How To Fix Our Broken Internet

A conversation with privacy activists Laura Poitras and Jacob Appelbaum

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA reveal, society has grappled with how to balance personal privacy 1 and public safety. Events like the mass terror attacks in San Bernardino, Brussels, and Paris have only raised the stakes.

Records of our daily lives now exist on our smartphones. That is why the prospect of a federally sanctioned iPhone hack—even a one-time occurrence under the argument of national security—could open a Pandora’s box 2; it could threaten future technological rights and human rights.

Read more: Edward Snowden on why the internet is broken

U.S. presidential candidates are calling for digital backdoors to a host of technologies 3, which would allow access to private information 4. This could create unintended entry points for rival governments and hackers, as well as damage the brands and trustworthiness of tech companies’ products.

Some people say they don’t mind giving up privacy because they have nothing to hide 5. But citizens in the U.S. and abroad have the right to be shielded and need to be shielded from state prying 6.

Encryption has gone from niche to necessary—the software and apps are no longer just for those in the know 7. They encode information, protecting reams of personal data (like medical records 8) and meta data (like geospatial information) that are being uploaded to the cloud every second of the day.

Safer software and hardware, however, might not be enough. Like the Bill of Rights, we’ll need a legal framework to protect the Internet rights that we have, until now, taken for granted 9. Future citizens, raised online with all of the inherent benefits and risks10, will hopefully better understand how to navigate these new digital waters11. They’ll insist on defending their freedom by controlling what information they let others—corporations and governments alike—see12.

  1. The post-9/11 era was filled with impunity; there was no accountability. When a country maintains that culture over multiple decades and residencies, it becomes hard to backtrack.—Laura Poitras ↩︎

  2. I trust the state, but only for very specific things. The reason we have laws and the Constitution is that trust is not enough.—Jacob Appelbaum ↩︎

  3. The risks of all this private information being made public are very real. I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of what can happen when that information is released.—Laura Poitras ↩︎

  4. Criminals and terrorists will always try to circumvent protections—it’s going to happen. We need to use the resources we have at organizations like the NSA to secure things, not break them.—Laura Poitras ↩︎

  5. We are trying to install human-rights protections into the architecture of systems that people use by default every day. There will be people who don’t want to use those systems, but at least you won’t have to be a software expert to be protected.—Jacob Appelbaum ↩︎

  6. Saying you don’t care about privacy is like saying you don’t care about free speech. Maybe you don’t feel that you personally need privacy, but you do believe a journalist or a lawyer or a doctor does.—Laura Poitras ↩︎

  7. There are people who were initially shocked by the idea of using computers to communicate, but now they are on Skype. People adapt to technology—they figure it out. Trusted cyber communication tools are ready and available.—Laura Poitras ↩︎

  8. When you centralize records, those computer systems are vulnerable. There are laws to protect that information, but criminals who break into a doctor’s computer don’t care about laws.—Jacob Appelbaum ↩︎

  9. Privacy is not a futurist thing. If you can connect to the Internet now, someone can connect with you in a secure fashion, even behind firewalls.—Laura Poitras ↩︎

  10. What scares me is the next generation. They might take mass surveillance as the new normal. The people being targeted seem to be those who are limited in their understanding of what’s possible.—Jacob Appelbaum ↩︎

  11. If you send a postcard, you don’t expect privacy. If you put it in an envelope, you do. It’s the same with the Internet. Yes, there will always be online governmental scrutiny—that won’t go away—but there will be strategies to preserve privacy, and tactics that can subvert unwarranted mass scrutiny.—Laura Poitras ↩︎

  12. If you are in middle school now, there is a good likelihood you already have a digital footprint. You’ll want to defend it, and defend the new kinds of democratic relationships it creates.—Laura Poitras ↩︎

Laura Poitras

This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Here’s How We Fix It.”