Julia Angwin is in the middle of upgrading her online password manager right before our interview appointment. On the side, the award-winning investigative journalist has logged into her Tails (The Amnesic Incognito Live System) account, which she describes as being “one of the best encrypted ways to communicate these days.”
These are just a couple of the various measures—which she documents in her new book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance — Angwin takes to protect herself in an increasingly treacherous Web environment. The technology journalist embraces, and is a proponent of, the digital revolution but she is equally wary of the complications that interconnectivity, ease of access and hyper-sharing spawn.
While researching her first book (Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America), the author noticed that a lot of websites were “scraping” personal data and “using it to allure advertisers.” This inspired Angwin to launch the What They Know series at the Wall Street Journal, which essentially researched the trend and analyzed the consequences of commercial data-gathering that assisted online advertisers. The plot thickened as she delved deeper, discovering that the government was also engaging in similar covert activities that had only intensified post-9/11. In 2011, government tracking—which included cell-phone tracking and emails being read without warrants—became another point of focus for Angwin.
Other more evident issues that fed Angwin’s anxiety were identity theft, endangered privacy, the Internet abetting voyeuristic attitudes, and most importantly, people leaving a permanent digital trail that defined them, leaving little room for them to reinvent themselves.
“As the reporting continued, I was thinking the whole time that I wanted to do something that helps people figure out how to live in this kind of world and that was the genesis for the book,” she says. “I felt that I had been investigating all the ways that things could go wrong and I wanted to investigate whether there was any potential for us to be in control of the situation.”
This led Angwin to undertake a year-long exercise in trying to guard her privacy and wall off her information from the predatory elements that infest the World Wide Web. Dragnet Nation not only alerts the reader to the inherent dangers of the Internet but offers steps one can take to navigate this minefield.
Angwin stresses the urgent need to start the conversation about learning how to live in the new digital age, a virtual reality which comes with its own set of problems. She compares it to the environmental crises and how it took over 50 years for the issue to gain relevance and drive radical changes in laws and social norms. Angwin believes that people need to relay a similar degree of caution in their dealings with the Internet before it’s too late.
“It’s like some people are really obsessed with their carbon footprint and they maybe spend more time focusing on that and I spend more time focusing on this,” she says.
But, in some way, she is also skeptical of the solutions she offers in Dragnet Nation. She worries about the repercussions of “fake information” or “disinformation” in an “information society.” While the measures she takes to enable her online privacy might be useful to her, she worries that if a critical mass were to adopt these changes it might give rise to an untameable beast.
“Right now my concern is that the countermeasures I am taking might actually be counterproductive in the long run,” she says. “Unfortunately because we don’t have any laws or limits on data collection, that’s the only strategy I have been able to think of but I don’t think that’s what I want everyone to do.”
At the heart of it, Angwin seeks to highlight the broader cultural and social implications of “living in a world of total surveillance” and how that might alter human behavior for the worse.
“Are we going to censor our actions? Are we not going to feel free to speak out? Are we going to be afraid to be friends with people who are subversive because it might reflect on us?” she asks.
In this wired society where the process of judicial intervention hasn’t evolved, Angwin’s book offers the first step for an individual to watch her back, but she also wants to spark a discussion that provokes a bigger question: “Can we find a way to mitigate that possibility, keep all the cool stuff and try not to build a situation where we all live in fear?”
Neha Sharma is a cultural writer based in New York. Her work has also appeared in the New York Observer, Vulture, Virgin America and Rolling Stone (India).