The ExpressVPN Future of Privacy Scholarship

Submissions for the 2017 competition are now closed.

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Introduction

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The ExpressVPN Future of Privacy Scholarship was created to raise awareness of internet privacy and security.


The way we use the internet is shaping the future of our education system.

According to new information obtained by ExpressVPN, 99% of classrooms across the U.S. will be equipped with unprotected high-speed broadband by 2018. But this growing connectivity threatens our privacy and makes us increasingly vulnerable to surveillance.

As more and more students bring their internet-ready devices to class, awareness of basic online security and a fundamental understanding of privacy rights are more important than ever.

Past Winners

2017
2016
Winner
Winner
Elizabeth Fijalkiewicz
University of Minnesota
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2017 Scholarship Winner

Topic:

It’s 2027 and government surveillance on citizens’ internet activities is legal, in force, and widespread. Governments worldwide are watching everything you’re doing. What happens to art, culture, innovation, scientific research, freedom of expression, etc.?

She enters the Library of Congress, heart pounding, palms sweaty, carrying nothing with her but today’s paper and her life’s work pressed carefully between the pages of the classifieds. She passes an old man reading the same paper she has clutched in her hands, today’s date sprawled across the front page; March 18th, 2027. It’s a momentous day; she hopes someday history remembers it.

It has been eight years since the government gave itself full freedom to monitor the digital activities of every citizen, including everything from your exact GPS location, to where you bought your morning coffee. She can’t even check out a book here without it being tracked. So instead she had spent her days in the medical library with meticulous hand-written notes and every book she could find about cancer, each of them back on their shelves by nightfall. She had carried on this tedious work with the maddening knowledge that the information she sought was never more than a few clicks away.

Citizen’s data had been used, among other things, for voter redistricting, and their democratic republic had covertly transformed into a corrupt authoritarian entity. Anything that did not help the bottom line of the corporations that now held the government’s purse strings was prohibited. The simple, cost-effective cure she had discovered instead of lengthy, expensive treatments would find her in much the same predicament as Gallileo, Lavoisier, Oldenburg, and the countless others before her who had challenged the world in the name of science.

But unlike history, she is not a lone scholar, but part of a vast underground network of doctors, researchers and scientists, secretly spreading information. They have been careful to leave behind no digital foot prints, nothing but an obsolete physical paper trail no one would think to follow.

She turns down the 7th row and searches the 4th shelf, because just like any rebellion, they thrived on hope, and symbols held a certain power. She pulls down volume 17, coated in dust (it’s tax code and carries little threat of ever being read on purpose), opens to page 76 and leaves a dozen or so pages of hope to be spread to millions.

As she leaves, she passes the old man with the newspaper, and he does not make eye contact, but gives a nearly imperceptible nod of his head which she does not outwardly acknowledge.

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2016 Scholarship Winner

Topic: We Own the Future

Picture yourself in 2050. How will the evolution of the Internet affect our social structure and/or the authority governments have over citizens?

As I step outside for the first time in days, my eyes struggle to adjust to the glare. Activated by the sunlight, the GPS in my contacts orients itself and points me in the direction of SeCUREity’s Madison headquarters. Thanks to the incessant growth of technology and the Internet, much of a middle-class urban resident’s daily life occurs online. It’s 2050 now, and I’m on my way to an in-person meeting that could shape the next few years of my life.

2045 was the year everything changed. For decades, scientists had been relentlessly working towards more interactive and collaborative technologies. Although they’d been struggling since the mid-2030s, June 13th, 2045 marked a breakthrough. A leading technology company, Eyeful, Inc., released their incredible “WorldView” Internet-enabled contact lenses. These were created to project the online world into the air before a user, enabling them to navigate through the resulting holograph using their hands. Unfortunately, for the contacts to work, users had to temporarily upload their minds’ content to the Internet, with the optic nerve as the lenses’ link to their brain. But because the technology had not advanced enough to support a complete upload, users would have to sync and take down their brain content every day. The necessity of this coming and going, along with the inadequacy of the existing security made established protection for the digital brains impossible, leaving them vulnerable to private agencies and individuals trying to reap information. Nevertheless, school and work could now be easily attended online and at home. With so much ease and relative convenience, contact usage quickly encompassed almost everyone’s lives.

But it didn’t take long for the government to realize that the contacts posed a huge security risk. Masquerading as a reasonable effort to safeguard citizens everywhere, the Digital Brain Activity Protection Act was passed on September 6th, 2045. Under this act, WorldView contact users would be required to install government-issued firewalls around their digital brains. Although these firewalls worked well to keep prying companies and criminals at bay, they were hiding something--a filter heavily censoring a variety of sites deemed “suspicious” by the government. This news emerged after 6 weeks of firewall use, and a public uproar ensued. Most people agreed that the firewalls themselves were reasonable, but undisclosed censorship was reprehensible. As a result, curious citizens were unable to do non-work-related research. Families were unable to connect with children on the other side of the world because the only permitted communication sites weren’t available in some other countries. But no matter how much picketing, protesting, and petitioning occurred, the government refused to back down.

The proceeding uproar has continued for almost 5 years, but an alternative has finally arisen. SeCUREity is a company dedicated to providing Internet privacy, safety, and freedom all in one package. Their protective Internet service acts as a flexible, filtering shield around a user’s brain as they navigate the web, keeping potentially harmful people and information out. Because it travels with the user, SeCUREity allows people to freely explore the Internet without concern for their privacy and safety. It’s easily added as an implant to the WorldView contacts, where it encrypts each piece of data from a user’s brain as it uploads to the Internet. With this technique, SeCUREity provides a convenient opportunity for the government to ease up on restrictions and resume protecting instead of controlling its people. That’s why I set out this morning on my way to obtain SeCUREity’s service with a hope that I, and surely many others, haven’t felt in a long while--that soon, I could be free.

