How the War on Terror Is Affecting Your Online Privacy

Philip Bates 09-08-2017

The war on terror can seem pretty relentless. It’s understandable if you feel overwhelmed at times by the threat of ISIS (although you might know the group as IS, ISIL, or Daesh), for example.


Extremist groups are determined to take dominance over our lives, but we don’t have to bow to such pressure. We shouldn’t.

Nonetheless, it is affecting your privacy. The gray line between right and wrong is an ever-expanding area. Here’s how your privacy is being infringed, supposedly in the fight against terror…

Why Does This Matter?

Let’s get this out the way first: many will tell you that, if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to be scared of.

privacy keyboard
Image Credit: g4ll4is via Flickr

Privacy is a human right. You don’t expect a CCTV camera to be trained permanently on your living room, so why should you expect details of your browsing history Top 5 Ways You Are Spied On Every Day And Don't Know It The chances are you're oblivious to the ways in which you're being monitored almost daily as you go about your business. Learn how to take precautions to protect yourself against these surveillance threats. Read More , for instance, to be monitored?


The internet was created to be anonymous. Ideally, that means that it couldn’t be compromised by politics, religion, or any other regime that intends to restrict you to an approved line of thinking. Of course, in actuality, it means you can learn more about such strictures. This is your freedom of choice.

The opposite would be a closed internet that limits ideas, a circuit whereby you can only visit certain sites, approved by an authority with an agenda Why The Next 10 Years Looks Bad for Internet Censorship Although denizens of the world are learning more about censorship and learning new ways to counteract it, the outlook for the future of Internet freedom isn't looking good. Read More .

Without your freedom, what are you?

Away from philosophical discussions of independence, storage of your private data is a big temptation for cybercriminals. Governmental agencies and medical institutions don’t even have sufficient security 5 Reasons Why Medical Identity Theft is Increasing Scammers want your personal details and bank account information – but did you know that your medical records are also of interest to them? Find out what you can do about it. Read More to protect themselves from hackers — imagine a world where your personal information is collected all the time by everyone.


In fact, maybe you don’t have to imagine it…

Government Snooping

This is, of course, the biggest factor infringing on your rights. Governments use terrorism as an excuse for collecting your private information.

The most recent shocking example of this is The Investigatory Powers Bill in the U.K., known colloquially as the “Snooper’s Charter.” How Britain's "Snoopers' Charter" Might Affect You British Prime Minister David Cameron intends to resurrect the "Snooper's Charter", a privacy-breaching set of new measures to enable enhanced monitoring of communications by the security services. Can it be stopped? Read More This passed in 2016 (after some minor amendments), though was still deemed unlawful by an EU court. The Bill forces telecommunications firms into keeping all their customers’ browsing histories for at least a year, and subsequently handing over that information to public bodies.


Such bodies naturally include GCHQ, the police, and the Home Office, as a way of fighting terrorism.

However, other agencies allowed to peek at the internet data of U.K. residents also include the Food Standards Agency, HM Revenues & Customs, the Gambling Commission, the Serious Fraud Office, and NHS trusts providing ambulance services.

Similar methods of data retention are either suggested or approved across the world How the UK's Snooper's Charter Could Affect the Whole World The Investigatory Powers Bill, better known as the "Snooper's Charter", is here. You might think it only affects the UK, but you'd be wrong. This affects everyone, across the whole world. Read More .

Metadata has to be kept for up to two years in Australia, and can be obtained by official services without a warrant. The National Security Agency (NSA) wants “front door” access to encrypted messages Tomorrow's Surveillance: Four Technologies The NSA Will Use to Spy on You - Soon Surveillance is always on the cutting edge of technology. Here are four technologies that will be used to violate your privacy over the next few years. Read More . And the Yarovaya Law in Russia requires metadata collection, as well as retention of voice messages for up to six months.


As a tactic, it largely works in the favor of authorities. Secret intelligence services, such as the NSA and MI5, are charged with protecting citizens, and to do this, they need powers to collect data they deem necessary to stop threats. Fair enough, right?

