What sort of laws would give us real privacy?

— Richard Stallman

[A modified version of this article was published in The Guardian on 3 April 2018]

I've been asked by journalists whether the revulsion against Facebook's data abuse could be a turning point for the campaign to recover privacy. I respond that 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. Because surveillance is so pervasive, restoring privacy is necessarily a big change, and requires 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 (in the GDPR) of mainly regulating how personal data may be used, I propose a law to stop systems from collecting personal data.

The robust way to do that, the way that can't be set aside at the whim of a government, is to require systems to be built so as not to collect data about persons. 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. Improving efficiency must explicitly not count as a justification for collecting more data.

Data about who travels where is particularly sensitive because it is an ideal basis for repressing any chosen target. We can take the London trains and buses as a case for study.

The Transport for London digital payment card system centrally records what trips a given 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 can't 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. We 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. We should require all digital payment systems to defend anonymity using this or some other method.

What about security? Security systems in areas where the public is admitted must be designed so they cannot track people. Video cameras should make a local recording that can be checked for the next few weeks if a crime occurs, but should not allow remote viewing without physically collecting the recording. Biometric systems should be designed so they recognize only people on a court-ordered list of suspects, to respect the privacy of the rest of us. An unjust state is more dangerous than terrorists, and too much security encourages an unjust state.

The EU's GDPR regulation is well-meant, but does not go very far. It will not deliver much privacy because its rules are too lax. They permit collecting any data if it is somehow useful to the system, and it is easy to come up with a way to make any particular data useful for something.

The GDPR makes much of requiring users (in some cases) to give consent for collection of their data, but that doesn't do much good. System designers have become expert at manufacturing consent (to repurpose Chomsky's phrase). Most users consent to a site's terms without reading them; a company that required users to trade their first-born child got consent from plenty of users. Then again, when a system is crucial for modern life, like buses and trains, users ignore the terms because refusal of consent is too painful to consider.

To restore privacy, we must stop surveillance before it even asks for consent.

Finally, don't forget the software in your own computer. If it is the non-free software of Apple, Google or Microsoft, it spies on you regularly (see https://gnu.org/malware/). That's because it's controlled by a company that won't scruple to make it spy on you. Companies tend to lose their scruples when that is profitable.

By contrast, free (libre) software is controlled by its users (Free Software Is Even More Important Now, https://gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-even-more-important.html), and the user community keeps the software honest.

Copyright 2018 Richard Stallman
Released under Creative Commons Noderivatives License 4.0

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