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Freedom and Privacy: The Impossible Equation?
May 8, 2015
Author: Anna Lekas Miller

Is it possible to have both freedom and privacy in the digital age? Data collection may be helpful to investigative journalists, researchers or any number of other professions, but what happens when we are targets of data collection? Is there a difference between government surveillance and data gathering by companies like Google and Facebook? Or is the communication between these entities so ubiquitous that whatever we put on the Internet becomes the de facto property of our respective governments?
 
For the fourth event of the Beirut Spring Festival, the SKeyes Center for Media and Freedom hosted a panel entitled, Freedom and Privacy: The Impossible Equation? exploring these topics. Moderated by Executive Director of the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy Kelli Arena, the panel discussed the issues of surveillance reform in the United States – where, as of yesterday, a US federal court deemed the vast majority of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance illegal – with X-Lab Founder Sascha Meinrath and Daily Dot Senior Politics Writer Kevin Collier. The panel also covered the conversation happening in the Middle East, where Social Media Exchange (SMEX) Advocacy and Policy Director Mohamad Najem from Lebanon and 7iber.com researcher Reem al-Masri from Jordan discussed both the long history of government surveillance and restrictions on freedom of expression in the region, and how recently passed counter-terrorism laws are increasing the consequences of surveillance on ordinary citizens. 
 
“So many laws are being passed right now to fight terrorism; you are giving your liberties for security,” al-Masri commented. “Highly sophisticated technologies are intruding in the private lives of people,” she added.
 
Mohamad Najem went on to comment on the crucial nature of the conversation happening around the impact of surveillance conducted by the NSA in the United States on other countries, specifically the Middle East.
 
“The more civil society in the United States pushes its government to take the right path, the better we will have it in the Middle East,” said Najem, commenting on both the US’s role as a global super power and currently home to one of the most extensive conversations occurring on surveillance reform. “Freedom and privacy do not have to contradict one another.”
 
However, as it stands, most of the conversation happening around surveillance is centered around protecting US citizens from domestic surveillance and says absolutely nothing about nationals of other countries. Although many of the NSA’s revelations revealed sobering practices carried out in other countries, such as the bulk collection of the content of every phone call placed in the Bahamas, any regulations currently being discussed would not address this global impact.
 
“There is very little you can do as an individual,” said Meinrath, “but there is a lot you can do as a civil society.”
 
Despite the emphasis on civil society – and the necessity of a global conversation, and overhaul of many surveillance practices – each panelist agreed that there are steps you can take as an individual to protect your data, and your communications, most notably by practicing encrypted communication. In addition to downloading PGP encryption for sensitive emails, there are secure messaging applications, such as Signal for iOS, TextSecure for Android, and the instant messaging platform CryptoCat (designed by a Lebanese engineer, Nadim Kobeissi).
 
“We are not looking for utopia, these processes will happen,” al-Masri said in her closing remarks, commenting on the nature of government surveillance. “But we are looking for more transparency. We have a right to know what is happening, how surveillance is working and how our data is being used.”