As we move into 2017, we inch ever closer to the moment when Donald Trump officially assumes the title of President of the United States.
The inauguration date is 20th January, and with the Trump administration soon to take office, the make-up of his cabinet is starting to take shape. And for online privacy advocates, things don’t look too positive.
A Trump Cabinet
We have already taken a look at what a Trump Presidency might mean for digital privacy shortly after his election victory and written about how concerned Americans have been turning to VPNs in unprecedented numbers in an effort to protect their online privacy.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has also seen evidence of great public concern about the issues. Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst for the EFF has said that they have seen an increase in training requests, particularly from groups such as journalists and activists, who harbour genuine concerns over how a Trump administration might affect their ability to operate.
Our article about possible Trump cabinet picks and their views on online privacy looks to be prescient with both Mike Pompeo and Jeff Sessions being nominated as Head of the CIA and Attorney General respectively.
As readers, may recall, Pompeo’s appointment is particularly worrying. He said in a Wall Street Journal interview last year that “Congress should pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information (put it) into a comprehensive, searchable database.”
President-elect Trump is clearly aware, at least in a broad sense, of the security and privacy risks computers can offer.
In a speech delivered at his New Year’s Eve Party, Trump was quoted as saying “You know, if you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way. Because I’ll tell you what: No computer is safe, I don’t care what they say.”
On one hand, this quote does show that Trump is aware of the threat that cybercriminals pose to everyone online. On the other hand, of course, it shows a remarkable lack of knowledge about the cyber security industry and the vast array of tools that are out there to protect you online, including VPNs.
It does also illustrate a staggering lack of self-awareness. As we have seen, some of those who pose the greatest threat to cyber-security are individuals he has hired into his administration. In particular, the desire to collect and store so much more personal data and to create backdoors into encrypted communication poses a huge threat to both individuals and businesses.
Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board
One hope that remains for privacy advocates has been the scrutinising bodies which will address any legislative changes the Trump administration might be looking to make. But even there, real problems have emerged.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which is responsible for the oversight of intelligence agency activity, and which was beefed up after the Edward Snowden revelations, is in disarray right now.
Despite being both independent and bipartisan, the board will have just 2 members, neither of whom are Democrat by the end of this week. It needs a minimum of 3 members to be quorate and should have five, but new members will be appointed by the incoming President, with confirmation coming from the Republican-controlled Senate.
This means Trump will be able to reign in the board which declared the NSA’s mass surveillance programmes illegal or possibly do away with it all together.
Putting all these details together leaves a pretty bleak picture for the immediate future of online digital privacy in the USA. VPN subscriptions are one way for users to take action to protect their online privacy and security and it is, therefore, little wonder numbers are growing.
It seems likely that this is a trend that we can expect to see continue up to 20th January, and beyond.