2015: A Pivotal Year in the Online Privacy Battle

This year has been eventful, with the battle over online privacy – and the battle between governments and consumers over this privacy – in the forefront.

From the hotly debated backdoor encryption issue in the United States, to the proliferation of Data Retention legislation being proposed and passed in the EU and Australia, governments and law enforcement are trying – perhaps harder than ever – to gain and maintain access to user data. These attempts have been met with resistance from consumers and tech companies alike, with strong viewpoints on both sides of the argument.

As we look back at 2015 and look forward to 2016, we should ask ourselves:

In this battle with the government over online privacy – who is winning?

The Encryption Battle: United States

The Debate: The US government (FBI and law enforcement officials in particular) wants backdoor access into encrypted communications, so that law enforcement can access information to aide their crime-fighting efforts. Technology companies, the privacy community and many consumers are strongly opposed to such invasive access to their information.

Technological Implications: Encryption backdoors would weaken the security and privacy offered in technology products (like smartphones, for example), by prohibiting end-to-end encryption from being built into devices. This would be a dangerous precedent to set in the tech community, and presents a threat to innovation.

Privacy Implications: Encryption backdoors leave consumers vulnerable to snooping and surveillance by the government, and represent a violation of privacy and security. There is no way to create a backdoor that only the government can access; a backdoor for the government is a backdoor for everyone, and introduces a vulnerability that can then be exploited.

The Verdict: In October, president Obama officially announced the government would not be seeking backdoor access into encrypted communications – at least not for the time being. The debate is not concluded, however, as encryption has come under renewed scrutiny this month in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. As the debate re-ignites, many outlets have reported the White House may be changing direction on this issue.

The Rise of Data Retention Legislation: Australia & EU

The Debate: Data retention legislation has been an unfortunate trend this year, as Australia enacted a major data retention law and many other countries proposed legislation including provisions for data retention. This increase in data retention legislation represented another push by the government to retain access to customer data – in this case by mandating telcos and ISPs retain the data for specified time periods. These laws have been passed and proposed so that law enforcement can request access to data.

Technological Implications: There’s been some concern around the fact that telcos are unprepared for the new data retention laws. Additionally, there’s been concern surrounding the high costs associated with implementing these laws.

Privacy Implications: Data retention legislation poses a privacy threat to consumers, as specified information is subject to retention for prescribed periods.

The Verdict: While there’s no official verdict, recent events indicate governments may be winning this one as more and more countries introduce legislation with provisions for data retention. There has been much push back against this legislation from consumers and privacy advocates, but only time will tell if more or less legislation goes into effect.

Who’s Winning the “War on Privacy?”

These are just two of the major issues that came up this year – in the United States there has also been much debate over the bills CISA and ECPA, and around the world many governments enacted laws that further invaded the privacy of Internet users.

Who do you think is winning this year’s war on privacy? You can share your thoughts with us and join in the debate in the comments section below.

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The Encryption Battle:

Data Retention Legislation: