Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu: explaining why you should care about your technological privacy

-- By MalcolmEvans - 22 Mar 2017

If you already take your technological privacy seriously, this paper isn’t for you. However, if when reading about things such as the Snowden leaks, NSA spying, wiretapping (whether real or not), you’re initially alarmed, but then eventually tell yourself something along the lines of “it’s definitely an invasion of privacy, but I’m not doing anything wrong, so I have no reason to worry,” then I’m writing this paper directly for you. I used to be you. When people suggested I let go of things like my iPhone and Gmail for the sake of enhanced security and privacy I scoffed at the thought of having my productivity hindered due to using "inferior," far less convenient products. Yet, slowly but surely I came to realize that even if I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I needed to take steps to protect my privacy; I’m nowhere close to leading the charge, but I’m taking steps, and the following is the first part of my case for you to join me.

The Technical

The first hump to more privacy is getting over the fear of technology. Unfortunately, because the majority of Americans are deeply ingrained with the mindset of consumers, we learn to interact with products, without knowing how they are created. Over time, this unawareness solidifies into a seemingly unclimbable wall; so unscalable that we lose hope of ever seeing the side of enlightenment and simply acquiesce to our ignorance. But this shouldn’t be the case for several reasons.

The Ease

Increasing your privacy is easier than you think. (1) Part of you may have an aversion to doing so because of the assumption that increasing privacy requires being a computer wizard or completely overhauling their entire life, neither of which is true. In fact, there are many step-by-step tutorials that will walk you through things such as sending encrypted emails which will protect your email’s content from being read by entities other than the intended recipients, and proxying your web traffic (2) which makes it difficult for others around you (like in coffee shops) to view your web traffic, and can allow you to mix your traffic with others, which in turn will make it harder to isolate your specific activity.

The reality is that almost all things you can do to increase your privacy exist somewhere as a tutorial that assumes little to no prior technical knowledge/skills. I intentionally used the word “searchable” instead of “Googlable” because Google is not your friend when it comes to privacy because their business model is heavily centered on collecting information about your activities, including your browsing activities, and using such information as a foundation for their revenue model.

The Community

Before I started taking steps to reclaim my privacy, I wrongly assumed that doing so I would make me part of the select few who actually cared about privacy, and that I would therefore be alone in my efforts. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, I was pleased to learn that a robust, extremely dedicated community focused on preserving privacy already existed. For instance, the Tor Project exists to help people browse anonymously online, and works in part, because it is maintained by an extensive network of volunteers who are dedicated to furthering the protection of privacy. Another example is GnuPG which facilitates the encryption of communication.

Perhaps most importantly, in addition to established organizations that are dedicated to helping you reclaim your privacy, is the psycho-sociological tendencies of those within the “privacy community.” Specifically, the community is largely comprised of people who volunteer their time genuinely because they believe in the cause, and to that end, are open and willing to answer the questions you have, no matter how rudimentary they might be. This page provide a great example. In short, the standard tutorial provided to install a certain type of operating system didn’t specify how to deal with some of the quirks of dealing with Macs; so this person created a complementary page to explain how to deal with the quirks, just to help people down the road. This is typical of the privacy community and should help, to an extent, lessen any fears you have that you might be alone on an island as you try to figure out this “tech stuff.”

The Amount of Change / Work

I briefly referenced this earlier but it’s important so it bares mentioning twice. Increasing your privacy does not require changing how you do everything. In fact, there are likely a few relatively painless steps (3) you can take to dramatically improve your privacy. For instance, learning how to proxy your web traffic, and shifting away from products such as Google or Yahoo can increase your privacy and security. In general, the popularity of these products make them greater targets for hackers and listeners who want your information. As I phrased to someone recently, a hacker or listener finds it easier to do their job when everyone is in the same room, as opposed to when people are scattered in different rooms and buildings. Using alternatives to popular products that have a mandate to further your security and privacy is a first step, Specifically, you should find alternatives for emailing and web browsing, and doing so can greatly improve your privacy given the amount of time we as people spend on these two mediums.

Parting Words and Part 2(4)

Increasing your privacy will require you to step outside of your comfort zone. As a realist, I understand that I can’t get you to fully get rid of all your habits, and I admittedly haven’t gotten rid of mine. However, this essay hasn’t been aimed at convincing you to become a privacy guru, but moreso to encourage you to take the first step in understanding how you can go about reclaiming your privacy, and how to take steps, when appropriate and necessary – such as being in a café, making online purchases, or using the internet while traveling abroad – to protect your privacy.

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1 : When I say easier, I mean from a technological standpoint. It is not easy, for most, to give up technologies that make it “convenient” for them to perform certain functions, or to untangle themselves from technologies that have become deeply ingrained in their lives and way of being.

2 : This tutorial is designed specifically for those with Columbia email addresses, however, the concepts contained therein are generally applicable.

3 : I use painless loosely here, to encourage you that the technological rigor behind the steps is relatively pain-free, but again, the psychology of changing how you’re used to doing something, may indeed be very painful.

4 : In part two of this series (forthcoming) I’m going to explore some of the practical reasons why learning to increase your privacy matters, as well as some of the theoretical lessons we’ve learned from history regarding why unfettered, ongoing invasions of privacy can lead to the deterioration of a society. Stay tuned!


Webs Webs

r4 - 24 Mar 2017 - 20:03:24 - MalcolmEvans
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