When Data privacy is a matter of life and death

Data privacy

Human Rights Advocate Ethan Gutmann on the role of encryption technology in protecting human rights

Typically, the words “end-to-end encrypted enterprise software solution” don’t conjure images of life and death situations. The words “data privacy” and “cybersecurity” invoke stock photo images of malicious actors stealing personally identifiable information to sell on the infamous dark web. On June 29, 15:00 CET, Ethan Gutmann, shared with Tresorit, how data protection takes on a whole new meaning - investigating human rights atrocities being perpetrated against China’s Uyghur population, spreading awareness of them, and when possible, saving lives.

Ethan Gutmann is a highly regarded researcher, author, and human rights advocate renowned for his dedicated work in documenting and investigating the persecution of individuals, with a particular focus on China. He has made significant contributions by uncovering and shedding light on forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, revealing the widespread human rights violations associated with these practices. Through his advocacy and extensive research, Gutmann has played a vital role in raising awareness about these issues and promoting justice.

Ethan Gutmann is a committed user of Tresorit using its storage and encryption solutions to keep his confidential research material safe. Hear Ethan give insights into his latest works and talk about the role technology can play for data privacy in human right activism by listening to our podcast or watching the webinar OnDemand here. When asked about Data breaches Ethan’s response was clear: ‘Trouble is, the horse – the critical information - has usually left the barn a long time ago. The goal is to leave the barn door unlocked while the critical information remains in a locked safe in the farmer’s bedroom. That’s Tresorit. Worth every cent, in my opinion.  ‘

Data Privacy as a way to speak up

When talking about data privacy, Ethan Gutmann notes that while data privacy is a fundamental human right, he also believes, “survival is a more important human right. And having a child is a more important human right. Putting an end to the kind of persecution that I work against requires people to testify. At times, I ask them to waive their privacy completely.” For companies trying to comply with data protection laws, consent puts an end to objections about how they collect and manage sensitive information. For Gutmann, this consent is just the beginning.

As Gutmann, the author of The Slaughter and 2017 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, began his new book, he found himself interviewing a former prison-camp veteran, a young woman who was a virgin when the Chinese police sent her to the camps at age 15. During their last three or four hours together, he asked her to tell him “everything, every single fact.”  Gently, he explained to the young woman that while he understood that she would find giving this testimony painful and difficult, unless she shared her story of sexual abuse, “no one will believe you.” Recognizing that the young Muslim woman may not have been capable of telling her story to a male non-Muslim, Gutmann left her with his Uyghur translator, Rahima.

As Gutmann and Rahima drove away after the interview, his translator remained silent. “At first, I thought she was mad at me. Then I realized that she was in shock.” Despite the difficulties for everyone involved, Gutmann believes in the power of witness testimony because “these people have been to the gates of hell.” When discussing data protection as a human right, he reflects, “privacy is a funny word for me. I would say maybe, ‘security?”

For refugees from China, Gutmann says the cell phone is the worst thing ever created, going so far as to call it a “poison.” High-level Chinese security officials confirm that they exploit personal cell phones to monitor former prisoners, listening to their conversations with others. Removing the battery is the only way to prevent these privacy violations, an action not possible with all phones. Few prisoners escape the concentration camps, and even fewer escape the country. Nearly all refugees have family back in China, so “data privacy, in that sense, aligns with my mission. It’s absolutely essential. Lives depend on it. I work with people who could just disappear. In fact, I can’t even expose who they are because their family will face persecution if I do.”

Data in disguise

Until late 2019, Gutmann remained a firm fan of analog data collection. However, his experience traveling to and from Kazakhstan changed his mind. To meet the Kazakh refugees, he would have to travel to the authoritarian state where China’s long arm turns journalists into “spies.” Under the guise of a skiing trip with this foster daughter, Gutmann acquired a car made before 2005, “because it doesn’t have a chip. You can’t trace it. You can’t track it.” They put skis on top, bought a bunch of silly hats, and loaded up the car with snow leopard books and watercolor sets to support their alibi.  Driving from Germany required them to travel through ten countries, ten opportunities where border officials could question them and examine the car. Upon arrival in Kazakhstan, they turned off all devices, placed electronics in Faraday cage bags, brought out a map and a compass, then simply disappeared, erasing their electronic signature.

During the month and half in Kazakhstan, Gutmann used a traditional Dictaphone to record the interviews, disabling the device before traveling home, and interspersing electronic images across “junk data sticks.” Although he considered sending the recordings through FedEx, the employee quietly warned him that Kazakh border security would open the package and look through his data. This meant Gutmann would have to transport it himself to protect his interviewees. To travel home faster, he decided to drive through Russia - where he had more than a few tense moments at the Kazakh border where Russian officials researched his background online and argued about whether to detain him. Upon his arrival home, Security First’s Rory Byrne advised him never to cross a border like that again, telling him to use a VPN and share the data to a secure part of the web whenever he had an internet connection.

Gutmann’s interviewees place their trust in him, to tell their stories and to protect their identities.  When storing and sharing documents, Gutmann explains, “you can go with Google Documents. It’s out there. It’s free. It’s really fast. It’s very easy to use the interface.”  The problem is that “Google’s advertisers have access to your data because that’s how Google makes money. Are some of those advertisers operating in China? Yeah, because almost everyone is. So no, I don’t want these companies having access to this data at all.” Since nearly all large companies are potentially vulnerable to Chinese pressure - including Microsoft which shared its source code as early as 2003 - Gutmann needed a technology that he could trust, one that he believed offered the right balance of transparency, a clear mission, and security, explaining, “it’s hard because companies have to cater to everyone who’s out there. It’s a broad market, but this [investigative journalism] counts, too. And I believe it’s not going away.”

Acutely aware of his responsibility to his witnesses, the human rights investigator turned to Tresorit. Unlike Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive, Tresorit’s zero-knowledge end-to-end encryption meant that no one – not even the company’s employees – could access his information. He explains, “Freedom isn’t free. At some point, we all have to pay for services if we don’t want to lose our privacy. Google Documents are free, but maybe you should pay a little bit instead. You need people to monitor privacy, and that’s going to be a paid job.”

Using encrypted email, a VPN, and Tresorit, Gutmann set out to collect new refugee stories for his upcoming book, tentatively titled, The Xinjiang Procedure. He explains, “in the very beginning of this investigation, I went to a couple of companies. I said that I wanted to try out some products, and if they worked out, I’d let them know. Nothing worked out as well as Tresorit. Even though Tresorit wasn’t one of the ones that I’d set anything up with, I’m happy to speak out about things that work.”

Protecting these people’s identities and information is more than worrying about identity fraud or a compliance risk. The investigator needs to know that the secure communications technologies he uses protects their lives and their families’ lives. Gutmann related the story of bringing a witness, Joseph, to Turkey and then waiting for a US visa while the Chinese waited for Joseph to surface in Istanbul. “This is a spy versus spy kind of game. You know, it might sound dramatic, but these are issues of life and death. And imagine if I failed, right? So, I’ve really got to depend on certain things to be true. Like that Tresorit is absolutely secure for the client. Tresorit may be a little more of a premium product, but I think you’re getting significantly more confidence along with that.”

Watch OnDemand or Listen to our Podcast

Get a first-hand view of Ethan Gutmann and his work and insight into an audiences questions by watching the Webinar or listen to our Podcast.