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Defending Privacy on Human Rights Day: A Discussion with EFF's Cindy Cohn

We are joined by EFF’s Executive Director, Cindy Cohn, to answer some key questions on why online privacy matters and how we can each contribute to the cause.

Rochelle Guillou
4 min read
Defending Privacy on Human Rights Day: A Discussion with EFF's Cindy Cohn

Today is Human Rights Day, observed annually on December 10th, marking the global acknowledgment of inherent human dignity and equal rights for all. This day serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle to uphold these fundamental principles worldwide.

Among these rights is our inalienable right to privacy, integral to our freedom and autonomy. In a world increasingly dominated by technology, the right to privacy has taken on new dimensions to encompass our digital footprints.

Protecting individual privacy is not just about safeguarding personal information; it's about maintaining the freedom to express, think, and live without surveillance. In commemorating Human Rights Day, it is imperative that we not only recognize but also actively champion privacy as a fundamental aspect of our human rights. This commitment is at the heart of our mission at XMTP Labs.

As we honor this day, there seems no finer tribute than to highlight and support the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) relentless efforts in this field.

We are joined by EFF’s Executive Director, Cindy Cohn, to answer some key questions on why online privacy matters and how we can each contribute to the cause.

  1. Why should people care about digital privacy and protecting their right to it?

Privacy is a human right for good reason. It is one of the rights that is foundational to other rights – without privacy people cannot explore topics and ideas that might upset whoever is watching them. I like to say that privacy is important for each of us, but also for all of us.  As for each of us, no one likes to be watched and judged, much less have the prices they pay for goods and services set based on that kind of tracking – for people who say they don’t care it’s generally that they think they are powerless to stop it or haven’t really reckoned with the downside personally. Yet.

On the “all of us side,” we’ve seen that privacy is critical piece of the puzzle for bringing about social change on so many issues – going back way before the digital age, but also in the past generation, in the work to make gay marriage go from something that had to be hidden and whispered about to being legal in the US. Today it’s a very crucial need for those seeking reproductive assistance, both in parts of the U.S. and around the world.

  1. What are the biggest challenges you foresee in the struggle for our privacy online? How is the EFF preparing to address these issues?

We’ve had a generation of people grow up being told that privacy is over, as Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems said in 1999.  Of course you should always take what a corporate leader says with a grain of salt or skepticism, especially when they may have an interest in your thinking that your rights are worthless.

But overall people feel helpless to protect their privacy and it’s not hard to see why.  The surveillance business model is so pervasive and when you add government to that – pushing to make sure no one can ever have a private conversation online, it can feel overwhelming.

At EFF we try to make resources available, especially to vulnerable communities who are often on the front lines, like our SSD materials. We also fight in the courts and in legislatures around the world for privacy.  We build tools to help people better protect themselves, like Privacy Badger but also Cerbot, which helps those with websites better protect their visitors as part of the bigger Lets Encrypt project.

Right now on the international side, we are working hard to set the international standards in favor of protecting privacy in the UN: Proposed UN Cybercrime Treaty Threatens to be an Expansive Global Surveillance Pact.

And in the EU, EFF is a member of the Digital Services Act Human Rights Alliance--a group of digital and human rights advocacy organizations representing diverse communities across the globe. The Alliance came together around the central tenet that the Digital Services Act must adopt a human rights based approach to platform governance and that EU policy makers should consider the global impacts of legislation.

  1. Why is encryption increasingly under scrutiny and under attack from various governments? Why should the public be alert and concerned about these developments?

The public should be both alert and concerned!  Encryption has always been under attack, since the 1990s, it’s just that many of the attacks were hidden from the general public for years and now the UK in its Online Safety Law and the US with bills like EARN-IT are being more direct.

Quite simply – law enforcement doesn’t want people to be able to have basic privacy because they are worried it will hinder them from solving crimes. But if your local police came to your door and said –”we want you to leave the door unlocked or only use a compromised lock so that if you are a criminal we can get in faster” – we would all look at them like they were crazy. Yet that’s the proposition behind many of the proposals attacking encryption directly or simply requiring people who carry your messages to always be able to provide plaintext to the cops. We need to be clear about that and simply tell them to rely on all the other powerful tools they have to do investigations – that putting us at risk from bad guys around the world is not the right way to go about solving crimes.

  1. What are some of the best ways people can support and act alongside the EFF?

EFF is able to do this work because of the over 30,000 people who support us through their donations. Financial support is crucial and EFF is strong because we do not relay on big companies or governments, but instead receive over half our money from individuals. But we also can use volunteers working on our open source software projects and people who can rally their local communities using our Action Center when an issue arises. We also work with many Electronic Frontier Alliance groups across the US who work more locally on EFF issues.

Help Defend Human Rights Online

The EFF’s work is critical on multiple fronts. As noted by Cindy, one important way you can support the cause is by making a donation, because without the efforts of organizations like the EFF, the fight for privacy and strong encryption would face significantly greater challenges. The EFF and organizations like it help lay the groundwork for us to be able to build towards decentralized private communication, free from control and surveillance. Without them, our work at XMTP Labs would not be possible.

AdvocacyPrivacy & Security