My Journey to Better Privacy (Part 3: Social Networks and Messaging)

Intro

I’m on a journey to improve my online privacy. Search engines and web browsers have already been covered in previous posts. What discussion on this topic would be complete without Social Networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc)? I’m also going to include messaging along with them because they often go hand in hand (ie Facebook Messenger).

Why Does It Matter?

Social networks encompass a large portion of our online activity, and ironically are also one of the main outlets through which we hemorrhage data. Besides the risks incidents like the Facebook data breach present, why are we okay with giving the social networks themselves so much data? Even if you follow the argument that you’re a good person and have nothing to hide, it’s still disturbing to have a random party repeat back to you what you ate for lunch. Yet we tell things to audiences of thousands, and that data gets spread to servers around the globe. We have seen in recent history how old year books from high school and college have affected people’s careers. What if a decade from now what you’re freely laughing about with friends is completely socially unacceptable? There is a timestamped record of it anyway, and your picture is likely along with it in full HD. In the same vein, what if laws later change around the governance of that data and third parties such as governments or others can freely access it? The point is, we don’t really know how the accumulated data of our lives is being used today, much less how it will be in the future. Also, studies have shown that social media is just plain bad for you.

What Am I Going To Do About It?

Delete all my accounts!!! Just kidding. I’ve actually been down that road before due to a mixture of privacy concerns and trying to engage with people in person more. In the end I came back, and I don’t plan to delete them again. This may sound outrageous given this post is about privacy, but if you will remember I stated at the beginning of this journey that I was trying to strike a balance between full tin foil hat paranoia and living effectively on the internet in 2019. In my specific situation, I have family and friends scattered around the country and globe. I don’t often get to see them in person, so Facebook is a very effective way of keeping in touch with them. Also, groups we are a part of coordinate heavily through it, such as our Sunday School class at church. I use Twitter, Linkedin, and others to stay in touch with the tech community and post (hopefully) helpful information such as the entries on this blog. So, in the end a complete burn-it-to-the-ground deletion would not be the smartest move for me.

I have found over time, however, that there are ways to severely limit what information I give to social media. The first has nothing to do with technology, it’s discipline. I make a practice of only saying online things that I wouldn’t mind a crowd of strangers overhearing. Sometimes I remember this more than others, but overall the idea is to simply be careful what you say. Second, I use a web browser and plugins that block website components that want to spy on me, including those connected to Facebook’s like button that appears on almost every page. On mobile devices you can use apps such as Friendly to still get the social network content without as much bloat and spying.

There are additional steps I’m implementing, however. This is after all a journey forward, not a review of steps I’ve taken in the past. First, I’m setting a specific time frame during the day to be my social media window. I’ve gotten far too comfortable with randomly accessing it throughout the day the moment I experience more than a second of boredom. I think we would all benefit from learning to curb that impulse, and regaining some of the ability we’ve lost to simply just “be”. Second, in order to help reinforce this first goal I am going to remove the apps from my phone. I’ve tried this in the past unsuccessfully, because I would simply log into the web version. But this too is more about discipline than technology. Tech can make a lot of things more convenient, but our choices are still up to us. As a side benefit, I’m looking forward to increased battery life and mental focus.

As mentioned up front, I’m including messaging in this effort as well. I think it is even more sneaky in regards to our data, because we get the false sense that it’s private. You’re having a conversation with those closest to you, forgetting that any number of unknown entities could at some point access all or part of that conversation. I’m taking the same mitigating steps with messaging as those listed above. But I’m taking one additional step of only using messaging platforms that include end-to-end encryption. That means that your messages are protected on your end as well as the recipient’s, and no one in between (including the company hosting the service) can read them. For me that means using iMessage and Signal. iMessage is only available on Apple products, but Signal is cross-platform.

Conclusion

In the end my choices might not match what makes sense for you, and that’s okay. This approach allows me to stay in contact with family/friends and coordinate with groups who are heavily invested in Facebook as a communication platform. But it also allows me to reduce both the amount of data I put into these companies’ hands and the amount of time their products take away from my life. It also ensures that my personal conversations aren’t snooped on. I’m a boring guy with nothing to hide, but I’d still be creeped out if a stranger asked me about where I went on vacation.

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