When law enforcement undermines our digital safety, who is looking after our interests?

Imagine your friend sent you a private DM on Twitter. Now imagine, instead of the content remaining for your eyes only, Twitter letting the police also take a peek at it. Such intrusive practices of state actors accessing private messages have grave consequences for our lives. Some people can be physically harmed, and for some, it can mean that their families and friends could get prosecuted. At a collective level, the harm this does to our communities and society at large is immeasurable.

By euronews (guest author) · February 21, 2024

Despite this, the European Commission has recently established a new High-Level Group (HLG) tasked with giving national law enforcement representatives the space to discuss how the police can get their hands on more personal information and circumvent digital safety tools like encryption.

The group has therefore been called the “Going Dark” HLG. This particular HLG is a clear example of the increasing push for more access to personal data for law enforcement purposes.

This Tuesday, tech experts from the largest digital rights network in Europe, European Digital Rights (EDRi), will join the HLG consultation in the European Commission to push for strong privacy protections.

The focus falls particularly on the participation process which has been unequal and opaque as members of the HLG have invited several surveillance industry players to attend meetings while rejecting civil society’s expertise.

Whose (in)security?

What is evident in the discussions for more law enforcement access to personal data is that security is defined by the needs of the police and the state, not by the people or the communities most at risk.

In particular, security is seen as directly linked to the preservation of the state as an institution and its policies.

For example, when activists like Bart Staszewski challenged the oppressive anti-LGBTQI+ policies of the Polish government, the state perceived the movement as a threat and mobilised its resources to silence them.

What’s more, law enforcement’s attempts to invade people’s personal spaces to seek information for their own political ends have created even more insecurity, pushing people into distrust in the political system.

A European poll shows that 80% of young people would not feel comfortable being politically active if authorities were able to monitor their digital communication.

Who benefits?

The tech industry is supporting law enforcement efforts to circumvent our digital safety, through methods such as encryption backdoors. But the industry’s goal is to cash in even though this creates more risks to people’s safety.

In these industry-politics dynamics, the question is, who looks after people’s interests?

The current global economy is defined by large tech platforms’ toxic, data-extractive business models.

We are forced to be visible online. For tech companies to make more profit, they need to harvest more and more personal data to sell to the highest bidder.

o do that, they need to be able to track people’s activities and behaviours online. Research has shown that companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have built their wealth on the back of our communities by subjecting us to the aggressive surveillance advertising industry.

Why wouldn’t companies introduce privacy protections like encryption or commit to not collecting any personal metadata like geolocation, dates, and message subjects?

Based on their business model, this would only mean a decrease in their profits. However, the lack of such privacy protections has opened the door for law enforcement bodies to easily access our most private information.

The HLG example further suggests that law enforcement bodies actively encourage tech companies to create backdoors to people’s private communications. When the interests of large tech companies and law enforcement align, the harms to people’s lives seem to increase.

While tech companies try to promote themselves as privacy-friendly and publicly align themselves with social justice struggles to build a positive image of their services, it’s all a charade that ends up backfiring at actual people.

You or your family could be next

As lawmakers are making abortions illegal in many countries and tech companies continue to harvest people’s most private information, people’s lives hang in the balance.

A story from the US visualises how much of people’s civil rights are left up to the whims of online platforms like Facebook, owned by Meta.

In Nebraska, the police asked Facebook to provide information about the personal messages of a mother and a daughter to bring charges against them for seeking an abortion. Abortion can already be a traumatic and emotionally-heavy experience. Adding to that, criminal charges and intrusion into privacy could irreversibly affect people’s lives.

Even though Facebook’s messaging app, Messenger, offers end-to-end encryption to ensure that people’s conversations are only visible to them and cannot be read by Facebook or the police, this privacy protection is not switched on by default.

In fact, it is only available on the phone app and people need to manually turn on the encryption setting.

Making it difficult for people to protect themselves online reinforces the understanding that online platforms have no interest in ensuring people’s digital safety.

Instead, they choose to prioritise their surveillance practices to continue to grow their profits, even if that means betraying the trust and rights of people.

Across the Atlantic, in Poland, we have seen another concerning story develop. Twitter revealed the personal conversations of Bart Staszewski, an LGBTI+ activist, based on politically motivated accusations of Polish right-wing government officials.

Bart has been a vocal critic of the Polish government’s discriminatory and anti-LGBTQI+ politics. In the last few years, he has been under constant attack from top officials in the Polish government in an attempt to silence his efforts towards equality and freedom of expression.

In September 2023, at an event on encryption, Bart shared that he does not trust Polish politicians, underlying that queer people have no rights in Poland. Speaking about his personal experience of being surveilled by the state, he emphasised that the right to privacy is essential for protecting oneself and the movement.

In 2023, Bart discovered that the Polish state asked the US Department of Justice to request Twitter to share his private messages. The current legal mechanisms for cross-border exchange of data make it hardly possible for Twitter, now X, to detect the motivations behind such a request.

The consequences for Bart are losing his safe, digital space to exchange experiences and discuss personal and political matters.

It’s time to fight back

As the stories above show, police bodies across the world have gone too far for all the wrong reasons.

Research and personal experiences evidently show that having safe digital spaces to discuss political ideas, organise for justice and explore personal interests empowers people to be socially active, connect with their community and form critical opinions.

When tech companies’ surveillance business practices facilitate law enforcement’s push for more access to data, movements are silenced and civic spaces for collective organising shrink.

It is crucial to ensure everyone’s privacy given the grave consequences for the lives of many, especially those unduly targeted and criminalised by states like women, LGBTQI+ activists, and racial justice defenders.

That’s why we must fight back against all invasive data collection and privacy intrusion from companies and states.

Legislators should ensure people are safe online by limiting law enforcement’s access to personal data and challenging tech companies’ surveillance business model. Reaching alternative solutions is possible through equal participation and open discussion about how people’s data is handled.

For these reasons, on Tuesday, we have to call on the members of the HLG to provide greater transparency and participation of all stakeholders in the process of discussing access to people’s data.

This article was first published here by euronews.

Contribution by: Viktoria Tomova, Communications and Media Officer, EDRi