The old-fashioned newspaper, long maligned for its stodginess and sagging profits, has one advantage over high-tech alternatives: You read it. It never reads you.
The digital sources that increasingly dominate our news consumption, by contrast, transmit information across the fundamentally public sphere of the Internet, leaving trails visible to anyone with the right monitoring tools — be it your employer, your Internet provider, your government or even the scruffy hacker sitting next to you at the coffee shop, sharing the WiFi signal.
This is why privacy advocates have begun pushing news organizations, including The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian, to encrypt their Web sites, as many technology companies increasingly do for e-mails, video chats and search queries.
The growing use of encryption — signaled by the little lock icon in your browser’s address box — has emerged as perhaps the most concrete response to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the ability of the National Security Agency to collect almost anything that exists in digital form, including the locations, communications and online activities of people worldwide.
It’s only fair, say privacy advocates, that The Post and other news organizations that broke these stories heed their key lesson: Online surveillance is pervasive and voracious, especially when data is unprotected.
Among the issues potentially illuminated by what you choose to read, advocates say, are your health concerns, financial anxieties, sexual orientation and political leanings. A single article might mean little, but Big Data companies constantly collect and crunch a broad range of personal information to produce profiles of each of us.
“You could paint a pretty detailed picture of a person — their likes and dislikes — if you could see the articles they’re reading,” said Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, one of several groups pushing for wider use of encryption.
Encryption may seem a stretch as a press freedom issue, far from what concerned the Founding Fathers when they enshrined the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Yet a free press operates best when the public can make reading decisions without fear that their government — or anyone capable of doing them harm — is looking over their shoulder.
Encrypting something as complex as a news site is enormously difficult, according to technical experts within the industry. Several major news organizations offered encryption for some elements of their sites in recent years but largely stopped when problems arose in displaying content quickly and cleanly to readers, said Peter Eckersley, technology projects director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which tracks the use of the technology.
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