Fri, Apr 06, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Keeping your personal data safe might require radical action

The surveillance imposed on us is incredibly pervasive, so for freedom and democracy’s sake, we need laws to stop this data being collected in the first place

By Richard Stallman  /  The Guardian

Journalists have been asking me whether the revulsion against the abuse of Facebook data could be a turning point for the campaign to recover privacy. That could happen, if the public makes its campaign broader and deeper.

Broader, meaning extending to all surveillance systems, not just Facebook. Deeper, meaning to advance from regulating the use of data to regulating the accumulation of data.

Due to surveillance being so pervasive, restoring privacy would necessarily be a big change, and would require powerful measures.

The surveillance imposed on us today far exceeds that of the Soviet Union.

For freedom and democracy’s sake, we need to eliminate most of it. There are so many ways to use data to hurt people that the only safe database is the one that was never collected.

Thus, instead of the EU’s approach of mainly regulating how personal data might be used in its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), I propose a law to stop systems from collecting personal data.

The robust way to do that, the way that cannot be set aside at the whim of a government, is to require systems to be built so as not to collect data about a person. The basic principle is that a system must be designed not to collect certain data, if its basic function can be carried out without that data.

Data about who travels where is particularly sensitive, because it is an ideal basis for repressing any chosen target.

The London trains and buses are a case in point.

The Transport for London digital payment card system centrally records the trips any given Oyster “smart” card or bank card has paid for. When a passenger feeds the card digitally, the system associates the card with the passenger’s identity. This adds up to complete surveillance.

I expect the transport system can justify this practice under the GDPR’s rules. My proposal, by contrast, would require the system to stop tracking who goes where.

The card’s basic function is to pay for transport. That can be done without centralizing that data, so the transport system would have to stop doing so. When it accepts digital payments, it should do so through an anonymous payment system.

Frills on the system, such as the feature of letting a passenger review the list of past journeys, are not part of the basic function, so they cannot justify incorporating any additional surveillance.

These additional services could be offered separately to users who request them. Even better, users could use their own personal systems to privately track their own journeys.

Black cabs demonstrate that a system for hiring cars with drivers does not need to identify passengers. Therefore such systems should not be allowed to identify passengers; they should be required to accept privacy-respecting cash from passengers without ever trying to identify them.

However, convenient digital payment systems can also protect passengers’ anonymity and privacy.

A team and myself have already developed one: GNU Taler. It is designed to be anonymous for the payer, but payees are always identified. We designed it that way so as not to facilitate tax dodging.

All digital payment systems should be required to defend anonymity using this or a similar method.

What about security? Such systems in areas where the public are admitted must be designed so they cannot track people.

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