But how do you define “necessary”?

Social Media Sharing

We can’t solely blame governments, though. Sometimes, it’s not even complacency that damages our right to privacy. Some corporations want to be seen to act against terrorism. Others are happy to share a lot of data, as long as it doesn’t hit the headlines.

Facebook is the former.

social media mobile phone
Image Credit: Hamza Butt via Flickr

In the wake of terror attacks in 2017, the company announced its willingness to share “limited data” across its numerous properties. This includes the photo-sharing platform, Instagram.

We all like to think social media is a safe place, but that’s not the case. From cases of sextortion Sextortion Has Evolved And It's Scarier Than Ever Sextortion is an abhorrent, prevalent blackmailing technique targeting young and old, and is now even more intimidating thanks to social networks like Facebook. What can you do to protect yourself from these seedy cybercriminals? Read More to malicious links, users leave themselves open to trouble on networking platforms. As long as you use common sense, and take necessary precautions, you should be fine.

Still, social media is used by terrorists to communicate with like-minded people and for propaganda.

Facebook aims to stop such activities from littering its service. It’s a positive attitude to have. Nonetheless, sharing personal data is an infringement What Does Facebook Selling Your Data Mean For Privacy? Read More on your privacy. Especially as we’re yet to determine which details of users will be passed on, under what circumstances, what safeguards are in place, how the information will then be used, and if governmental authorities will be involved.

We do know that humans form the basis for banning suspect accounts — staff at Facebook will identify malicious content, like video, certain rhetoric associated with radicalization, and “terrorist clusters” (i.e. groups of people affiliated with organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda). Beyond that, Facebook is experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) How Will AI Impact Your Life in the Next Ten Years? Artificial intelligence is growing quickly, and seems braced to change the world. How will that change present itself in the next few years? Here are some good guesses. Read More software that will implement methods learned from human staff to the network as a whole.

Algorithms can already identify and match faces What Does Facebook Know About You? Why You Should Delete Facebook What does Facebook really know about you? One thing's for sure: if you want online privacy, Facebook is best avoided. Read More , so will an AI be used to flag pictures on Instagram? We’ll just have to wait and see.

You Thought WhatsApp Was Private

WhatsApp appears great on the surface. This is a free messaging app that uses internet connection to send texts. It uses end-to-end encryption Why WhatsApp's End-to-End Encryption Is a Big Deal WhatsApp recently announced that they would be enabling end-to-end encryption in their service. But what does this mean for you? Here's what you need to know about WhatsApp encryption. Read More so third-parties can’t snoop on what’s being said.

Yes, that’s technically correct, but it’s not entirely private.

When Facebook acquired the service in 2014 for $19 billion, issues were raised over its attitude to user details. Considering all the things Facebook knows about you, further dominance over data is certainly worrying.

This led to governments apparently waging war on WhatsApp, greatly exaggerated by the media, in order to deliver a storm in a teacup. Nonetheless, it’s not as secure as you think.

That’s because Facebook’s data-sharing plan includes WhatsApp How to Stop WhatsApp Handing Your Info to Facebook Now that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, your data may given over to Facebook's hands -- unless you prevent it from happening. Read More .

Again, this is being blamed on terrorists using the service precisely because its encryption methods make deciphering text largely impossible. Indeed, Facebook won’t be able to read messages or pass them on; instead, they’ll rely on metadata Avoiding Internet Surveillance: The Complete Guide Internet surveillance continues to be a hot topic so we've produced this comprehensive resource on why it's such a big deal, who's behind it, whether you can completely avoid it, and more. Read More — details recorded about which devices sent and received SMS, where they were sent from, and at what times.

Facebook has admitted:

“[W]e do provide the information we can in response to valid law enforcement requests, consistent with applicable law and our policies.”

