Probably deeper than you thought. Here’s why.

If you are convinced that privacy actually matters, and you really want to lock down your cyber-life, as I am trying to do, there are easy options, like switching to Brave (or Firefox with plugins that harden it for privacy). I’ve done that. Then there are more challenging but doable options, like switching your email away from Gmail. I’ve done that. Then there are the hardcore options, like permanently quitting Facebook. I will be doing that later this month.

And then, finally, there are some extreme, weird, bizarre, and even self-destructive options, like completely unplugging—or, less extremely, plunking down significant sums of money on privacy hardware that may or may not work—or that works, but costs a lot. As an illustrative example, we can think about the wonderfully well-meaning company Purism and its charmingly privacy-obsessed products, the Librem 13 and 15 laptops as well as the Librem 5 phone, which is due in April “Q3”.

I’m going to use this as an example of the hardcore level, then I’m going to go back to the more interesting broader questions. You can skip the next section if it totally bores you.

Should I take financial risks to support the cause of privacy?

If I sound a little skeptical, it’s because I am. Purism is a good example because, on the one hand, it’s totally devoted to privacy and 100% open source (OSS), concepts that I love. (By the way, I have absolutely no relationship with them. I haven’t even purchased one of their products yet.) Privacy and open source go together like hand in glove, by the way, because developers of OSS avoid adding privacy-violating features. OSS developers tend to be privacy fiends, not least because free software projects offer few incentives to sell your data, while having many incentives to keep it secure. But, as much as I love open source software (like Linux, Ubuntu, Apache, and LibreOffice, to take a few examples) and open content (like Wikipedia and Everipedia), not to mention the promise of open hardware, the quality of such open and free projects can be uneven.

The well-known lack of polish on OSS is mainly because whether a coding or editorial problem is fixed depends on self-directed volunteers. It often helps when a for-profit enterprise gets involved to push things forward decisively (like Everipedia redesigning wiki software and putting Wikipedia’s content on the blockchain). Similarly, to be sure, we wouldn’t have a prayer of seeing a mass-produced Linux phone without companies like Purism. The company behind Ubuntu, Canonical, tried and failed to make an Ubuntu phone. If they had succeeded, I might own one now.

So there is an interesting dilemma here, I think. On the one hand, I want to support companies like Purism, because they’re doing really important work. The world desperately needs a choice other than Apple and Android, and not just any other choice—a choice that respects our privacy and autonomy (or, as the OSS community likes to say, our freedom). On the other hand, if you want to use a Linux phone daily for mission-critical business stuff, then the Librem 5 phone isn’t quite ready for you yet.

My point here isn’t about the phone (but I do hope they succeed). My point is that our world in 2019 is not made for privacy. You have to change your habits significantly, switch vendors and accounts, accept new expenses, and maybe even take some risks, if you go beyond “hardcore” levels of privacy.

Is it worth it? Maybe you think being even just “hardcore” about privacy isn’t worth it. How deep should one go into this privacy stuff, anyway? In the rest of this post, I’ll explore this timely issue.

The four levels

I’ve already written in this blog about why privacy is important. But what I haven’t explored is the question of how important it is. It’s very important, to be sure, but you can make changes that are more or less difficult. What level of difficulty should you accept: easy, challenging, hardcore, or extreme?

Each of these levels of difficulty, I think, naturally goes with a certain attitude toward privacy. What level are you at now? Have a look:

