Protecting Yourself in a Surveillance State

Everywhere we go, everywhere we turn we are being watched, tracked, surveilled. It's impossible to walk to the shops without being caught on someone's cameras. Everyone carries with them a portable tracking device with GPS and a microphone, we've been enticed into spying on ourselves for a shiny toy and apparent convenience.

There was a time when this wasn't the case, when CCTV cameras were rare and not placed every few feet along a shopping strip. There was a time when a person could walk down the street without some nameless entity being able to press a button and see where they were with accuracy down to a few metres.

This is not George Orwell's 1984, this is far more insidious and it's getting worse every day. The business of surveillance is worth billions in the currency of your choice. The agenda of surveillance of everyone all the time is vigourously promoted by both corporate capitalists and the state.

The corporate world wishes to protect their monetary fiefdoms. One of the largest examples of which being the self-proclaimed intellectual property lobby. They have successfully managed to gain state support for the notion that a civil dispute, such as copyright infringement (e.g. downloading a digital copy of a song or video), is a crime. Thus enabling their subornment of the apparatus of law enforcement for their private financial benefit.

The state, on the other hand, has been in the business of watching the people, both its own and those of other states, for far longer. For the state the purpose is control and the maintaining of power of those running the state. They tell the people they want to control that it is to protect those people from the Bad People; terrorists, organised criminals and pædophiles. It's always the same bogeymen and it plays on the politics of fear. The state tells people that there are lots of Bad People out there, but the state can protect them just as long as the people do what they're told and live their lives the way the state dictates.

If you aren't doing something wrong then you don't have anything to fear.1

One of the most common, usually pro-state, arguments is that you have nothing to hide then there is nothing to fear from the prying eyes of state based surveillance. This argument is flawed in very fundamental ways, as has been repeatedly proven, both in writing and practice. Daniel Solove, professor of law at George Washington University, demonstrated this in both his book, Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security, and his related article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.2

It doesn't even take corrupt practices by those with the power to pry into the lives of regular people to demonstrate the flaws in the “nothing to hide” argument. Especially when this is extended to corporate surveillance. It is also very easy for those engaging in surveillance to blur the line between what they view as legitimate surveillance and what may not be or definitely is not in any way legitimate.

The revelations last year of the practices of News International staff in the pursuit of private information to sell newspapers is a prime example of the how easy it is for those with the ability to pry into the lives and business of others to go too far in the pursuit of their goals.

As long as we do what we're told, we have nothing to fear.3

A more accurate argument is that if we obey then we have nothing to fear, but even then there is no guarantee that we will not be caught by the excesses of either corporate or state surveillance. It is, in fact, the fear of repercussions from not obeying the dictates of the state or corporate entities which ensures obedience.

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.4

Franklin's maxim is as true now as it ever was, both in regular life and in the extension of it which we call the online world.

As you read this now the Australian government is well on the way towards slashing the online freedom of the populace under the guise of protecting that very same population. Last month the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 passed in the Senate, receiving Royal Assent this month. The Bill widens the scope of other legislation, such as the Telecommunications Act 1997 and the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, to require data be retained on private activities prior to the obtaining of a warrant. Changes to the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act 1987 enable this to be done on behalf of foreign law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including in countries and investigations where the death penalty may apply. Other changes to these acts and the Criminal Code Act 1995 have been made in order to comply with the European Convention on Cybercrime.

It is worth mentioning that the other states which have signed and ratified the Convention on Cybercrime have either or both of legislative or constitutional guarantees of certain freedoms in order to protect their citizens. Constitutionally guaranteed rights, such as those in Germany and Sweden, or treaties with equal power to the Convention on Cybercrime such as the Convention on Human Rights. Australians, on the other hand, have no such protections. Australia does not have constitutionally protected rights like those afforded in the United States of America, with the exception of there being no provision of a state sanctioned religion. Australia has not signed the Convention on Human Rights. Australia has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but with enough exceptions to effectively neuter it. This places Australians in a very dangerous position where we must adhere not just to the dictates of our own government, but also those of foreign powers.