It’s understandable if information is collated to learn more about terrorists, but the line dividing acceptable usage of details isn’t clearly defined. WhatsApp, for instance, was utilized a few years ago to organize protests (which descended into riots in many cities) against government cuts across the U.K.: could law-enforcers acquire information on similar instances in future?

Major Companies Aren’t Exempt

It’s easy to pick on Facebook Data Selfie: How Much Does Facebook Actually Know About You? You share a huge amount of data with Facebook, even if you don't click or post very much. This Chrome extension will give you an idea of just how much Facebook knows about you. Read More , but more often than not, major companies pass on your personal information if requested.

Such requests for user data might be in the form of a subpoena (or local equivalent), ECPA Court Order, or Search Warrant. Those are all retroactive acquisitions of data — real-time requests might be through a wiretap or Traps and Trace, and must be “relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.” In accordance with user transparency, companies typically publish statistics in regular Law Enforcement Request Reports. However, these can exclude data requested by the NSA and other intelligence services.

Apple, for example, received 1,986 U.S. Account Requests from the U.S. government in 2015 alone, and supplied limited information on 82 percent of those. The majority of requests to Apple came from people looking for stolen devices.

apple building
Image Credits: Rob Pongsajapan via Flickr

Meanwhile, Facebook complied with 80 percent of the 17,577 U.S. law enforcement requests between January and June 2015. In that same period, Google yielded data on 78 percent of its 12,002 requests.

For the search engine, requests have soared in just five years, while their compliance percentage has remained fairly high: in the first six months of 2010, it surrendered to 94 percent of the 4,601 requests from the U.S.

Microsoft is arguably most transparent when publishing the number of requests its received globally. In its most recent report, charting July to December 2016, it received 25,837 requests affecting 44,876 users. Of these, it complied with nearly 68 percent of content and non-content requests (the majority of these were for the latter). Rejections and cases where no data was found make up the remaining 32 percent fairly equally.

In short, most major companies comply with the majority of U.S. law enforcement requests, although the extent of details acquired cannot be known.

Hackers Fight Back

It’s worth noting that it’s not solely governments around the world fighting against terrorism. Hackers can be a force for good — but sometimes, it backfires.

You might know Anonymous as a group of unknown “hacktivists” 4 Top Hacker Groups And What They Want It's easy to think of hacker groups as some kind of romantic back-room revolutionaries. But who are they really? What do they stand for, and what attacks have they conducted in the past? Read More intent on fighting oppression, and best associated with the “V” mask from V For Vendetta.

You’d think ISIS would be a fair target. Indeed, members of Anonymous have been focusing on the terrorist organization since the tragic attacks in Paris in January 2015. Anonymous has taken down thousands of related websites and Twitter accounts that spread terror propaganda.

However, most hacktivists work anonymously and consist of disparate elements. Sometimes, they get it wrong.

anonymous masks
Image Credits: Mary-Lynn via Flickr

Now, you’d be very, very unlucky to be affected in an adverse way by Anonymous’s activities The War Against ISIS Online - Is Your Security At Risk? Anonymous claim to be targeting ISIS websites, alerting many to the fact that the terrorists have an online presence. But how are they being fought? And what should you do if you discover ISIS online? Read More . But not long ago, one member published the name and address of a terrorist sympathiser… only to apologize soon after for getting it wrong. The victim nonetheless received death threats, and the hacktivist has since been suspended from social media.

Still, it’s very unlikely Anonymous, or similar groups will target you.

Why This Makes Everything Worse

All of this is, of course, bad for your privacy. Yet if it aids the war on terror, you might figure the positives outweigh the negatives.

But this might not be the case. Let’s remember the old adage, better the Devil you know.