  1. The easy level. You want to make it a bit harder for hackers to do damage to your devices, your data, your reputation, or your credit. The idea here is that just as it would be irresponsible to leave your door unlocked if you live in a crime-ridden neighborhood, it’s irresponsible to use weak passwords and other such things. You’ll install a firewall (or, rather, let commercial software do this for you) and virus protection software.—If you stop there, you really don’t care if corporations or the government spies on you, at the end of the day. Targeted ads might be annoying, but they’re tolerable, you think, and you have nothing to hide from the government. This level is better than nothing, but it’s also quite irresponsible, in my opinion. Most people are at this level (at best). The fact that this attitude is so widespread is what has allowed corporations, governments, and criminals to get their claws into us.
  2. The challenging but doable level. You understand that hackers can actually ruin your life, and, in scary, unpredictable circumstances, a rogue corporation or a government could, as well. As unlikely as this might be, we are right to take extra precautions to avoid the worst. Corporate and government intrusions into privacy royally piss you off, and you’re ready to do something reasonably dramatic (such as switch away from Gmail), to send a message and make yourself feel better. But you know you’ll never wholly escape the clutches of your evil corporate and government overlords. You don’t like this at all, but you’re “realistic”; you can’t escape the system, and you’re mostly resigned to it. You just want the real abusers held to account. Maybe government regulation is the solution.—This level is better than nothing. This is the level of the Establishment types who want the government to “do something” about Facebooks abuses, but are only a little bothered by the NSA. I think this level is still irresponsible. If you’re ultimately OK with sending your data to Google and Facebook, and you trust the NSA, you’re still one of the sheeple who are allowing them to take over the world.
  3. The hardcore level. Now things get interesting. Your eyes have been opened. You know Google and Facebook aren’t going to stop. Why would they? They like being social engineers. They want to control who you vote for. They’re unapologetic about inserting you and your data into a vast corporate machine. Similarly, you know that governments will collect more of your data in the future, not less, and sooner or later, some of those governments will use the data for truly scary and oppressive social control, just as China is doing. If you’re at this level, it’s not just because you want to protect your data from criminals. It’s because you firmly believe that technology has developed especially over the last 15 years without sufficient privacy controls built in. You demand that those controls be built in now, because otherwise, huge corporations and the largest, most powerful governments in history can monitor us 24/7, wherever we are. This can’t end well. We need to completely change the Internet and how it operates.—The hardcore level is not just political, it’s fundamentally opposed to the systems that have developed. This is why you won’t just complain about Facebook, you’ll quit Facebook, because you know that if you don’t, you’re participating in what what is, in the end, a simply evil system. In other ways, you’re ready to lock down your cyber-life systematically. You know what a VPN is and you use one. You would laugh at the idea of using Dropbox. You know you’ll have to work pretty hard at this. It’s only a matter of how much you can accomplish.
  4. The extreme level. The hardcore level isn’t hardcore enough. Of course corporations and governments are using your data to monitor and control you in a thousand big and small ways. This is one of the most important problems of our time. You will go out of your way, on principle and so that you can help advance the technology, to help lock down everybody’s data. Of course you use Linux. Probably, you’re a computer programmer or some other techie, so you can figure out how to make the bleeding edge privacy software and hardware work. Maybe you help develop it.—The extreme level is beyond merely political. It’s not just one cause among many. You live with tech all the time and you demand that every bit of your tech respect your privacy and autonomy; that should be the default mode. You’ve tried and maybe use several VPNs. You run your own servers for privacy purposes. You use precious little proprietary software, which you find positively offensive. You’re already doing everything you can to make that how you interact with technology.

In sum, privacy is can be viewed primarily as a matter of personal safety with no big demands on your time, as a political side-issue that demands only a little of your time, as an important political principle that places fairly serious demands on your time, or as a political principle that is so important that it guides all of your technical choices.

What should be your level of privacy commitment?

Let’s get clear, now. I, for example, have made quite a few changes that show something like hardcore commitment. I switched to Linux, replaced Gmail, Chrome, and Google Search, and am mostly quitting privacy-invasive social media. I even use a VPN. The reason I’m making these changes isn’t that I feel personally threatened by Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook. It’s not about me and my data; I’m not paranoid. It’s about a much bigger, systemic threat. It’s a threat to all of us, because we have given so much power to corporations and governments in the form of easily collectible data that they control. It really is true that knowledge is power, and that is why these organizations are learning as much about us as they can.

There’s more to it than that. If you’re not willing to go beyond moderately challenging changes, you’re probably saying, “But Larry, why should I be so passionate about…data? Isn’t that kind of, you know, wonky and weird? Seems like a waste of time.”

