Youth Policy & Young People

Nothing to hide but everything to fear: Youth on the way towards digital freedom

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In the post-Snowden world, young people’s attitudes towards surveillance, the role of Governments and whistleblowers is sparking a change in online behaviour. But is the shift big or quick enough to ensure the “epicentre” of young people’s world - the internet - is secure and private? Tatsuhei MorozumiandMarie Wachinger investigate recent developments and youth attitudes to security and the internet, and explore ways forward.

Especially for the younger generation, the Internet is not some standalone, separate domain where a few of life’s functions are carried out. It is not merely our post office and our telephone. Rather, it is the epicenter of our world, the place where virtually everything is done. It is where friends are made, where books and films are chosen, where political activism is organized, where the most private data is created and stored. It is where we develop and express our very personality and sense of self.

- Glenn Greenwald: “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State”

According to a survey conducted by the UNESCO, the number of Internet users doubled between 2005 and 2011. In 2011, 30.2% of the world’s population had access to the Internet, compared to only 0.4% in 1995. Estimates are that by 2020, between four and five billion people will use the Internet - well over 50% of the world’s population. Young people aged 15-34, who make up 33.05% of the global population, currently account for the majority of Internet users (see graph below).

Age distribution of internet users worldwide
Data source: Statista(2014); Image source:

For most, the Internet is an essential tool associated with great advantages and opportunities. However, there is a growing movement of consciousness about the dangers and threats arising out of the use of the Internet, particularly the way in which personal data is harvested and exploited.

A growing consciousness

Between May 6-8th 2014, more than five thousand digital activists from all over the world gathered at Re:publica in Berlin. Originally set up as a meet-up for bloggers in 2008, Re:publica has since become one of the most important events for activists to debate developments in the digital commons. Prominent at this year’s gathering were the themes of Internet privacy, and what has been dubbed a ‘golden age of mass surveillance’ - particularly framed within Edward Snowden’s revelations on the nature and extent of NSA surveillance.

Digital natives
Photo: Digital native, Source: Wikipedia

Within this context, young people are confronted with an impossible situation to navigate: on the one hand, they are growing up in a highly technologically connected society in which online presence is a pre-requisite. On the other, they have limited political control over the corporations such as Google and Facebook, who wish to profit from their data, and governments who are increasingly seeking to access this data and control the online environment.

Frequently, concerns about privacy and surveillance are rebuffed with the repost, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”.

So are concerns about a loss of privacy and mass surveillance by corporations and the state something that youth should fear?

Freedom, security and democracy

Although the globalised world is facing challenges that justify - and possibly even require - some degree of surveillance, the NSA revelations have shown that some governments do not merely use such technological tools for prosecution, but actually have a very complete picture of all citizens’ communication, or at least the means and infrastructure to get it at any stage.

History should have taught us a lesson about the dangers associated with surveillance. Repeatedly, repressive governments have used and continue to use private information of citizens to silence, persecute and oppress their critics. At Re:publica, Katja Gloger, a journalist and member of Reporters Without Borders, noted:

What the NSA can do technically can be brought to perfection in repressive political systems. And software products from countries like Germany are being exported to authoritarian regimes, which leads to the repression and torture of journalists.

But it is not just stereotypically authoritarian regimes that are engaged in this activity, governments in the West are spying extensively on their own citizens. Glenn Greenwald (2014) argues that:

It is not hard to understand why authorities in United States and other Western nations have been tempted to construct a ubiquitous system of spying directed at their own citizens. Worsening economic inequality, converted into a full-blown crisis by the financial collapse in 2008, has generated grave internal instability… Authorities faced with unrest generally have two options: to placate the population with symbolic concessions or fortify their interests. Elites in the West seem to view the second option—fortifying their power—as their better, perhaps only viable course of action to protect their position.

- “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State”

Glenn Greenwald also argues that the ubiquitous surveillance systems not only oppress and restrict organising movements or protests, but also kill the dissent in peoples’ minds. At the heart of the struggle of the Internet lie the same concerns that have been raised in recent youth-led protest movements. If we do not manage to control the mass surveillance and make use of technologies responsibly, the stability and legitimacy of democracies as political systems is at stake. The real question is:

How much surveillance can democracy withstand?

The political and legislative environment

Sarah Harrison
Photo: Sarah Harrison at the Re:publica. Source:

The legal implications of this mass surveillance were touched upon by another prominent and notable keynote speaker - Sarah Harrison from Wikileaks, who helped Snowden escape from the U.S, authorities and advised him to stay in Russia. She personally left the U.K. to move to Berlin at the end of last year after her lawyer recommended she should not return home because of the U.K.’s anti-terror laws.

