Working Toward a More Private World

As we have charged into the 21st century, the technology around us has grown at an almost unbelievable rate. The internet has gone from a novelty to one of the most fundamentally important parts of our way of life. Computers have shrunk from something that took up a whole desk, to something you can wear on your wrist, and carry in your pocket. GPS has almost entirely replaced maps. I could go on, but the point is that our digital lives have gone from 0-60 in the last 10-15 years. Along the way, our method of relating to computers and the internet has grown up somewhat organically, and perhaps without the average consumer thinking much about how it works. So, how does it work?

We pay to connect to the internet, either through a phone plan, an ISP, or tax supported wifi at the library. Once you’re online though, many (perhaps the majority) of folk have a completely money free experience! Search engines are free, email is free, facebook is free, etc. Perhaps you pay for content somewhere, like a news site subscription, or Netflix, but most of us never pay anything for services. Think about it. You probably use Google and/or Facebook every single day. They are valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Despite those facts, have you ever paid Facebook or Google for anything? Most of us probably (hopefully) know that they make their money by advertising. That doesn’t bother us too much because that’s how media organizations have always made their money isn’t it? Don’t network television and radio use ads to make money? Isn’t this just the same thing? Well, not really. When you listen to radio, they’re just broadcasting out into the ether, and (at least traditionally) had to rely on things like surveys to figure out how successful they were. A company like Google (or Yahoo, or Microsoft [Bing], or Facebook, Google is just the biggest) is actually PROFILING every single user, as much as they possibly can then selling advertising that makes use of that data. They want to know where you are every moment of the day, what you are doing, what you are thinking about, how hard you work, what your sex life is like, what sort of food you eat, who your friends are, etc. etc. The more information they have, on the more people, the better they can target their ads and the more money they can make from them. We accept that as ok, because they give us cool products that we don’t have to spend money on.

Why is this a big deal?

There are a couple reasons this bothers me, and I think it should bother you. The first is, it’s just downright creepy. Do you really think it’s ok that some people some where (you really don’t know who or how many) are collecting a profile of every scrap of data they can on you? On your children? On your grandparents? Even if you don’t think that having some privacy is fundamentally a good thing (do you close the blinds when you change your clothes?) there are a few other concerns.

All of this data is compiled somewhere, behind their corporate security. Usually that security is very good. Google in particular has very exemplary security, your data is relatively quite safe with them. Despite that, they’re also probably one of the top 2-3 juiciest targets on the planet if you want data on a bunch of people. We know that hacking is possible, just look at the huge hacks that happened in 2015, so it stands to reason that the more places that have our information, the more vulnerable we are. This applies both to criminals, and governments both foreign and domestic, as we know that all of those agents are attempting to violate people’s privacy and spy on them.

One non-privacy argument against these profiling practices is outlined by Siva Vaidhyanathan in his book The Googlization of Everything. This is a fascinating book I read some years ago about the cultural trends being shaped by Google and other massive online companies. The book is now about 5 years old, but still a good read. He argues that when a search engine builds a profile and tailors our search results to us, it creates an echo chamber where we lose sight of opposing view points. For example, if I google “Suishi joints near me” I want very specific results, that are probably the same as what you’d want, if you were standing next to me. However, if I want to educate myself about politics, and I google “Would Bernie Sanders be a good president?” I will get different articles popping up for me if my browsing history indicates that I’m a staunch republican than if it looks like I’m a staunch democrat. This means it’s harder for me to find opinions that differ from mine.

The last factor in online privacy is that there are US government agencies who are illegally spying on America citizens. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a fascinating timeline of this on their site. This is not tin foil hat conspiracy stuff, it’s known facts that the government and media have mostly brushed under the rug. The fact that companies are allowing themselves access to your data means that at the very least the NSA could hack their databases, and in many cases they just request or order the company to hand them over. Only by making it so that your information cannot be accessed by anyone but you can this be stopped.

Where am I going with all this?

My goal with this blog is twofold. First, I want to help my friends and family (and anyone else I can) go along as I learn how to protect myself and my family from identity theft and spying. I’m not a big geek, but I am dedicated to learning how to do this stuff so I can work towards a more private and secure life. That brings me to my second point. I may sound in this post as if I hate Google. I don’t. I think Google has done some amazing things, they’ve helped make the internet a safe place, they’ve invented amazing technology, and they’ve made all our lives a lot easier. As far as I know, they’ve mostly lived up to their moto of “Don’t be evil”. What I have a problem with is the model that they and other companies have come to where I am their product instead of their customer. I want to work towards a world where my children don’t have to worry about this, and digital life is automatically safe and private. Right now I fear we’re headed in the opposite direction. If we as consumers and users make mass shifts from ‘free’ surveillance based software to inexpensive surveillance free software we will send a message to companies that this isn’t ok. My next post will be going into some ways to do that, and what I’ve learned in the few months I’ve been studying this.

 

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