Privacy in the age of surveillance: something worth fighting for?

Privacy in the age of surveillance: something worth fighting for?

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As anthropologist Keith Laidler showcases in his book Surveillance Unlimited, espionage and surveillance are as old as civilization itself. Throughout History, rulers have pursued privileged information on their enemies and citizens to gain the upper hand in war and politics and stay in power for longer.

In Ancient Rome, powerful political figures sponsored incredibly effective private spying networks, as exemplified by this complaint by Cicero (a major opponent to the then ruling Julius Caesar) in a letter to a friend. “How few are those who are able to carry a rather weighty letter without lightening it by reading”, a famous line from the letter goes. Perhaps it took Cicero a while to learn the benefits of cryptography…

Surveillance in the Internet Era

Well, the ancient Roman Emperor didn’t, but the ruling classes of the world certainly saw advantages in the control they could exert upon citizens, given technological innovations.

For starters, the American NSA became interested in the data transmitted online since its inception. They became a routing node of ARPANET just a few years after its creation and from then on were involved in the administration and development of what later became the Internet.

Using this influence, the NSA fought civilian encryption (a battle it should be safe to state they lost) in the late 1970s.

Later, after 9/11 and through the Patriot Act, it partnered with private companies like Google and Yahoo to construct the surveillance state we live in today.

States now have complete, powerful automated systems that intercept and analyze data flowing over the Internet or publicly available information published on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

This is not unique to the United States: the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance, for instance, has its members (UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US), all democratic nations, cooperating on surveillance activities, while authoritarian countries like China and Russia are among the world’s most extraordinary surveillance states.

Erosion comes with small changes, compounding through time

If you take a drive through the mountains of New Zealand, Colorado, or Argentina, you’ll be able to witness the way regular, hard, plain old rocks transformed through time. Some of the most exotic shapes you can see in touristic landmarks, such as the great Canyons and rocky valleys of the world were inflicted not by Man’s tools, but by wind, ancient rivers and oceans.

As you learned in fourth grade, this process is called erosion and is a perfect metaphor for what happens to our privacy rights, given the degree of control governments and corporations can gain over it.

Small changes, either through policy and enforcement or built into the tools we use every day, compound over long periods to create all kinds of fascinating (or not) shapes.

What starts out as tools to protect citizens against major, real threats (like what happened after 9/11), gives way to radical measures set in place permanently. A knock on the door by a government regulator devolves into built-in backdoors and developers think twice about the problems real privacy could entail for them.

And, when things compound, they tend to accelerate… or even become marketplaces

A lot has changed since Cicero and ARPANET walked the Earth, but there is no denying that the erosion of privacy has turned data into a commodity in recent years.

User data is genuinely like a construction material or physical asset for the Digital World of the 21st Century. It is:

  • Interchangeable regardless of source (when properly categorized).
  • Quantifiable in value (a value sometimes calculated even in racist, discriminatory ways).
  • Exchanged openly and freely, moving $130 billion per year, globally.
Furthermore, data commoditization is making surveillance progressively cheaper while its quality and completeness simultaneously improve.

Organizations seek better datasets because higher-quality data produces better results in any application fueled by information, be it artificial intelligence, reports, targeted advertising, etc.

In this market, sellers are typically companies with digital products that collect data from large customer bases. In contrast, buyers are companies whose business model actively depends on knowing users well, such as credit bureaus and advertising platforms, or companies that intend to use it to understand industry trends and potential customers.

Governments are not without blame

More worryingly, governments are now setting foot in this market and purchasing consumer datasets that would otherwise require warrants to obtain.

Some first-world democracies have, on several occasions, used technology to spy on their citizens, some almost as much as authoritarian regimes. Australia and the United States are notable examples, with legislation progressively eroding the right to privacy and allowing government agencies to obtain private information on citizens without warrants since the turn of the century.

The leaks by Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed extensive government programs to obtain data from private companies, as well as the NSA’s illegal spying activities. Security agents in Australia have even more powers than in the United States, with less oversight.