Harrison stressed the depth and scale of the intelligence activity by NSA and called for an international treaty, which demands countries to grant asylum to whistle-blowers. She further mentioned the German government’s unwillingness to grant Snowden asylum and stressed the urgency of the situation, appealing to the Re:publica audience: “You have two months to sort your government out, folks!”

In fact, the legal protection for whistle-blowers is very limited. Transparency International reported that only four countries (Luxembourg, Romania, Slovenia and U.K.) hold “comprehensive or near comprehensive” legal frameworks for disclosures. This report was composed after the European Commission rejected the proposal of a law on the protection of whistle-blowers at the end of the last year.

The (lack of) legal protection of Edward Snowden is the best example to show how politicians have no desire to reveal their involvement, not to mention stopping it. Harrison condemns the treatment of whistle-blowers, explaining that, “the concept that information itself can cause harm is not logical. Actually leaked documents have enabled people to get justice.” And this is where Harrison brings the topic to the core of our political systems:

Governments keep everything private, but then collect all information about us, whilst it should be the other way round.

Christian Flisek from the German Social Democrats (SPD) believes that the recent developments will eventually cause structural change. “Code is Law,” he explains, “making those who master the code a substitute for legislators.”

Youth attitudes, youth action

European Youth Poll
Source: European Youth Poll: Mass Surveillance

In light of the unwillingness and inability of governments to regulate this environment, responsibility for managing which companies can harvest your data is shifted to the individual.

Attitudes suggest a growing critical awareness - according to the European Youth Poll, which surveyed young people aged between 16 and 27 from 43 European countries, 62.3% disagreed with the justification of mass surveillance for the sake of the fight against terrorism. Moreover, 83.4% of youth answered, “I strongly disagree” and “I somewhat disagree” to the question “My government is doing enough to reveal the extent of the mass surveillance programs to public.” Young people, by 60% to 34%, think that the NSA leak serves the public interest.

These attitudes have started to result in behaviour changes amongst young people. After Snowden’s revelations, demand for anonymous web services increased. For instance, DuckDuckGo is a search engine that enables people to surf on the Internet anonymously. DuckDuckGo’s use skyrocketed after the series of disclosures about the NSA and became a popular alternative to Google.

Source: The Guardian (2013)

Another anonymous search engine is Startpagecurrently handles 3 million searches a day. Similarly, the use of OTR (Off the Record) chat message apps that use end-to-end encryption such as Threema and Telegram has increased exponentially as people have sought to switch away from Whatsapp following security concerns and its acquisition by Facebook. However, the market share of these services is tiny in comparison to other high profile services, which are rapidly expanding their data harvesting services across the globe. is a web page that helps to visualize your trace on the internet and informs about useful tools to help you defend your privacy.

Although a majority of young people sympathise with Edward Snowden, and many are developing a critical attitude towards data surveillance, political pressure to truly stop the limitless scanning of data is not high enough. Too many of us rely habitually on the convenience of increasingly monopolistic Internet services, despite them exploiting and profiting from our data.

Maybe attractive and easy-to-use, safe alternatives to services like Gmail and Facebook in combination with increased awareness can change this, but they need to come fast. We are already close to being ‘humans made from glass,’ as a German metaphor describes it. Redressing the balance will take a combination of individual behaviour change and political pressure to strengthen legislation.

A way forward

Many European politicians now acknowledge the necessity for protecting privacy, reconsidering the relations with U.S-based services and policies, and prepare for a data protection act in Europe. But does this mean young people — those generations that grew up with the internet — are sufficiently involved in the political decision making about internet governance?

A few initiatives are taking first steps. For instance, NERDY is a relatively new network initiated by a group of young activists and international youth organisations who felt that it was time to get involved in how the digital future is being shaped. Another example is the Youth @ EuroDig 2014 which took place in Berlin in June, hosting a session about young people and Internet governance.

Glenn Greenwald described the Internet as “the epicentre of our world”. It is remarkable how true this is for young peoples’ social lives, and how untrue for the political decision-making. But we are left wondering three things:

When will serious steps be taken towards regulatingthe data harvesting by monopolistic corporations?

How will communication, especially of young people, be protected?

Or do we have to accept that there is no such thing as online privacy?

Team credits

Written and researched byTatsuhei Morozumi and Marie Wachinger, with support from Jacob Kreyenbühl and Andreas Karsten, edited byJohn Muir&Alex Farrow.