January 28th might not be a date that resonates with many people, but for those concerned with online privacy, it may hold some meaning.
Data Privacy Day, or Data Protection Day as its known outside the U.S., was first introduced in 2007 as a day to promote best practices around online data privacy and security. Some notable bodies have backed the observance of Data Privacy Day in the past, including Intel, Microsoft, Verizon, Symantec, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Federal Communication Commission (FCC), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Identity Theft Council, and the Anti-Phishing Working Group.
Earlier this week, internet organization Mozilla turbo-charged its privacy-centric Firefox Focus browser for iOS, adding more than 20 new languages, translated by its community of users. Back in November, Mozilla had launched the browser app, which promises to block web trackers, including analytics, social, and advertising. Additionally, it enables users to easily remove their browsing history, cookies, and stored passwords.
“We know from copious user research and constant community feedback that being able to browse the web without stressing about being tracked or served unwanted ads is a big deal,” explained Nick Nguyen, vice president of product at Mozilla. “It’s why many of them chose Firefox Focus in the first place. It’s why we built Firefox Focus. And for International Data Privacy Day, we’re particularly proud to extend always-on privacy and the beauty of the really big ‘Erase Button’ to many more people around the world.”
Data privacy and security has long been a concern for many individuals and organizations, but only now does it feel as though there is enough awareness for such concerns to infiltrate the mainstream.
In July last year, LinkedIn reset passwords on millions of accounts after fresh data-leak reports surfaced. In December, Yahoo revealed a new hack, in which an “unauthorized third party” stole data from more than one billion accounts. Throw into the mix the myriad high-profile hacks to hit consumers in recent times — we’re looking at you, Target — and it’s easy to see why the online privacy tool market is ripe.
But bedroom hackers and content trackers are only part of the problem. Back in November, we reported on how Donald Trump’s election victory was driving more people to online privacy tools, such as virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted messaging. Long before Trump had actually entered the White House there were many concerns about what a Trump-led administration would mean for U.S. surveillance and encryption policy.
In the wake of the U.S. election results, encrypted email service ProtonMail said that its sign-ups doubled, while data suggested that encrypted messaging App Signal had grown in popularity, too. Elsewhere, VPN app TunnelBear reported a “25-40 percent increase in new downloads” emanating from the U.S., while rival AnchorFree, creators of Hotspot Shield, announced a 33 percent increase in downloads. KeepSolid, makers of VPN Unlimited, reported a 32 percent increase in downloads between November 8 and November 10. ProtonMail announced that its user growth doubled after the Yahoo hack was announced. And a report from earlier this week suggested that politicians’ aides are increasingly turning to Signal, due to growing concerns around hacking.
A further sign that there is growing demand for privacy-focused communication conduits comes in the form of encrypted email service Lavabit, Edward Snowden’s preferred email service before it was forced to close down back in 2013 due to undisclosed legal pressures. However, on Donald Trump’s inauguration day — January 20 — founder and operator Ladar Levison relaunched the service, powered by a new “end-to-end encrypted global standard” called Magma — which Levison himself had developed. He said:
Today is Inauguration Day in the United States, the day we enact one of our most sacred democratic traditions, the peaceful transition of power. Regardless of one’s political disposition, today we acknowledge our shared values of Freedom, Justice, and Liberty as secured by our Constitution. This is the reason why I’ve chosen today to relaunch Lavabit.
Earlier in January, Switzerland-based ProtonMail announced support for Tor, software often used by activists and journalists that directs traffic through a network of relays to aid anonymity. “Given ProtonMail’s recent growth, we realize that the censorship of ProtonMail in certain countries is inevitable, and we are proactively working to prevent this,” explained ProtonMail cofounder Andy Yen. “Tor provides a way to circumvent certain internet blocks, so improving our compatibility with Tor is a natural first step.” And similar to Mozilla, ProtonMail also introduced a community-driven translation program of its own to expedite ProtonMail’s global traction.
With the growing Internet of Things (IoT) revolution, we’re seeing connectivity brought to just about every facet of our lives, from beds and fridges to fitness trackers, toys, cars, televisions, and beyond. Just this week, connected doorbell startup Ring raised a whopping $ 109 million to push its video-powered doorbells to the masses. All these internet-enabled devices together can collate an incredible amount of information on users — for better or worse — which is why concerns around data privacy will only grow.
Just a week into Trump’s presidency, and we’re seeing signs that there is legitimate concern around his data privacy credentials. This week, the U.S. government issued an Executive Order entitled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.” Section 14 of the Order reads:
Agencies shall, to the extent consistent with applicable law, ensure that their privacy policies exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act regarding personally identifiable information.
Such an exclusion will likely have huge ramifications on relationships between the U.S. and Europe, particularly in light of the recently renegotiated data-sharing pact between the two regions. Indeed, some politicians from Europe are already asking the European Commission to suspend the Privacy Shield agreement that’s scheduled to kick in on February 1.
If this is true @EU_Commission has to immediately suspend #PrivacyShield & sanction the US for breaking EU-US umbrella agreement. #CPDP2017 https://t.co/0TBAnIWydq
— Jan Philipp Albrecht (@JanAlbrecht) January 26, 2017
It’s not just the U.S. that’s pushing questionable privacy standards. The U.K. recently passed the “Investigatory Powers Act 2016,” or the “snooper’s charter,” as many call it, which compells communication companies to collect and store web browsing data for one year.
In short, the world has more reason than ever to be concerned about their data privacy. But in tandem, we’re also seeing new tools emerge to help people maintain a reasonable degree of privacy on the web.
Happy Data Privacy Day, folks!