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2016 Scholarship First Runner-up

Topic: We Own the Future

Picture yourself in 2050. How will the evolution of the Internet affect our social structure and/or the authority governments have over citizens?

An old man sits on his comfortable couch, looking out the window, watching the trees sway with the gentle breeze and the birds singing. A large screen on the wall updates to show the weather: 68 degrees with a light west breeze, 10:17 a.m. May 3, 2050. A moment later his eyeglasses flash with the same update. The old man glances over to the glasses sitting on the table, a fine layer of dust accumulating on them.

An electronic jingle from the wall screen grabs the old man's attention, and he turns to see the notice on the screen. It indicates that a Mr. Garvey is driving up the driveway and will be at the door momentarily. He reluctantly lifted himself up off the couch and walks toward the front door. He waits patiently, gazing at the camera feed and opens the door just as Mr. Garvey arrives at the door.

Mr. Garvey looks at the old man with a startled look on his face, with a toothy grin looking back at him. “Oh, I, I, uh, wasn't expecting you, uh, to be-”er how much picketing, protesting, and petitioning occurred, the government refused to back down.

“You thought I was dead, didn't you?” the old man said, smiling.

“Well, yes I did, actually.” Mr. Garvey replied “according to your personal data feed, you haven't moved in six days. Your house's inside camera feeds seem to be partially blocked by houseplants and there has been no significant internet activity in the past week. As your assigned social caregiver, I am required by federal law to ensure your well-being and monitor your general health, and our network indicated you might be deceased or possibly 'off-grid'.”

The old man sighed. “I guess you're thinking I could be one of those 'privacy fundamentalists' you young people see in the news feeds. Well, I'm sorry to tell you, I'm just old-fashioned, I'm no longer receiving cultural updates. I don't care to look at the world through transparent screens, even if it enhances my vision. I keep my screen on the weather channel because that's the only kind that interests me. All those other feeds, webnet news? Heck, people have been complaining about government, politicians, taxes, the economy, civil rights, rich people, guns, crime, and everything else under the sun since before I was born! I lost interest in those arguments and conversations when I was your age.”

“I am fully aware that your government databases have flagged me as a case that requires further scrutiny. One of you government employees actually show up to my door every few months to check up on me as the file gets passed around. For your system and for people your age, old men like me don't really fit in to current society anymore. You know what, I'm fine with that. Societies are meant to change as well as the people in it, I just change at my own pace.”

Mr. Garvey had a look of bewilderment on his face, so the old man grabbed his jacket and walked out the front door, closing it behind him. “Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going down to the community center to flirt with the old ladies.”

As the old man walked down the path, Mr. Garvey turned around to face him and asked “Aren't you going to let your car drive you there? You would get there in five minutes.”

“It's a nice day today” the old man replied. “I'm going to walk.”

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2016 Scholarship Second Runner-up

Topic: Privacy Advocates

Discuss the logic of this famous quote by Edward Snowden:

“Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

The Indivisibility of Freedom

In December of 2014, Forbes published the article, “Let’s Face It, We Don’t Really Care about Privacy,” in which the author argues that we as consumers have chosen cost convenience and digital personalization over privacy. The algorithms engineered by Internet giants like Google and Facebook have customized everything from the ads we see to our search results, allowing each of us to live in our own digital microcosm. This personalization seems to have perpetuated the idea that anything not directly relevant to our lives is unworthy of our time. It follows that we are seldom willing to fight for principles or freedoms that we do not think we “need,” privacy being one. The fallacy in this logic, though, is that we are looking at freedom as something that can be compartmentalized, as if freedom of every kind is not built on privacy, as if autonomy does not require room for independent thought and action.

Our nation’s earliest leaders considered privacy important enough to make it a Constitutional right. The Fourth Amendment protects United States citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures” unless the state has “probable cause” to believe the law is being broken. If a citizen does provide probable cause, he or she surrenders his or her right to privacy. Our First Amendment right to freedom of speech is similarly limited. We may say anything we wish so long as we are not committing slander, making threats, committing treason, etc. This freedom within the limits of the law stems from the democratic concept of the social contract—citizens exchange a certain measure of freedom for protection from the state.

When Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the National Security Agency in June of 2013, citizens were outraged at the government’s breach of our social contract. Digital information American citizens thought they had kept private was in fact available for what many would consider “unreasonable search and seizure.” We did not provide probable cause, but the NSA searched anyway. Despite widespread backlash, some argue that the government should have access to all of this information, as those who have nothing to hide should also have nothing worry about. Calling on the Bill of Rights to remind us how crucial privacy is, Snowden responded to this opinion by saying, “Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” History has proven that failure to speak on behalf of those whose rights are being infringed upon, even if you are not one of the oppressed, can have serious ramifications. Holocaust survivor Martin Niemöller’s poem “First They Came” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) poignantly illustrates the danger of only concerning ourselves with our own freedom.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Perhaps our Founding Fathers guaranteed us the right to privacy for the same reason they guaranteed us every other freedom in the Bill of Rights. They recognized the indivisibility of freedom. They knew restriction of privacy breeds restriction of independent thought, and restriction of thought breeds restriction of every freedom and right we hold dear.

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