The world is still reverberating from the stunning victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the US Presidential election. Having started off as a joke figure and throughout the campaign been derided in the media for his performance, he claimed a remarkable victory earlier this month.
His victory has left many media outlets rushing to interpret what impact a Trump presidency will have various policy areas, while panicked Democrats and campaign groups are already openly fearing the worst about US trade relations, diplomacy, and individual rights.
In the bedlam, the issue of online privacy has been largely overlooked, but a closer analysis suggests the signs are not especially good.
This might be a surprise to some people who, in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations back in 2013, perhaps think that things couldn’t get much worse.
There have been some improvements since then, with the mass surveillance programs Snowden identified being wound up, and a heated, but healthy, public debate about the balance between privacy and security taking place in the US, which continues to this day.
One thing is for sure, the US public is far more aware of the importance of online privacy and willing to take steps to protect it if necessary.
Trump on Cyber-Security
Which brings us around to Trump. Predictably, he has not been particularly detailed about his views on cybersecurity and online privacy, in the same way, he hasn’t about any policy.
The cyber-security section of his website is vague although he has committed himself to addressing the issue on his first day in office saying that he will “instruct the Pentagon and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a comprehensive plan to protect America’s vital infrastructure from cyber attacks and all other form of attacks.”
It, therefore, seems likely from what few comments he has made that he is going to lean towards security over privacy.
This seems to support his few comments on the campaign trail. He has for example stated that he supports to the reauthorization of the controversial US Patriot Act and with it the bulk collection of communications metadata (that is, the details of every email, text message, and phone call made by every American citizen, along with their internet records).
The other clear indicator of Trump’s likely stance can be seen in his contribution to the debate about whether Apple should be compelled to unlock the iPhone of one of the suspects in the San Bernardino terrorist attack. In a typically understated way, Trump called for a boycott of Apple products until they complied with the order.
It may not yet be clear precisely what policies Trump is likely to follow in office, but that has not stopped people from already taking steps to protect their online privacy in the wake of his victory.
Online privacy tools have already seen a spike in downloads since the election result came through. According to new data from app measurement company App Annie, encrypted messaging service Signal has seen a significant increase in downloads.
On 8th November (election day) it was ranked 98th in the social networking category on Apple’s US App store. By two days later it had risen to 34th. The Android App store saw a similar pattern with Signal rising from 65th in their Communications category on election day to 33rd two days later.
Encrypted email service ProtonMail has seen a similar increase, with a statement suggest downloads had doubled in the wake of the election result.
VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, are perhaps the most obviously way to protect your online privacy from the potential incursions of a Trump Presidency, and they too have seen a spike in subscriptions from the USA.
A VPN works by directing all your online traffic down a secure pathway to an external server. This encrypts all of your online data and also hides your IP Address, rendering you anonymous online. They have other perks as well, such as allowing you to watch geo-restricted content overseas, but it is the security benefits that are the main draw.
A VPN makes the job of the NSA tracking your activity and retaining about you almost impossible. Which is why VPNs are now so popular in the USA.
Of those that have commented so far, Tunnelbear claims to have had an increase in downloads of between 25% to 40% since the US election while Hotspot Shield has seen a 33% growth in downloads, and VPN Unlimited’s downloads have gone up by 32%.
So, whilst it is not clear yet what Trump’s presidency means for online privacy, it doesn’t look good, and US users would be well advised to take steps to protect themselves before it is too late. Many already have, and as they have shown, a VPN is a good place to start.
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