Look. The digital giants in both the private and public sectors are not just collecting our data. By collecting our data, they’re collectivizing us. If you want to understand the problem, think about that. Maybe you hate how stuff you talked about on Facebook or Gmail, or that you searched for on Google or Amazon, suddenly seem to be reflected by weirdly appropriate ads everywhere. Advertisers and Big Tech are, naturally, trying to influence you; they’re able to do so because you’ve agreed to give your data to companies that aggregate it and sell it to advertisers. Maybe you think Russia was able to influence U.S. elections. How would that have been possible, if a huge percentage of the American public were not part of one centralized system, Facebook? Maybe you think Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others are outrageously biased and are censoring people for their politics. That’s possible only because we’ve let those companies manage our data, and we must use their proprietary protocols if we want to use it. Maybe you’re concerned about China hacking and crippling U.S. computers. A big part of the problem is that good security practices have been undermined by lax privacy practices.

In every case, the problem ultimately is we don’t care enough about privacy. We’ve been far too willing to place control of our data in the hands of the tech giants who are only too happy to take it off our hands, in exchange for “services.”

Oh, we’re serviced, all right.

In these and many, many more cases, the root problem is that we don’t hold the keys—they do. Our obligation, therefore, is to take back the keys.

Fortunately, we are still able to. We can create demand for better systems that respect our privacy. We don’t have to use Facebook, for example. We can leave en masse, creating a demand for a decentralized system where we each own and control how our data is distributed, and the terms on which we see other people’s data. We don’t have to leave these important decisions in the hands of creeps like Mark Zuckerberg. We can use email, mailing lists, and newer, more privacy-respecting platforms.

To take another example, we don’t have to use Microsoft or Apple to run our computers. While Apple is probably better, it’s still bad; it still places many important decisions in the hands of one giant, powerful company, that will ultimately control (and pass along) our data under confusing terms that we must agree to if we are to use their products. Because their software is proprietary and closed-source, when we use their hardware and services, we simply have to trust that what happens to it after we submit it will be managed to our benefit.

Instead of these top-down, controlling systems, we could be using Linux, which is much, much better than it was 15 years ago.

By the way, here’s something that ought to piss you off: smart phones are the one essential 21st-century technology where you have no free, privacy-respecting option. It’s Apple or Google (or Microsoft, with its moribund Windows Phone). There still isn’t a Linux phone. So wish Purism luck!

We all have different political principles and priorities, of course. I personally am not sure where privacy stacks up, precisely, against the many, many other principles there are.

One thing is very clear to me: privacy is surprisingly important, and more important than most people think it is. It isn’t yet another special, narrow issue like euthanasia, gun control, or the national debt. It is broader than those. Its conceptual cousins are broad principles like freedom and justice. This is because privacy touches every aspect of information. Digital information has increasingly become, in the last 30 years, the very lifeblood of so much of our modern existence: commerce, socialization, politics, education, entertainment, and more. Whoever controls these things controls the world.

That, then, is the point. We should care about privacy a lot—we should be hardcore if not extreme about it—because we care about who controls us, and we want to retain control over ourselves. If you want to remain a democracy, if you don’t want society itself to become an appendage of massive corporate and government mechanisms, by far the most powerful institutions in history, then you need to start caring about privacy. That’s how important it is.

Privacy doesn’t mainly have to do with hiding our dirty secrets from neighbors and the law. It mainly has to do with whether we must ask anyone’s permission to communicate, publish, support, oppose, purchase, compensate, save, retrieve, and more. It also has to do with whether we control the conditions under which others can access our information, including information about us. Do we dictate the terms under which others can use all this information that makes up so much of life today, or does some central authority do that for us?

Whoever controls our information controls those parts of our lives that are touched by information. The more of our information is in their hands, the more control they have over us. It’s not about secrecy; it’s about autonomy.


Part of a series on how I’m locking down my cyber-life.