Privacy in the Digital Age

January 14, 2022

Hey Internet.

Anyone who's known me for more than five minutes knows that I'm very much a fan of technology. I remember back in 1988, being fascinated by our TRS-80 Color Computer 2, not just the computer itself, but by the fact that my father was able to program it to do whatever he wanted it to do. It wasn't just an appliance. It seemed that with a little knowledge and the right keystrokes, you could make it do literally anything you wanted. It was the closest thing I'd ever seen to actual magic (and remains so to this day). Obviously, I needed to understand how this magic worked, and my father was more than happy to teach me. Thus, at eight years old, I started my journey into the rabbit hole of programming.

Despite the fact that this computer had been discontinued two years prior—we certainly couldn't have afforded a new computer—it was a fantastic learning tool. Turn it on and you're immediately greeted with the BASIC interface, ready to accept commands. You didn't even have to wait for it to boot.

Today, I carry around a computer in my pocket with vastly superior capabilities. I bet you do too. This computer however is a very different animal. It's loaded with sensors and software that track everything I do, everything I look at, everywhere I go. It even listens to what I say (although I've turned that feature off... hopefully). It reports all this information to Google... and God knows who else. It's all very Orwellian.

Why do I do this? In a word: convenience. It's very handy to be able to just reach into my pocket and look up who that actor from that movie is, or to immediately connect with a friend or family member, particularly during a global pandemic where meeting face-to-face really isn't a good option. It's a very powerful tool, but like with any other powerful tool, it can be dangerous if not used appropriately.

In addition to being more powerful, modern computers are different from my beloved TRS-80 in a very important way: they're much more proprietary. The modern computer has basically been commodified into an everyday appliance. When I look at the room immediately around me, I count over twenty devices with microprocessors in them. Every time I thought I had a definitive count, I realized there were more. Unlike the TRS-80, most of them cannot even be programmed by their end-user. The software that runs them was put there by the manufacturer and I, as the device's owner, am not allowed to touch it, with the possible exception of authorizing updates from the manufacturer... assuming those are available at all. Even the computer I'm typing this on right now has bits of software in it that I don't have full control over, though I've been very deliberate about the software I choose to run in order to reduce that.

For most people, the devices they use are opaque black boxes that they can neither look into the guts of, nor would they care to. They check their Facebook feed, watch a few TikTok videos, and move on with their lives. It's understandable. Most people don't really care. In the 80s, computers were the domain of the nerds. You had to have some level of knowledge to be able to do anything useful with them. This is no longer the case, and on the whole that's a good thing. They're quite useful.

The problem is that in the quest to make the computer more user-friendly, we've sacrificed control. If you go to Best Buy and get a device of some kind, you're going to have to jump through some hoops if you want to have actual control over it. It'll most likely arrive with proprietary software. You're not allowed to look at the source code that makes this software work. Despite owning the device, you don't own the software; you're simply granted a license to use it, a license that can be arbitrarily revoked at the whim of the vendor.

There are five companies who basically own 90% of the tech industry: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft (sometimes referred to as GAFAM). They want to maintain that market dominance and are willing to go to great lengths to do so. They all place an alarming amount of tracking software in their products. They know who you are, where you are, who you talk to, what you like and dislike, your age, gender, religious and political views, what you search on the internet, and so on, and so forth. The interesting part is that you "agreed" to this. Remember that nine-thousand page document that you never read and just clicked "I agree"?

They're not even necessarily doing this tracking for nefarious reasons—although that is debatable. They do it primarily to understand how their target audience uses their products in order to make them more useful (and addictive). Also, with the rise of the internet—another incredibly useful but potentially dangerous tool—we now have things like social media that track the bejesus out of us too. The problem is that in modern society, these things are becoming more and more compulsory in order to be able to actively engage with the world. "What do you mean you don't have a Facebook page?" Chris Were made a video describing this problem very well.

Lest you think it's all gloom and doom, there are things that you can actually do about this. This is why I'm a very avid supporter of the Free Software movement, even if I think Stallman himself (the founder of the movement) to be a questionable character. There has been a rather successful attempt to create an ecosystem of software that actually respects the end user's right to have full control over the devices they own. I've been using GNU/Linux as my primary operating system since the late 90s for this reason. At the time, it really wasn't very user-friendly, but it's made massive strides in that area.

I've also become less active on traditional social media in favour of federated services like PeerTube and Mastodon. There are other such services in the Fediverse. The Fediverse is a collection of services which, instead of being run by a central company, are distributed networks run primarily by volunteers. I made a video a while ago explaining what the Fediverse is and why I'm using it. It's pretty cool though. I highly recommend it.

Anyhow, you may think that I'm just being paranoid. Perhaps I am. Not everyone is going to care enough to bother doing anything about it. There are certainly additional steps I could be taking that I just can't be bothered with. The important thing is to know what's out there, why it might be important, and to make your own informed decisions. With a lot of this stuff, many people don't even know there's a decision to be made. I certainly haven't said anything new or ground-breaking here. I just hope that I've packaged it in a way that might be useful to someone.

Have a good one.