The question of whether or not we can trust the technology sector has become increasingly more a part of our daily conversation in the United States and across the world, especially with the information we now know about their supposedly non-complicit place in the NSA’s PRISM program. I feel like the question is loaded, and I think that if we look at it with the right details in mind that we can get a reasonable answer as to how we should handle personal privacy.
Consider how important it is to you that your data is your own. How important is your anonymity on the web? What would happen if suddenly everyone knew everything in your cloud storage platform of choice? What if everyone could read your webmail? These are the foundational questions. For instance, I want people to be able to attach my name to the pieces I write on this blog, or else I would not use my real name and I would not tie the blog to my personal social media profiles. However, I definitely do not want people to be able to see all of my data. I protect my documents for personal projects, for school, my photos, my videos, and all of those sorts of things behind what I usually hope is a secure, encrypted platform. I consider my ability to choose what other people know about me and what I think to be vital to my freedom and my personhood. As we decide how we will handle our personal data (be it paper or digital), we must think through these questions.
Because I value my privacy as much as I do, I want to protect my data, no matter what. How should I go about doing so? Firstly, I want to explain what we should not do. Consider webmail and online storage. How many people pay for email anymore? I certainly don’t. We have become so used to email being free that at this point we balk at the idea of paying even a nominal fee for the service. It is a service, though. Gmail is not an cheap service. How does Google go about making the service worth offering? We know that they offer ads on Gmail. I personally do not have a problem with that. There are some allegations that they sell data to the government or private entities. I find that proposition less than likely, but I am willing to at least consider it as possible. So knowing what we do about Gmail (insert Hotmail, Dropbox, or any other “free” online service offered by another party), how should we conduct ourselves if we want to remain private?
The wonderful thing about the internet (and to some lesser extent, the web) is that it is ad-hoc. The internet can exist with or without Google, with or without ICANN, with or without most any powerful agency that we currently think about almost immediately when we consider the subject. The problem, though, is that the way we use the internet is becoming more and more centralized over time. Nearly everyone uses a free webmail service. Nearly everyone uses Facebook, uses Twitter, etc. The internet was narrowed into what we know as the web, and it is continually becoming smaller as the services we use become more and more centralized. With the centralization of power individuals lose power and lose freedom. Regardless of how good I think Google might be now, it would be difficult to argue that their vast power over internet will not become a trouble over time.
Thankfully, the centralization of the internet is not so far along that we cannot combat it as individuals. Moreover, the internet is a wonderful platform that is inherently mostly anonymous. We can generally be actively involved on the internet without repercussions in the offline world (if you know what to do). As I understand it, though, there are a few problems with the idea of moving towards a more ad-hoc network. Firstly, it will be painful. We are used to the power of expensive software made cheap through theoretically infinite supply used by users that number in the millions (recall that cheap or free software is often paid for through advertising). A small amount of advertising revenue per person multiplied across a body of millions (or even billions) very easily pays for the labor required to build and maintain these services. So we, as ad-hoc users, will have to pay in terms of cash or in terms of quality, at least for the time being. Similarly, there is the problem of cash. The tech sector is experiencing a massive boom, but whence does that money come? Advertising and the sale of private data, which is exactly what we are trying to prevent. So either we will have to begin paying for our software through other means, or we will have to rely on cheaper or volunteer software. Finally, some things seem to be best or most efficient when centralized. Can you imagine a non-centralized Facebook? How would such a protocol work? While doable, it would be among the more difficult problems to work through.
As I move forward with this line of thought, I think it is important how difficult these ideas will be to realize even in a theoretical sense. The ideas I am puzzling through require going back many years and redoing much of the infrastructure we have built up over the years. However, I think the goal is a worthy one. If we want to have any amount of individual power and personal freedom, we have to end this dangerous trend towards the centralization of data. My data is my own, and it should remain that way. Similarly, your data should remain yours. I am not comfortable with the idea that we should trust an entity that I think is good to store my data. As benevolent as I think Google is (and I really do think they have been benevolent to this point), I do not know what might happen in a few years or decades. I am not willing to leverage my privacy in that way. If we want to have any semblance of a free society, we must reverse this hemorrhaging of personal power and freedom. My data, the things I produce, are part of who I am. I own that.