Striving for Privacy: Swimming Upstream

Introduction

The struggle is real my friends. Everyone seems to want online privacy, or at least be concerned about it. There are a number of sophisticated and easy-to-use tools to help people achieve more of it. Yet it still seems almost impossible to attain any decent level of privacy. Why is that? It’s a question that has been hounding me lately, so I wanted to work out my thoughts with you.

Not For Lack of Trying

If you’ve been around here before, you might remember that I went on my own personal journey to better privacy. During this time I took a look at a few key areas of my digital life and resolved to make changes towards gaining more privacy. More than a year since starting that, I find myself struggling to maintain many of those resolutions. That’s partly due to my own fickleness, but mostly I’ve encountered a factor I didn’t account for: literally everyone else in my life. As mentioned above, there are some great tools for increasing privacy these days. However, no man is an island, and the success of many of those tools requires the participation of those you regularly interact with. Probably the area where this has become most evident for me is that of messaging. I set out to use Signal as my default messaging app. It is end-to-end encrypted, can be used on both iOS and Android, and has desktop clients as well. I viewed this as an easy win for privacy in my conversations, but it turned into a big fat nope. I couldn’t get anyone, ANYONE, interested to a significant degree. And the same story has been reiterated to me from other privacy-minded folks who have made similar attempts. The majority of the population is content to use either apps made by known data-hungry companies (ie Facebook) or antiquated text messages. I’ve found similar struggles with other communication services, such as encrypted email.

Even aside from communication services, though, or tech that you use solely on your own, there is still a problem. Let’s say that you’re completely devoted to privacy, full tin hat level, but your spouse or family members aren’t on board. They could be regularly transmitting information concerning you across any number of services that you wouldn’t dare use, and there isn’t a lot you can do about it. And beyond even family, work at some point will ask you to transmit sensitive information (for benefit enrollments, etc), or you will purchase a home and need to send in documents with sensitive information. Odds are they will be using services that are not privacy focused. (I’ll save my rant for how documents are passed around via standard email for another day.)

Even with all of the modern tech we have in 2020, the majority of the population is still using antiquated or data-hungry solutions. And your life touches theirs at some point.

There Is Awareness

Why is this an issue? As mentioned at the start, it’s not that people are unaware. I’ve never seen a time where online privacy was more openly discussed among people in my life that aren’t even technical. Major companies such as Google and Facebook have even come under great scrutiny in recent times, all but being openly investigated for their privacy practices. So why is it that the majority of people still use solutions that compromise privacy, and thereby make it more difficult for you to escape them as well?

I’ve come to decide there are a couple of reasons for this. First, they have some level of awareness but don’t really see the depth of the problem. There are a lot of problems in the world (especially this year), and so privacy takes a back burner. They either register it as less important or, worse, impossible.

However, the other reason that people don’t do more, and I would argue the most prevalent one, is that they simply just don’t care. It might be said that this is still related to not seeing the true depth of the problem, but I’ve been shocked at the utter apathy people have regarding privacy. For many, so long as the tech does what they want it to, is easy, and is convenient then that is enough. There is little to no concern about what means are justifying the end. To this day I’m honestly not sure how to approach this. It’s very difficult to present any kind of solution to someone when they don’t see the problem it’s meant to address.

Conclusion

As a result of this, it’s very difficult to carve out meaningful levels of privacy. I’ve had to table many of my aspirations and find a hybrid solution, using private tools where I can and compromising where I have to for the sake of communicating with everyone else.

I don’t want to pretend like privacy is the ONLY consideration. There are certainly a number of tools that just aren’t developed enough to be used by the populace at large. Sometimes we techies have to step back and realize that just because we are okay re-configuring DNS for our household doesn’t mean Joe on the street even knows what DNS stands for. I get that. What I’m speaking to here is the presence of easy-to-use apps and services that are completely ignored for their more popular, data-hungry counterparts.

I have no solutions in this post, only observations. At the end of the day I think all we can do is make the best choices possible with the knowledge and means available to us. My hope is that as the awareness of privacy issues grows, and the maturity (and therefore adaption) of privacy-focused services increases, that it will just become part of the common consensus that these are the types of things we should be using. DuckDuckGo has been a great example of that the last couple of years, and I applaud their success. Here’s hoping for many more stories like theirs.

TLDR

There is a lot of potential for privacy-focused apps and tools these days, but until there is mass adaption by the general populace their effectiveness is very hamstrung.

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