Online Privacy and Why You Should Care

In 2013, Edward Snowden, an American computer professional, leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA).

The revelations suggested that the NSA together with huge technology companies were involved in massive online surveillance and violation of internet privacy of users around the world.

Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations

Some internet users have since become more skeptical about the true aims of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, asking questions like,

Was Facebook developed by the CIA? Is social media the new medium for espionage ? Was it funded my oppressive governments?

At first social media gave us the hope of a new paradigm of connectivity and it has now transformed itself into a huge data mine where repressive governments could potentially go to tap for information about you or anyone under the pretext of terrorism or suspicion of illicit activity.

My aim here is to give you more insights about the subject for you to make your own judgement whether or not the internet is a safe haven for information discovery and connectivity.

I will also give you a few tips on how you can be safe online or using a computer for a short period of time.


One important thing you have to note about Snowden's findings was the existence of PRISM.

PRISM is the (American) National Security Agency's (NSA) program that gives them direct access to the servers of U.S tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, among others.

After this revelation most social networks released press statements to distance themselves from the scandal. Facebook went as far as to release a report of the number of requests they got from governments around the world including Africa.

Global Government Requests Report | Facebook

So, you're probably thinking,

I'm not doing anything suspiscious online so I am of no interest to governments.

Now, imagine an investigative journalist like Anas Aremeyaw Anas was working on a new story on misuse of aid funding from donor countries in the government of any African country. A few months into the investigation, someone tips off the government and they decide to contact social media platforms and request for his data under the presumption he is a potential terrorist. Note though, until this point no one knows the real identity of Anas so they can trace his path based on the intelligence and data they get from a social media platform. This can easily lead to his death.

Social Media

Over the last decade we have seen the rise of so many social media platforms. These platforms have accumulated huge numbers of users with Facebook leading with about 1.3 billion active users.

They give you the chance to stay connected with your family and friends via sharing photos of events , stories and they even remind you of which of your family and friends are celebrating their birthdays on a particular day. You have the choice not to adhere to the demands of these networks by sharing your data wWhen I use data I am referring to your name , personal details , photos and news feed).

There is a saying that

humans are social animals and we rely heavily on staying connected.

Once you submit your data, they secure them in their huge data farms but that is the end of the privacy of that data. Your friends who are connected to you on these networks can easily copy the data whether a picture of you at the beach or a selfie you took in front of the Taj Mahal. If you are unlucky scammers can easily use your photo or data to commit fraud in your name.

Alistair Croll famously said that

Data doesn’t invade people’s lives. Lack of control over how it’s used does.

We treat Big Data as a 21st century phenomenon that Google or Facebook brought upon us, as though data is only now being mined for ends we have yet to imagine.

In the last few years we've seen dozens of instances where individuals, celebrities, athletes and politicians have lost their jobs or been forced to resign because of content posted to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

In December 2013, Justine Sacco, a communications director of the New York-based internet empire InterActive Corp., was fired after she sent a dumb and racist tweet before boarding a flight from London to Cape Town. It read, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just Kidding. I'm White!"

Justine Sacco Tweet

In Ghana my motherland, an airtel employee named Kwame Gyan posted on facebook that Ghanaians weren’t brave enough to start an uprising like our brothers in the Norther part of Africa who started the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. He was immediately suspended from Airtel after his post went viral on the internet.

I could name so many different instances were social media has started feuds and created panic in public not to mention the many viral posts on Whatsapp that threatens us every week the world is coming to an end.

What Can You Do?

Facebook, Apple, Samsung and Google are some of the major technology companies in the world literally controlling most of the devices and products we use to connect to the web.

Lets paint another picture of how easy it is for these giants to track you. You use a Samsung phone that runs on Android, your email client is Gmail , your favorite social network is Google+ , you use the Google Search to research about eight to twelve times a day and you use Google Maps to look for locations when driving.

At this point Google knows who you are thanks to your personal information you submit on their social network, they can track your location as well thanks to Google Maps and they know your interests too because of the keywords you usually search.

You can easily jump to the conclusion they are spying on you but here is the case we have hundreds of millions of people who use their technologies on a daily base and they do not have the time to spy on the lanky kid walking on the streets of Kigali, Rwanda. This is not to say you are safe from spying but to caution you that if you have a run in with the law, technology can assist to take you down.

If you are a technologist, software developer or work in any capacity in information technology, we can join hands and end the illegal surveillance thats has been brought upon us. Our secret weapon is cryptography.

Cryptography is a method of storing and transmitting data in a particular form so that only those for whom it is intended can read and process it. The term is most often associated with scrambling plaintext (ordinary text, sometimes referred to as cleartext) into cipher text (a process called encryption), then back again (known as decryption).

This probably sounds complex (if you're not technically inclined) but the technology behind PRISM and other spying social networks were developed by us technologists, so it might take a decade or more but we need to fight it.

Free society equals free association and communication. When you send an email and there are no encryption protocols its like sending a post card in which the messenger will be able to read your post card.

There are a few projects you can contribute to like Pixelated project. It is an open source modern email with privacy. Easy to use encrypted email with decentralized hosting. You can host it on your own server.

Hemlis is a Whatsapp alternative with asymmetric encryption capabilities of Daniel J. Bernstein’s nacl or more specifically the libsodium implementation of it.

These are a few general tips that can keep you safe and cautious on the web. You can clear the cache of any computer you use in an internet cafe for people not to have access to the places you go on the web.

Sign out of Google when you're done and turn on private browsing in your web browser. You can also download Anonymizer or Tor for free on the internet to hide your identity.

Be mindful of the kind of information you share on these social networks. Adjust your privacy settings on social media to suit your immediate network. People turned to party a lot at a very young age and decide to share photos of every moment online.

Years later when you decide to run for public office as a minister or a member of parliament , your opponents can easily blackmail you with these old photos you thought you had deleted .Finally you must only publish photos, posts and data that you want the general public to see, do not trust anyone enough to send them nude photos of yourself because these kinds of things do not go away but they turn around to hunt you.

Be safe and explore!

Cover Image Credit: NoLifeBeforeCoffee