmare scenario stink off of you. Depending upon what happened, it can be a complete mind-screw. You might go to great lengths to make changes in your life in an attempt to assure it never happens again.

If someone hiding in the shadows is constantly monitoring you, does that surveillance pose any less threat to your privacy simply because you cannot see the person? Privacy is a fundamental human right and if someone “steals” that from you, then the stress it causes can be horrific. You might say it can “create and maintain a state of extreme fear and distress”; that is one definition of “terrorize.” So how is it that in the name of terrorism prevention, our own government’s total surveillance may be “terrorizing” people by stealing their fundamental human right to privacy?

Pamela Jones, the founder of Groklaw—an award-winning site for legal analysis about complex technological issues—wrote, “The owner of Lavabit tells us that he’s stopped using email and if we knew what he knew, we’d stop too.” Despite running the site for the last decade, Jones said she can’t run it without email, and “if the governments of the world think total surveillance is an appropriate thing,” then email has no guaranteed privacy. Groklaw is the latest fallout of total government surveillance and is closing its doors.

To help explain why “it’s not possible to be fully human if you are being surveilled 24/7,” Jones pulled excerpts from Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life by Janna Malamud Smith.

One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person’s ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable….

The totalitarian state watches everyone, but keeps its own plans secret. Privacy is seen as dangerous because it enhances resistance. Constantly spying and then confronting people with what are often petty transgressions is a way of maintaining social control and unnerving and disempowering opposition….

And even when one shakes real pursuers, it is often hard to rid oneself of the feeling of being watched — which is why surveillance is an extremely powerful way to control people. The mind’s tendency to still feel observed when alone… can be inhibiting. … Feeling watched, but not knowing for sure, nor knowing if, when, or how the hostile surveyor may strike, people often become fearful, constricted, and distracted.

Safe privacy is an important component of autonomy, freedom, and thus psychological well-being, in any society that values individuals. … Summed up briefly, a statement of “how not to dehumanize people” might read: Don’t terrorize or humiliate.

Don’t destroy privacy. Terrorists of all sorts destroy privacy both by corrupting it into secrecy and by using hostile surveillance to undo its useful sanctuary.

Then Jones wrote, “I hope that makes it clear why I can’t continue. There is now no shield from forced exposure. Nothing in that parenthetical thought list is terrorism-related, but no one can feel protected enough from forced exposure any more to say anything the least bit like that to anyone in an email, particularly from the U.S. out or to the U.S. in, but really anywhere. You don’t expect a stranger to read your private communications to a friend. And once you know they can, what is there to say?”

In fact, Jones said “now that I know that ensuring privacy online is impossible,” she’s cutting the cord from the Internet. She recommended using Kolab in Switzlerland if you intend to stay online.

“The tragic and unnecessary loss of a site like Groklaw is a reminder of what is threatened by the surveillance state, and the current attacks on the free press,” wrote Computerworld’s Glyn Moody. “It’s the canary in the coal mine, serving as a warning to us to act before it’s too late.”

Please read the sad news and final post on Groklaw in full.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.