Recently, companies like Facebook and Google have been seeing an increase in scrutiny. Such companies thrive on the ability to collect and sell their users’ data, and fear the spotlight being shined on them – as it poses a risk to their operations. At this point, enough light has been shined that anyone paying attention with half a sense of privacy turn 180 degrees from them and run the other direction. The point of me writing this isn’t to list off the countless ways that these companies abuse their users (I hesitate to say customers), but rather to explain how YOU can help influence change in the technological landscape, at least in time.
I was recently thinking about what makes people use products and services that are detrimental to their own privacy rights, and I figured there were a few things that could play a part. The first would be how much people value their own privacy rights to begin with. The second, how informed someone is about the services they use, how secure they are, what is happening to their data, and how it can be used against them. It’s very hard to make someone care about their rights if they don’t already, which is why a huge part of the population’s apathy indirectly tolerates a system that regularly spies on them. It ISN’T as difficult however to inform people. Pointing people who do care in the right direction, (helping them understand policies and technology, even at a basic level) is key. As the world becomes more connected and as we rely more on technology for everything, one must look at the systems that serve as the framework for our communications.
Why does anyone use services like Google or Facebook (among countless others) to begin with? Oftentimes it’s because they’re “just there” when people get a new device. Services such as GMail for example come installed by default on millions if not billions of mobile devices. Other services, such as Alexa have devices purpose-built to use them, and they become commonplace in our culture. I look at these modern conveniences, and think of “innovative” inventions of the past that contained radium, lead, or asbestos, and how physically harmful they were – but how ignorant a large portion of the world was to them at one point in time. Physical illness as a result of a radioactive or toxic material is harder to ignore than products that invisibly threaten our right to privacy. Products that threaten rights rather than health are the kinds of tools that can be used to stifle a population slowly – on purpose. One need look no further than China’s insane “Sesame Credit” system to see how a populace can be controlled. You might be surprised to read that such a system is privately created and controlled, but just because a private company makes it, doesn’t mean that a political philosophy and affiliation with the Chinese government isn’t permeating its design. One must look at who is holding the leash. In fact, the designers of Sesame Credit collaborate so closely with the Chinese government, that public documents that make it possible to tie nearly everything a person does or anyone they associate with to their users – thus allowing control over them.
Trusting a handful of giant tech companies with nearly every aspect of our lives is a big step to this “noose” being tightened around the necks of the free world, and it gets tighter by the day. During the Snowden revelations, we learned that companies were being used through programs such as PRISM, to collect massive amounts of data on users of these platforms. There is no reason that these programs being made public would have stopped them from happening – people largely didn’t learn or care about the scope and magnitude of which they were being spied on – and shame almost never stops an unaccountable body like a big government spy agency. Therefore, the control you have to take power away from that system, is simply to not use it – avoid companies that have such practices and/or go along with mass surveillance – and then use, contribute to, and promote free and open source alternatives. Last month, I wrote about what it can take to start taking back your own privacy. The steps in that post admittedly require active effort be expended – as does anything worthwhile. I like to think that one of my strengths as a writer is not sugar coating things. I’d like the exercise this now as I tell you that continuing to use such services isn’t only hazardous for your own current and future privacy rights, but those of others also.
“What then will it take for me to take back my privacy?”
A willingness to learn, and if necessary, sacrifice convenience
Modern technology has and will continue to bring about amazing advances in communication and comfort. 10 years ago, I remember trying to explain what a smart phone was to family and coworkers. Today, nearly everyone has one. At one point in time the world couldn’t have imagined voice assistants, smart homes, or the Internet of Things. These technologies have become a large part of our world and culture, and it becomes harder and harder to not rely on them in day to day life, simply because the alternatives feel so inconvenient by comparison.
It can help you meter your expectations knowing beforehand that it will take time to learn, and that things like modern or user friendly UI isn’t always a given when it comes to alternatives. A willingness to learn will serve you well as you pick up new tools and educate yourself – and work through these inevitable inconveniences. There isn’t much more to say here. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it!
Understanding that it is in your best interest in the long term
Aside from the current abuses inflicted by these companies policies are the standards they can poison. Many if not most of the companies involved with these products and services are also deeply involved with defining standards of the web, security, and many other aspects and frameworks of technology. Aside from serving on committees of standards groups who make decisions that affect these realms, they also steer the direction of technology with the direct policy, for example often choosing to perpetuate proprietary standards that nearly everyone must use. Microsoft recently announced that they will soon be basing their Edge web browser on Chromium (Google’s standard). This means that the web (something that should be an indifferent standard to one company) will now even more largely be driven by Google’s development choices. Developers who increasingly create web services will no doubt prioritize one standard over alternatives due to time and effort needed to support them compared to the percentage of the user base that will notice.
Help filter noise and guide others
One of the things I like about this platform is that I can provide a degree of information and research that really can’t be found anywhere else. The reason I continue to spend time and resources keeping it going is because I feel it is important to counter the swathes of shilling and biased information that pervades the web. You’ll notice that I list a handful of sites in the about page so I can point people in the right direction. In this way I like to think I’m serving as a guide of sorts. You don’t have to start your own website, but knowing of good resources and being prepared and willing to inform others is important. I wouldn’t have found much information originally if there weren’t others from privacytools.io, prism-break.org, or reddit.com/r/privacy that were willing to help me. (See what I did there?)
If possible, contribute to individuals and groups that keep a look out
Groups such as the OSTIF help organize audits of important software that serve as the security and privacy backbone to the world’s technology. In the last year or two, I’ve been pleased to help direct people to them and their efforts, and I hope people continue to, as OSTIF’s road map for 2019 has been announced, and some of their current efforts have been presented as well as recent results of past audits posted. The EFF in particular does a tremendous amount of research and informing on these subjects as well. I would encourage anyone who is inclined and able, to contribute to the EFF and/or OSTIF, among other groups, there are several that exist whose efforts are worthy of your donations and put those funds to use by creating and promoting alternatives, as well as shining that spotlight I mention above.
People don’t realize just how close we are to losing our rights because a small number of companies (that are largely monopolies) make decisions that you, if given the choice, would probably want nothing to do with. I would encourage you to take time and learn about them on your own, become informed, spread the word, and be willing to help other people find their way away from “privacy asbestos” and to the world of privacy respecting technology.