Privacy in a digital world

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Privacy — why?

Many people dismiss the need for privacy by claiming that they “have nothing to hide”. Let’s have a closer look at this statement and figure out why it is so ignorant and dangerous.

First of all, it is objectively wrong. Everyone has something to hide. Next time someone tells you he or she has “nothing to hide” ask them for their bank statements, their emails, and their instant messages of the last three years. When asked for such personal information, most people instinctively value privacy and are careful with whom they share this kind of sensitive information.

Second, it is logically flawed. The nothing-to-hide attitude is based on the presumption that everything hidden or worth hiding is criminal or wrong:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. - Eric Schmidt, CEO Google, 2009

A classic fallacy of composition: Just because shady activities typically happen in secret, doesn’t mean that everything non-public is obnoxious. As I’ve argued in the previous paragraph, even completely innocent and law abiding citizens will keep certain things private.

Third, and most consequential, the nothing-to-hide attitude leads to others having power over you. Having personal knowledge about you as a person gives others all kinds of possibilities to coerce you into doing what they want:

  • convincing you with more effective arguments (least malevolent)
  • manipulating you by exploiting your biases and weaknesses (malevolent)
  • blackmail and extort you with private information (really malevolent)

In either of these cases, you give up (some of) your freedom when forfeiting privacy.

Exactly this relation between privacy and freedom is my main point: Because privacy is a precondition for personal freedom it is so important for an open, democratic society of free individuals. Therefore, constant, omnipresent, privacy invading surveillance is a huge threat to an open society of free people.

Privacy under attack

Unfortunately, many governments and a lot of companies undermine privacy these days.

What can we do about it?

There are a lot of things each and everyone of us can do to preserve some of his – and other people’s – privacy. Each of the following advices will increase the amount of privacy you enjoy and might have a positive impact on other people’s privacy, too.

  1. Pay in cash & refrain from customer cards!

    When RAND researchers in 1971 were tasked with devising an unobtrusive yet complete surveillance scheme which the KGB would like to see implemented in the Soviet Union, they came up with an electronic transfer system1: digital payment records are simply an extremely powerful surveillance tool.

    50 years later, credit card payments, debit card transactions, and mobile payments are ubiquitous. Of course, all of them are tracked and analyzed. And one’s payment behavior is very revealing: e.g. income level, budget allocation, daily schedule and habits (payments are associated with timestamps and very often location data) can be easily derived.

    Only thing worse than digital means of payment are customer/loyalty cards. Because of the much more granular data about your behavior, the infringement of your privacy is much more serious and the conclusions drawn about you are much more personal: like e.g. price sensitivities, your rate of consumption and preferences about individual goods.

    Avoid all of that by paying in cash. Also, by using cash yourself you enable others to use cash: in some countries, digital payment is already so pervasive that businesses cede to accept cash payments completely. We have to avoid this situation for as long as there is no practical means of digital payment which respects your privacy2.

  1. Avoid data-driven companies!

    Do not use services or products by companies whose business model is to mine your most personal data and sell those as raw material or in form of predictions to others. Remember: If you’re not paying for a business service, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

    The most obvious companies to mention here are Google and Facebook, but also Amazon, Apple and Microsoft (this list is by no means exhaustive). These companies (or any data-driven business) will never respect your privacy, as it is either opposed to the core of their business logic (Google and Facebook) or their business interests (the others).

  2. Use Free and Open Source Software!

    Luckily, there is plenty of privacy respecting software around (see my guides at the end of this article for a good overview of privacy respecting software)!

    A precondition for your privacy being respected, is that the software is released under a free software license.

    A software being free (NOT to be confused with gratis) means that the software developers grant you the rights to

    • use,
    • study,
    • share and
    • improve

    that particular software as you seem fit. A technical requirement for these rights to be realized is that the source of the program is freely available.

    Access to the source code is the only way a software can be reliably assessed on whether it respects your privacy. Without this access, you have to trust the developers of the software, to (a) not violate your privacy intentionally and (b) not have made mistakes which can be expoited by malicious third parties.

    Therefore, whenever possible, replace proprietary programs on your computer with free software! Start with desktop applications, then proceed with the operating system, and lastly throw yourself at the firmware.

  3. Encrypt!

    The most effective technical tool to preserve your privacy in a digital world is encryption. Therefore, encrypt whenever possible! Encrypt your smartphone, encrypt your computer harddrive, encrypt your external harddrive, encrypt your emails, encrypt your instant messages, encrypt your different and strong passwords. Use a password manager to be able to leverage strong encryption with strong passwords everywhere without straining your memory.

  4. Speak up!

    However, using technology to protect our privacy will only help so much. Why? Because it means accepting a technological battle with companies and governments who will win this fight because of their superior resources in time, money and knowledge.

    What really matters therefore, is that each and everyone of us speaks up for his and her inalienable right to privacy. We as citizens have to make it crystal-clear to decision makers in politics and business that we will not tolerate being snooped on constantly. That we value our freedom and our civil liberties and are absolutely not willing to give them up.

Additional resources

This post is only giving a brief overview of the importance of privacy, how it is under threat in an ever more digital age, and what each and everyone of us can do to preserve his and everyone else’s privacy.

Luckily, there is plenty of information on these topics out there in the internet and offline. Please refer to this evergrowing collection of resources for more information.

  1. Paul Armer (1975), Computer Technology and Surveillance. Computers and People. Vol. 24 (9). See the archived version of this edition↩︎

  2. GNU Taler might be a solution to that problem but its adoption is still very limited as of summer 2022. Their approach might be making headway in the EU though! ↩︎