And, of course, in the Far East, China exemplifies what these democracies can become if this course is not reversed. The Chinese government collects data on every resident in order to feed a social credit system that determines whether citizens are entitled to preferential treatment, deprioritization, or even total exclusion of using public services. Facial recognition is used by the Chinese to track their citizens’ movements and to profile racial minorities such as the Uyghurs for persecution. As you might recall from our cypherpunk tales, some might say that these threats are best handled by individuals directly, rather than by the perpetrators themselves.

I agree to the Terms and Conditions

Another way privacy erodes is through the data we “voluntarily” give up. Many Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy forms voluntarily “signed” by users stealthily include agreements to sell their data to private and public entities.

As you know, the length, complexity, and confusing legal jargon of these forms have become a Kafkian labyrinth too difficult to navigate, leaving users with no choice but to adhere to these terms against their best interest.

There is no shortage of articles, documentaries and South Park episodes on this topic, which has become a sort of cultural meme of our present times. The confusion and ridiculousness of data markets is government-enabled and an ever-present elephant in the Digital Era room. That is, from the perspective of the everyday user, who has to adopt archaic practices to cope with the times.

Big Tech, centralization, and other wonders

The Internet, as initially conceptualized, is by design a decentralized network where the disconnection of a single node does not affect the others. Paradoxically, nowadays, significant chunks of the Internet’s infrastructure are run by large centralized organizations such as Cloudflare, Akamai, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. The most used websites and web services are owned mainly by what we call “Big Tech”.

This industry’s primary business model is based on monetizing personal data for making targeted advertising and improving their products’ ability to retain users.

As we saw above, to enjoy those services, we voluntarily give away our data constantly, with almost no choice.

This kind of business model, combined with the pervasiveness of surveillance, has eroded our sense of privacy. The many instances of misuse and mishandling of the data they collect have also created a cultural resignation that, by signing up to use a digital service, our data isn’t secure and might be sold or leaked.

Decentralized IS the solution, but we must play our cards well

As you know, at Panther, we’re all for decentralized solutions to the problems of Web 2.0.

We’re also aware of the challenges that come with decentralized solutions when put on public ledgers, an issue that is seldom discussed in the mainstream, Bitcoin-and-Ethereum-loving crypto scene. We see the radical transparency of public blockchains as both a feature and a bug.

Decentralized models are extremely important to avoid the value and power concentration that we see in Web 2.0. Notwithstanding, these solutions being built on privacy-unfriendly networks is a final blow to our privacy and expose the bulk of users’ data to states’ surveillance, sometimes even leveraging centralized companies for their goals.

To keep public ledgers safe for users, state-of-the-art advances in cryptography come in handy, namely zero-knowledge proofs and zkSNARKs. These technologies, which we’ve covered before, rely on advanced computation to prove the knowledge of information without disclosing it, a task that is easier said than done.

Thanks to zkSNARKs, a user might, for example, use their data to sign up for a social media application without ever revealing it to the parent site, whether centralized or decentralized. ZK-proofs are also crucial for blockchains to scale because they allow participants in the network to validate them without the need to re-execute every transaction in their ledger.

Panther utilizes zkSNARKs and takes this concept to the DeFi and Web3 worlds by enabling users to generate proofs for any piece of user data (such as their age, geolocation, transaction history, holdings, etc.)

They can then selectively use their data and decide to share it on a case-by-case basis, a definitive improvement upon surveillance states and the undesired transparency that centralized entities indirectly cause.

Panther’s vision is to provide privacy features and power of choice to the entire DeFi ecosystem, in which users have complete control of their data and an ability to reveal as much or as little as they want, to whomever they want, at all times.

Our protocol, we hope, is a push back on surveillance and a step forwards in the right direction, providing self-sovereignty to users and significant advantages to the adoption of blockchain technologies and the decentralization of Finance along the way.

As the cypherpunk manifesto reads,

“Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.”

About Panther

Panther is a decentralized protocol that enables interoperable privacy in DeFi using zero-knowledge proofs.

Users can mint fully-collateralized, composable tokens called zAssets, which can be used to execute private, trusted DeFi transactions across multiple blockchains.

Panther helps investors protect their personal financial data and trading strategies, and provides financial institutions with a clear path to compliantly participate in DeFi.

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