Earlier this week, Donald Trump won a stunning election victory that will put him in charge of the world’s most powerful mass surveillance infrastructure.
Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you are on, Trump’s control over the NSA is now an indisputable fact, and we think it is worth taking a closer look at what this means. It is important to note that as a Swiss company which benefits from Swiss government support, ProtonMail follows the Swiss policy of neutrality. We do not take any position for or against Trump, nor any position for or against any particular country or government. We believe privacy is an universal value, so we do not take any sides.
However, given America’s significant influence on the world, and the large number of ProtonMail users who come from the US, we are not a disinterested party. Furthermore, we realise that the implications of a Trump presidency also interest a large proportion of the ProtonMail community, so we are here today to offer our opinion.
How much power over the NSA does Trump have?
Due to the way the US government is structured, President Trump will have a large amount of control over the NSA. The NSA is not different from any other federal agency which the president controls. The US president will be able to dictate how the agency operates through his power to appoint the NSA Director. The NSA Director needs to be confirmed through majority vote by the US Senate, but due to Republican control over the Senate, President Trump will have complete freedom to appoint anyone he wants to carry out his orders.
As a federal agency however, the activities of NSA are governed by federal law, in particular, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. However, with Republican control over both houses of Congress, President Trump would have broad power to rewrite FISA as he sees fit or introduce a new law. Of course, a new law could be subject to court challenge which could eventually work its way up to the US Supreme court, but Trump is also expected to gain control over the Supreme court. Therefore, all things considered, there is no denying that President Trump would have broad powers to re-shape the US surveillance apparatus to serve his agenda.
Should Americans Be Worried?
Since Trump’s victory, the number of new users coming to ProtonMail has doubled compared to the previous week. Many of our new users have voiced a few common concerns both on Twitter and also in emails to us. Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric against journalists, political enemies, immigrants, and Muslims, there is concern that Trump could use the new tools at his disposal to target certain groups. As the NSA currently operates completely out of the public eye with very little legal oversight, all of this could be done in secret.
It is not Trump’s fault
It is tempting to blame all this on Trump, but that is taking the easy way out. All Trump does is put a new face on the existing privacy problem, so now it concerns a segment of the population that previously didn’t care as much. ProtonMail users have always come from both the left and right side of the political spectrum. Today, we are seeing an influx of liberal users, but ProtonMail has also long been popular with the political right, who were truly worried about big government spying, and the Obama administration having access to their communications. Now the tables have turned.
The same terror the political right has experienced is now being felt in liberal bubbles such as Silicon Valley for the first time. The left is correct to be terrified of a Trump-led NSA snooping on their communications, especially since Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook can be forced to spy on users on behalf of Trump’s NSA. However, this precedent was not set by Trump – he hasn’t even taken office yet. The first major incident of a US tech giant being complicit in US government spying actually took place in 2015 under the Obama administration.
Privacy is something we must all champion
One of the problems with having a technological infrastructure that can be abused for mass surveillance purposes, is that governments can and do change, quite regularly in fact. This demonstrates that privacy isn’t just a liberal or conservative issue, it is something that we all need to champion, regardless of our political leanings. This is why ProtonMail is committed to building a safe haven for all people in the world, regardless of nationality, political views, or religious beliefs.
The only way to protect our freedom is to build technologies, such as end-to-end encryption, which cannot be abused for mass surveillance. Governments can change, but the laws of mathematics upon which encryption is based, are much harder to change.
What can you do to protect your privacy rights?
Privacy is a non-partisan issue, and we hope politicians around the world wake up to the fact that privacy is not only essential for democracy, it is also critical for securing the growing digital economy. In the case of encrypted email services such as ProtonMail, you even get better security in addition to the privacy. Privacy is a cause that we should all be able to unify behind, regardless of political beliefs.
In the meantime, there are fortunately a growing number of services which can help to keep government spies out of your communications, so there is no need to worry regardless of who wins the election. For securing your email, ProtonMail offers free encrypted email accounts, although you can support ProtonMail by donating or upgrading to a paid account.
For defending against NSA mass surveillance, we also recommend the Signal messaging app, using a VPN service, or using an alternative search engine such as duckduckgo.com or qwant.com. But most importantly, spread the word about the dangers of mass surveillance so politicians take note and make protecting our digital rights a priority.
The ProtonMail Team
For questions and comment, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can get a free secure email account from ProtonMail here.