Two days prior to the passing of the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 was the final date for submissions to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security's Inquiry into potential reforms of National Security Legislation.5 The reforms proposed in the discussion paper for that inquiry are a push for a massive increase in unfettered power being placed in the hands of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, the ability to provide their members with immunity when committing crimes, the ability to demand the decryption of data regardless of relevance to an investigation or the rights of the data owner to defend themselves from prosecution and a massive data retention scheme aimed at the surveillance of everyone, everywhere, all the time.

All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.6

It is clear from the legislation and treaties being adopted within and between states around the globe that governments view the flow of information and ideas between people as a threat to to state control and order. Thus they seek to employ both legislative and technological measures to limit and monitor that flow of information.

Technology does, however, provide the means of resisting these attempts at control at total surveillance. There are a number of existing projects and protocols designed to protect the security and privacy of individuals, primarily through the use of encryption. The Tor Project7 enables Internet users to hide web and other traffic from scrutiny, Transport Layer Security8 (TLS) provides encrypted connections between networked computer systems, the GNU Privacy Guard9 (GPG) provides encrypted email and file encryption, Off-the-Record Messaging10 (OTR) provides encrypted instant messaging, the Secure Real-time Transport Protocol11 (SRTP) with ZRTP provides encrypted voice communication and Bitcoin12 provides secure and decentralised currency exchange in an anonymous or pseudonymous manner.

This technology has traditionally been the domain of those who understand the technology intimately, people often labelled as geeks or nerds. The reality of the world we live in now means that these often obscure programs are becoming a necessity for everyone. Most people use some of this technology already, connecting to a secure website like a bank being the most common example. The fact is that regardless of whether you are an activist, a journalist, a lawyer, a doctor or just an ordinary citizen who does not want to share every single activity you do and communication you have online with the surveillance state; using this technology is an integral part of the survival skills of the digital age.

So how do people who are not geeks or nerds or computer science students learn these essential skills? A very good question. There isn't a TAFE or adult education course providing instruction in this technology and the usual answer was to go online and search for the programs, read about them and then start using them. That is still an option, but it is no longer the only option.

Following the passing of the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, online activist Asher Wolf promoted the idea of the CryptoParty. A CryptoParty is a gathering of people wishing to learn about these privacy protecting technologies, bringing them together with people who know the technology and who are able to teach it.

If you believe it is time to learn how to protect yourself from the encroaching surveillance of either the state or corporate enterprise, then come to a CryptoParty to learn how to do so.

The first CryptoParties have already begun and Melbourne's CryptoParty will be on Saturday the 22nd of September, from 5:00pm until late at the Electron Workshop in North Melbourne.13 Other CryptoParties are being organised on the website.14

Copyright © Benjamin D. McGinnes, 2012
Licenses: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Contact the author for commercial use.

1. “Surveillance,” last modified September 13, 2012,

2. Daniel J. Solove, “Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide',” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 2011, accessed September 16, 2012,

3.“Surveillance,” last modified September 13, 2012,

4. Benjamin Franklin and William Temple Franklin, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, (London: Henry Colburn, 1818), 270.,M1

5. “Inquiry into potential reforms of National Security Legislation,” Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, Parliament of Australia, accessed September 16, 2012,

6. Henry Louis Mencken, The Smart Set, December, 1919.
“H. L. Mencken,” last modified September 9, 2012,

7. “Tor Project: Anonymity Online,” The Tor Project, Inc., accessed September 16, 2012,

8. “Transport Layer Security,” last modified on September 16, 2012,

9. “The GNU Privacy Guard,” Free Software Foundation, Inc., last modified on September 14, 2012,

10. “Off-the-Record Messaging,” last modified on August 30, 2012,

11. “Secure Real-time Transport Protocol,” last modified on July 8, 2012,

12. “Bitcoin: P2P Digital Currency,” Bitcoin Project, accessed September 16, 2012,

13. “Melbourne,” last modified on September 16, 2012,

14. “CryptoParty,” last modified on September 15, 2012,

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on November 19, 2012.


Excellent presentation on Saturday. You're doing good work for freedom.