The Open Rights Groups warn that these measures won’t stop terrorist groups, but will encourage them to use platforms that are harder for authorities to regulate. Notably, they’ll resort to using the Dark Web What Is the Deep Web? It's More Important Than You Think The deep web and the dark web both sound scary and nefarious, but the dangers have been overblown. Here's what they actually and how you can even access them yourself! Read More , a section of the internet that’s already rife with criminals and hackers Here's How Much Your Identity Could Be Worth on the Dark Web It's uncomfortable to think of yourself as a commodity, but all of your personal details, from name and address to bank account details, are worth something to online criminals. How much are you worth? Read More . There, they can procure arms, find like-minded fighters, and collaborate in secret. This is instead of the “Surface Web” — which you’re using right now — consisting of pages you’ll find on all standard search engines.

Regulations on the so-called Surface Web won’t affect the people they’re apparently intended to stop.

Beatrice Berton, of the E.U. Institute for Security Studies, says:

“ISIL’s activities on the Surface Web are now being monitored closely, and the decision by a number of governments to take down or filter extremist content has forced the jihadists to look for new online safe havens. The Dark Web is a perfect alternative as it is inaccessible to most but navigable for the initiated few — and it is completely anonymous.”

Is it better terrorists use the Surface Web? It means you or I could be exposed to them, although the likelihood of doing so is minimal. Then again, it also means they’re traceable.

What Can You Do About It?

Feeling overwhelmed and helpless? That’s what it’s like when your own government is infringing on your rights. But you’re not powerless.

First of all, turn to encryption. Although it’s far from impenetrable Don't Believe These 5 Myths About Encryption! Encryption sounds complex, but is far more straightforward than most think. Nonetheless, you might feel a little too in-the-dark to make use of encryption, so let's bust some encryption myths! Read More , it’s the best way of safeguarding your data. For this, you’ll want to use a virtual private network (VPN): there’s a whole host to choose from The Best VPN Services We've compiled a list of what we consider to be the best Virtual Private Network (VPN) service providers, grouped by premium, free, and torrent-friendly. Read More , so shop wisely. Do you want a free one? Or is a premium alternative stronger 4 Reasons a Paid VPN Is Better Than Free Ones I used to be big fan of free VPNs. Why pay when free alternatives exist, right? But it turns out they're selling you short. So here's why paid VPNs always beat free VPNs. Read More ? It really depends on your specific concerns and requirements.

You already use free encryption, however, if you’ve got WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Metadata can still be retrieved, as we’ve already discussed, but at least the actual contents are scrambled.

These may be the best known messaging apps, but are far from the only ones. The difficulty you’ll find is convincing your loved ones to stop using WhatsApp and instead turn to one of its competitors 4 Slick WhatsApp Alternatives that Guard Your Privacy Facebook bought WhatsApp. Now that we're over the shock of that news, are you worried about your data privacy? Read More !

rusted padlock
Image Credit: eek the cat via Flickr

The best option to avoid snooping is to stay away from the companies selling your details. It’s not particularly simple if you’re used to going on social media, using Google Chrome, or just love Apple. Still, you’ll soon get into the habit of taking different precautions.

Should you go as far as deleting your Facebook account How to Deactivate (or Delete) Your Facebook Account If you need a break from Facebook, or if you want to stop using it altogether, here's how you can either deactivate or delete your account. Read More ? It’s up to you. Bear in mind, you can still use it safely as long as you limit the amount of personal information you submit Facebook Is Tracking You! Here's How to Stop It Many entities are tracking your internet activity, including social media sites like Facebook. Here's what you need to know. Read More . But because Facebook tracks even those without a profile It Doesn't Matter If You're Not On Facebook: They're Still Tracking You A new report claims the Facebook is tracking people without their permission. It doesn't matter if you don't use social networking service: they're still watching you. What can you do about it? Read More , you’d be advised to at least use an anonymous browser 4 Free Anonymous Web Browsers That Are Completely Private Anonymous browsing of the web is one way to protect your online privacy. Here are the best anonymous web browsers to use. Read More .

Otherwise, try a private search engine like DuckDuckGo DuckDuckGo Celebrates 10 Billion Searches DuckDuckGo recently achieved a massive milestone by racking up 10 billion searches since its inception. And yet most people have still never heard of DuckDuckGo... Read More .

