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Why Internet privacy matters more than ever

Why Internet privacy matters more than ever

Apr 28, 2020

Privacy is an important topic these days. People want it, and businesses and governments say they support it. The right to privacy is affirmed in the Fourth Amendment to the United States Bill of Rights as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. But in the digital age, privacy can seem beyond anyone's full purview, an intangible philosophical concept beyond our grasp. It's one thing to lock the door and close the blinds. But how can we ensure privacy in a world where business moves through electronic channels, where shopping is increasingly done and paid for digitally, and where our social lives can take place more online than off? What is really in all those 80-page Terms and Conditions policies, and what does it mean for people, businesses and their privacy?

People feel an innate need for privacy. We don't need to have it explained that sensitive actions, conversations, and correspondence should be free from intrusion on the part of strangers. But in a world where so much of our commerce and our conversation take place over invisible electronic networks, this is harder to control. Over the past several years, people around the world have begun to wake up to the high level of risk to privacy that exists on the Internet. Multiple news stories have driven the message home.

Orchid grew in response to the pressures that privacy currently faces around the world. It is the reason we exist. Here we will dig into what privacy really means, how it has become endangered by modern information habits and systems, and how we can reclaim our privacy in the digital age. Online privacy is not a lost cause; we just need knowledge and the right tools.

What do we mean by privacy?

Until quite recently, it was straightforward for a person to determine whether they were in a condition of privacy or not. If you were at home, alone, with the curtains drawn, you could have a high level of confidence that no one knew what you were doing. If you made a purchase, you paid in person in cash, and only you and the vendor knew the timing and nature of the transaction.

Notions of privacy change over time. The accelerating change theory holds that technical innovation increases exponentially as new technologies, designed to overcome particular obstacles, result in paradigm shifts that impact the whole of society. Privacy is one of the concepts likely to change as the ability of human beings to record, store, share, and collect information and data continues to grow.

Today, even when we are home alone, armies of bots log and track our online behavior. Our sensitive information -- credit cards, dates of birth, social security numbers -- are stored in remote databases that can be, and often are, the focus of malicious attacks. Our natural inclination to base our judgments on things we physically see act as a disadvantage in this world. Because online tracking is invisible, many of us have a false sense of security when it comes to our privacy. We need to collectively update our understanding of the concept in order to protect ourselves in the modern age.

The crisis of privacy in the modern world

Even before the world was turned upside down by the coronavirus, ordinary people were nervous about privacy. In surveys, 91% of Americans say they feel they've lost control of personal information collection and usage; more than 80% lack confidence their online information will remain private and secure; and 74% say it's very important to be in control of who has information about them.

These fears are well founded. Every day, people's online activity and behavior is tracked, logged, and stored. Websites visited, purchases made, documents shared -- all of this is fodder for a massive dossier -- a "browser fingerprint" -- that exists for every person with an online life. These profiles have been compiled without the consent of individuals, but they are used to influence and manipulate the way we interact and the things we spend money on. They also threaten to invade our lives in more insidious ways if governments or malicious actors decide to effectively weaponize them to target groups. This is already a reality in some parts of the world.

The phenomenon of automatic and ubiquitous monitoring of individuals has been dubbed "surveillance capitalism." Under this model, the corporations that control access to the Internet -- the Googles, Facebooks, and Amazons of the world -- collect massive amounts of data on their users and sell this data to advertisers. The picture that emerges from the millions of tiny individual actions allows other businesses to target their ads at people most likely to make certain purchases. This reality spills over into the information sphere as well, causing platforms to push certain media, opinions, and information to specific people based on their existing biases. This has been highlighted as a driver of increasing polarization, misinformation, and political dysfunction in the Western world.

Clearly, left to the Internet's multinational gatekeepers, our privacy is in great danger.

Pivotal time for privacy

If nothing changes, the world will soon be on the cusp of losing any semblance of privacy at all. The Internet, conceived as a free space for people to explore, may evolve into something like an oligarchic dystopia. And just as the issue of privacy was emerging into the broader public consciousness, the world has been turned upside down by the global coronavirus pandemic. No one knows what the resolution will be, but there are worrying signs for privacy.

Already, governments -- including democratic governments in the West -- are beginning to offer proposals for tracking and vetting of citizens based on biological information. There has been praise for the strict controls imposed by China's totalitarian government. In the UK, so-called "immunity passports" have been proposed. Even in the United States, free movement has been challenged, with governors calling for restrictions on travel within the country.

None of these measures can be implemented without great intrusions on personal privacy. And this lethal pandemic highlights the reasons privacy is often sidelined. The fact is, smart identification and tracking of individuals who are infected, or have been in contact with someone who is, will likely turn out to be one of the crucial tools in defeating the disease. It is, as alien as it may sound, a responsible use of surveillance.

