As the presidential primary campaigns heat up across both parties, voters (Republicans and Democrats) are increasingly gravitating toward outsider candidates like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson — candidates promising to shake up the establishment, with the credentials (or lack thereof) to back it up.
But of all the issues gaining traction around the debates and campaign stops, one that is critical to the foundations of our society continues to go largely ignored: encryption and data privacy.
While the NSA’s mass surveillance programs that infringed on millions of Americans’ email privacy has become a talking point in the race so far, there has been virtually no mention among Republicans or Democrats about practical solutions for maintaining everyone’s digital freedom — like strong encryption, increased government transparency and open innovation — all crucial parts of people’s right to privacy.
Even the Obama administration’s declaration that it was siding with tech companies against allowing encryption backdoors was made on the grounds of national security, rather than out of concern for the civil liberties and privacy rights of the American public.
Where the candidates stand
Identifying the leading candidates on the issue is a pretty low bar to clear, and only a few champions for privacy on both sides of the aisle have emerged.
The populist, self-described Democratic Socialist from Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders, has blasted both the federal government and corporate data brokers for robbing the average citizen’s right to digital privacy by collecting consumer data and using it for their own ends.
Back in June 2015, Sanders attempted to tack on an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have at least allocated two years into researching the impact of data collection and mass surveillance on privacy rights. As he put it, “we need to take a look at how the public and private sectors are gathering data on the American people and how we are moving toward an Orwellian society in which your location and movements can be tracked at any time through your smartphones and computers.” But the amendment failed.
On the Republican side, the libertarian Senator Rand Paul and Tea Party favorite Senator Ted Cruz have both come out against government overreach on data privacy rights. Paul famously filibustered the Senate for more than 10 consecutive hours in opposition to the Patriot Act and the NSA’s collection of phone metadata, remarking that there is “no excuse not to debate this, no excuse not to vote on a sufficient amount of amendments to try to make this better, to try to make the bulk collection of records go away.”
Even Hillary Clinton voted in favor of the Patriot Act.
Paul’s filibuster succeeded in letting parts of the Patriot Act expire on June 1… which were then restored with the USA Freedom Act on June 2, committed to law until at least 2019. Paul has continued the charge over the past year, arguing in debates and his own speeches about the need to uphold the Fourth Amendment rights that prevent the government from spying on Americans or sifting through their information without a warrant first.
But most of the other candidates tend to prefer the status quo. Even Hillary Clinton, who has championed keeping the Internet open and co-sponsored the Internet Freedom Preservation Act in 2007, voted in favor of the Patriot Act and continues to stand by that vote and the NSA surveillance program that resulted. Others, like Carly Fiorina and Governor Chris Christie, advocate even more radical interpretations.
Fiorina said that the government needs to “tear down these cyber walls” — e.g., encryption — that companies like Google and Apple use to protect their customer information (an ironic position for the former HP CEO). And Christie has said that the government should be allowed to listen in on Americans’ conversations, reading their emails and text messages, to more easily find a probable cause to procure a search warrant — defeating the whole purpose of Fourth Amendment protections.
Even more disturbing than these extreme positions is the fact that data privacy has just not been treated as a pivotal issue by most of these campaigns. For most candidates — and their supporters, for that matter — it’s just not a relatable or “sexy enough” issue to even think about, much less defend.
The impact on the American psyche
This creates a trickle-down effect, where a government and a presidential campaign that de-emphasizes the importance of data privacy for the public in turn creates a public that feels apathetic toward the whole concept. How often in the midst of the Snowden leaks or Patriot Act controversies did you hear someone say, “It doesn’t bother me, I’ve got nothing to hide”? But whether they do or don’t isn’t the real issue.
We see this same mentality bleed into how websites and apps are being programmed. Closed-source software is sold to the public as secure solutions for harboring data, but all they really ensure is that one provider has complete control over your information — and if they go offline, or are a victim of a data breach, their users are hurt in the process.
That’s what makes open source so necessary for the Internet now: it democratizes data privacy and security, providing more transparency into how our information is being handled. But when has openness and transparency ever been raised during this election thus far?
The fact that so many are so willing to surrender their privacy and the freedom their forefathers fought for — just because that’s the way things are and they don’t consider their own privacy to be that big of a deal — is what’s most troubling. How quickly we forget how important it is to remain vigilant against the corruptive forces that are part of a democratic society.
If the government upheld data privacy as a First Amendment right, the people wouldn’t feel that way; if the candidates running for president fought over who champions data privacy the most, then voters could believe true freedom is possible once again in America; and if there were more secure, open-source alternatives to popular closed-source sites like Facebook, there would be fewer ways their privacy could be compromised.
But as it is, most Americans have no known alternatives to choose, and no politician to even address that their lack of privacy is supposed to be an issue at all.
For too long the U.S. has been governed by a culture of “closed-source politics” that asks for ultimate transparency from the public while providing comparatively little around the government itself. As the primaries and general election come into view, it’s important that Americans go to the ballot boxes knowing they are both entitled to their privacy and entitled to hold their politicians accountable for infringing on it.