This limits the amount of snooping the government can do right now. You might prefer to be more vocal about keeping your privacy — in which case, you should check out the privacy groups Who Is Fighting On Your Behalf Against The NSA And For Privacy? There are several Internet activism groups who are fighting on your behalf for privacy. They are doing their best to educate netizens as well. Here are just a few of them that are incredibly active. Read More fighting on your behalf.

Privacy: Is it Worth It?

How much do you value your privacy? What about your safety? How do you fight the war on terror without infringing on the rights of people you intend to protect?

There are no easy answers.

Is the cost of privacy too high? Should we stick up for civil rights now more than ever? On whose shoulders does responsibility for safety and privacy lie?

Related topics: Online Privacy, Surveillance.

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  1. Howard A Pearce
    August 9, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    "Nonetheless, it is affecting your privacy. The gray line between right and wrong is an ever-expanding area."

    Only true for those that never understood privacy rights and where they are derived from.
    For those people, when changes come along, they lack the ability to apply those rights to a new situation as they never understood the basis of privacy rights to begin with.

    Through this entire article, the author never tries to tell us about the concept of privacy and where it comes from, making the article very vague as to what privacy is or what is covered by privacy rights.

    When everything public, there is no privacy !
    That means there has to be an area of our life which is private in order to have privacy.
    These areas where things are private are defined by our right to property - the source of privacy rights. Without that right, there is no privacy.

    • fcd76218
      August 9, 2017 at 11:53 pm

      "These areas where things are private are defined by our right to property - the source of privacy rights. Without that right, there is no privacy."
      Unfortunately those rights are NOT absolute and immutable. You only have the rights that a government effectively allows you to have. To get back the rights that have been eroded from us, we need to have a fundamental change in government, and that is very unlikely to happen.

      • Howard A Pearce
        August 10, 2017 at 1:02 pm

        All rights are absolute - that's why we call them rights and not privileges
        If you know an example where they are not absolute, tell me.

        If you don't want to support rights but rather support privileges so that you may violate them when you need to, just say so.

        But please don't tell me you believe in rights that are not really rights.

        • fcd76218
          August 10, 2017 at 3:04 pm

          You can claim all the rights you want but if you are not allowed to exercise those rights, you ain't got bubkis.

          Using the "Penumbras and emanations" concept you can justify as "inalienable" any right that can be imagined or invented can be justified. For example, the Constitution guarantees the right to "the pursuit of happiness". If torturing others brings you happiness, is your right still protected? Of course not. The Constitution also guarantees the right to "freedom of speech." Are you allowed to say anything you please? Of course not. Those are just two examples of rights NOT being absolute. Society determines what rights you will have

    • fcd76218
      August 10, 2017 at 12:31 am

      "How the War on Terror Is Affecting Your Online Privacy"
      The 'War on Terror' gives governments the pretext to deprive all of its citizens of privacy, not just the terrorists. The 'War on Terror' in most countries is just as effective as the 'War on Poverty' was in the 1960s and the 'War on Drugs' has been since the 1970s in the United States, that is to say - a total failure. Poverty and drug use are more wide-spread than ever. The way things are going, pretty soon we will think of the days of NKVD/KGB, Gestapo, Stasi, etc as the 'good, old days' and yearn for their return.

      " if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to be scared of."
      BOVINE MANURE! If anybody really believes that, I have a bunch of bridges or prime waterfront real estate in Arizona I can sell them.

      " You don’t expect a CCTV camera to be trained permanently on your living room"
      Not yet but give it a few years. Every day we get more and more cameras mounted on lamp posts. There is only a small step from that to mandating cameras in the home. All in the name of 'fighting terrorism.'

      Come to think of it, soon there will be no need for mandating cameras in the home. Tech writers are touting installing cameras as one the essential devices in a Smart Home. People are installing them in their mad rush towards the IoT (or is that Id10t?) All the government flunkies have to do is to hack the WiFi signal from all those cameras.