But the global pandemic risks pushing us past a tipping point beyond which privacy may be impossible to regain. Serious voices are arguing that if the choice is between surveillance and privacy, we must choose surveillance in order to combat the coronavirus. That such views are being aired in earnest by voices that traditionally profess support for human rights should give everyone pause.

In working to contain the coronavirus, we must take extra care to ensure that we don't make ourselves less free in the longer term. It is possible to use health data responsibly to help beat back the virus. In the past, crises have been a catalyst for the diminishment of personal freedom. We must be vigilant to ensure that our governments, and the technology that enables modern life (and especially the remote work that is now ubiquitous), are doing less harm than good. Fortunately, this is entirely possible.

VPNs and other privacy tools

There are a number of tools that are designed to strengthen Internet privacy for their users. The most well-known of these belong to the category of Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs. In effect, VPNs redirect users' web traffic through an encrypted server, obfuscating the nature of web traffic. Without a VPN, both Internet service providers (ISPs) and destination websites can see the origin and destination of web traffic, which is identifiable by its IP address. A VPN blocks this visibility: the ISP will see only that activity occurred, and the website will only see that traffic visited, but will be unable to identify its origin.

VPNs are widely used by business travelers focused on the security of sensitive materials. They are also crucial in parts of the world that block and censor Internet traffic with firewalls. They achieve a level of privacy that is totally absent from normal browsing -- but they remain imperfect. In using a VPN, users must still trust the operator of the service. While most of the leading VPNs have stated commitments not to log their users' activity, the fact is that true privacy hinges on nothing more than these businesses keeping their word.

Another privacy tool that has deservedly earned plaudits is Tor. Similar to a VPN, but with important differences, Tor is a web browser that uses an "onion router" design to encrypt user traffic multiple times. Tor delivers excellent privacy and has been highlighted as one of the leading tools for online anonymity. But it relies for its bandwidth on volunteers known as Tor relays. The lack of an economic incentive structure means demand often outstrips supply, causing the service to suffer from slow connection speeds.

Enter Orchid

Orchid is an open-source Internet privacy solution built on the Ethereum blockchain. It incorporates aspects of existing privacy solutions and integrates them into a dynamic bandwidth marketplace. Orchid, which lets anyone run a node and offer bandwidth, aggregates the services of some of the leading global VPN providers including LiquidVPN, PIA, Tenta, Boleh, and VPNSecure.

Orchid matches user demand with VPN bandwidth through a unique incentive structure called probabilistic nanopayments. When a user wants to browse the Internet, they load an amount of Orchid tokens (OXT) onto their account. When they use bandwidth, providers are not paid directly. Rather, they are issued "tickets." A certain number of tickets -- on the order of one in millions -- will be a "winner." When a provider receives a winning ticket, an amount of OXT is debited from the user's account. Keeping most payments "off-chain" allows the system to provide service efficiently. At the same time, providers will be compensated at rates that are competitive with those commanded by traditional VPNs.

Another unique aspect of Orchid is the ability to configure multiple hops. Using a single VPN, users' traffic can still be monitored and "logged." Although the ISP and destination sites are blocked from seeing personal details, the VPN sees the entire journey. The way to mitigate this is to route web traffic so that it "hops" between multiple VPN providers. On Orchid, users can configure as many hops as they want. This should result in no party -- even the VPNs -- having more than one piece of the puzzle. Multi hop is therefore one of the biggest steps forward for online privacy in recent years.

It is important to note that even with multiple hops, privacy is not absolute. It is possible, for instance, that various VPNs could collaborate to piece together a journey. But just as shredding a document greatly reduces the chances of a third party gaining its information, multiple hops add a layer of obfuscation that should be sufficient for most user needs.

Transparency is golden

VPNs, multiple hops, and nanopayments are strong tools for protecting privacy. Another, perhaps counterintuitively, is transparency. One of the key contributing factors to the modern crisis of privacy is a lack of transparency on the part of Internet giants. The opacity of their processes and their power, through overwhelming market dominance, to make and change the rules of the game leave the individual right to privacy in serious jeopardy.

An antidote to this is open-sourcing of technology, which is the gold standard for privacy and transparency. Orchid is fully committed to open-sourcing its technology. We believe in the right and ability of others to take what we have developed and build on top of it. We trust in the community to move our collective interests forward, together. Orchid was not developed in order for its innovations to be siloed and kept away from others. On the contrary, we encourage developers to build on our foundation as we work together to deliver the strongest possible privacy online.

Privacy matters. People have always understood this on a basic level. But humanity, long accustomed to a world of physical interaction, has been slow to recognize that the coming battle for privacy will be waged in the digital realm. Now is the time to focus our collective attention on this issue. If we commit to developing and implementing the most robust solutions, both legal and technological, we can help ensure the survival of privacy as both an ideal and a reality.

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