Yesterday on Mastodon, I shared with dismay Facebook’s decision to impose ‘login via Facebook account’ on the Oculus range of products. If, like me, you have an Oculus VR headset, but don’t want a Facebook account, then your device is going to become pretty useless to you.
The subsequent discussion included a request not to share links to the Oculus blog due to the number of Facebook trackers on the page. Others replied talking about the need to visit such sites using Firefox multi-account containers, as well as ensuring you have adblockers and other privacy extensions installed. One person likened it to needing an “internet condom” because “it’s a red light district out there”.
I struggle to explain the need for privacy and my anti-Facebook stance to those who can’t just see the associated problems. Sexualised metaphors such as the above are illustrative but not helpful in this regard.
Perhaps a police tactic to contain and disperse protesters might serve as a better analogy?
Kettling (also known as containment or corralling) is a police tactic for controlling large crowds during demonstrations or protests. It involves the formation of large cordons of police officers who then move to contain a crowd within a limited area. Protesters either leave through an exit controlled by the police or are contained, prevented from leaving, and arrested.Wikipedia
The analogy might seem a little strained. Who are the protesters? Do the police represent Big Tech? What’s a ‘demonstration’ in this context?
However, let’s go one step further…
[K]ettling is sometimes described as “corralling,” likening the tactic to the enclosure of livestock. Although large groups are difficult to control, this can be done by concentrations of police. The tactic prevents the large group breaking into smaller splinters that have to be individually chased down, thus requiring the policing to break into multiple groups. Once the kettle has been formed, the cordon is tightened, which may include the use of baton charges to restrict the territory occupied by the protesters.Wikipedia
In this situation, the analogy is perhaps a little easier to see. Protesters, who in this case would be privacy advocates and anti-surveillance protesters, are ‘kettled’ by monopolistic practices that effectively force them to get with the program.
Whether it’s Facebook buying Oculus and forcing their data collections practices on users, or websites ‘breaking’ when privacy extensions are active, it all gets a bit tiring.
Which brings us back to kettling. The whole point of this tactic is to wear down protesters:
Peter Waddington, a sociologist and former police officer who helped develop the theory behind kettling, wrote: “I remain firmly of the view that containment succeeds in restoring order by using boredom as its principle weapon, rather than fear as people flee from on-rushing police wielding batons.Wikipedia
It’s a difficult fight to win, but an important one. We do so through continuing to protests, but also through encouraging one another, communicating, and pushing for changes in laws around monopolies and surveillance.
This post is Day 35 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com
If you use Google products such as Android, Google Docs, or Gmail, you may have noticed more suggestions recently.
On the other hand, suggestions made while I’m composing an email or writing in a Google Doc are a bit different. I find this as annoying as someone else trying to finish my sentences during a conversation. That’s not what I was going to say.
Some of these can be helpful, for example when replying to questions posed via messenging services. There are definitely times when I’m in a hurry and just need to say ‘Okay’ or give a thumbs-up to my wife.
In a recent article for The Art of Manliness, Brett and Kate McKay point out the potential toll of these nudges:
Some of society’s options for living represent time-tested traditions — distillations of centuries of experiments in the art of human flourishing. Many of our mores, however, owe their existence to expediency, conformity, laziness. Practices born from once salient but no longer relevant circumstances are continued from sheer inertia, from that flimsiest of rationalizations: “That’s the way it’s always been done.”Brett and Kate McKay
The suggestions in Google’s products come from machine learning which is, by definition, looking to the past to predict the future. One way to think about this is as a subtle pressure to conform.
Back in December last year, I was in NYC presenting on surveillance capitalism for a talk entitled Truth, Lies, and Digital Fluency. Riffing on Shoshana Zuboff’s book, I explained that surveillance capitalists want to be able to predict your next move and sell this to advertisers, insurers, and the like.
It’s an approach rooted in behaviourism, the idea that a particular stimulus always leads to a particular response. The closer they can get to that, the more money they can make. It’s true what Aral Balkan has been pointing out for years: we’re being farmed by surveillance capitalists.
Who wants to live this kind of life? But it’s not just the explicit auto-suggestions that we need to be of. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter feed off, and monetise through advertising, the emotions we feel about certain subjects. They are rage machines.
Stimulus: response. Let’s not lose our ability to think, to reason, and (above all) be rational.
This post is Day 33 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com
Self-hosting is the holy grail for privacy advocates. And I don’t mean having a VPS hosted for you somewhere; I mean having your server physically located on your own premises.
Messaging, including email, is particularly important when it comes to privacy. Now, there are three reasons I choose not to run my own email server:
- I have no desire to be a sysadmin, and these things can be fiddly to set up and subject to downtime.
- Due to the preponderance of spam, the big players have developed procedures and policies making it difficult for self-hosters to get their emails delivered.
- If my focus is privacy, well almost everyone else I will contact uses Google, Microsoft or Apple, meaning Big Tech will get my data anyway.
The third point is an important one to dwell upon, and is the reason why I continue to argue for privacy even in the midst of a pandemic. I can take all the defensive actions I like, but if my family and friends don’t change their practices, then I’m going to get diminishing returns.
In addition to the email example above, consider the following scenarios:
- Images — you have to be part of a social network to stop people being able to tag you, which is a bit of a dilemma if someone tags me in a photograph on Facebook or Instagram (where I don’t have an account)
- Location — when I travel, I’m often with family or friends so if they’re sharing their location, my location is also being shared.
- Tracking — when using shared computers it’s not difficult for Big Tech to associate accounts coming from the same residential IP address to make inferences .
This all might sound a bit tinfoil hat, but privacy is the reason we have curtains on our windows and why we don’t tell everyone what we’re doing all of the time.
I realise that we can’t turn the clock back, and goodness know privacy advocates have made some missteps along the way. But now we live in a world where both governments and Big Tech have a vested interest in the general public lacking what I’d call ‘herd immunity for privacy’.
So although it seems like somewhat of a futile task at times, I’ll continue to pragmatically protect my own privacy, and encourage those around me to do likewise.
This post is Day 26 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com