I have always been quite careful about acting, and interacting, online. Where I have to log into a site, I only ever do that using my email address and a password, I never select options such as ‘log in with Google’ or ‘log in with Facebook’. Twenty years ago I used the same password for everything; now I have a different password for each online account or website. I have never given my phone number to any social media platform. I have very few apps on my phone and have never paid for anything using my phone. I never enable the ‘location’ function on my phone, and I have never installed a QR reader or scanned a QR code. For many years I have used Mozilla products Thunderbird for email and Firefox for web browsing (although I do have Chrome installed for when a site doesn’t work in Firefox) and for a few years now I have used duckduckgo for web browsing, because they don’t track you, rather than Google.
This is because I don’t trust the internet. Or technology more broadly. My friends laugh at my old-fashioned paper maps and printed travel tickets, but I prefer them because they never malfunction and the batteries don’t run out.
Although I don’t trust technology or the internet, I do value them highly. I am writing this on my beloved laptop and will publish it on the internet for you to read. I enjoy social networking online and all the convenience and pleasure the internet offers in modern life. I am also aware that it comes at a higher cost than most of us realise.
This has been studied in depth by Carissa Véliz, whose book Privacy Is Power demystifies the data economy by explaining how much data is collected on each of us through our interactions with and on the internet. It is a lot more than you think. Data being shared about you includes highly personal information about how well you sleep, who you sleep with, how much you weigh, what you like to eat, whether you smoke or drink, what you buy – and more. Much MUCH more. That data is used to inform corporate decisions about whether to give you a job, or a loan, or a tenancy, or insurance. We have no idea which pieces of data about us inform those decisions, and no way to check if the data being used is even accurate.
Véliz says we didn’t realise what was happening, that it crept up on us because it is a new kind of power. We are used to some types of power – economic power, military power – but this was an indirect kind of power. Internet giants such as Google and Facebook sell access to their users and the ability to influence us through advertising. The services they offer are mostly free at the point of use, and they are also enormously exploitative and potentially very harmful. We didn’t have much choice about being drawn in, and even less so during the pandemic. But knowledge is also power, and finding out what is going on means we can make choices about how we use the options available to us.
Some people feel as if they have no choice. And indeed our choices may be constrained by all sorts of factors. But we all have some level of choice about which technological tools we use and how we use them. I haven’t used Facebook, in the conventional way, at all this year. I have logged on now and again, briefly, to find specific pieces of information I can’t find elsewhere. No checking on my ‘friends’, or participating in groups. And mostly I haven’t missed it. I logged on recently to find out about the dates for my local monthly market, and saw that it was the birthday of someone I had forgotten existed. Some of my real friends and colleagues are on Facebook, but a lot of interaction was along the lines of rather dutiful ‘likes’ of things I didn’t like, or wishing a happy birthday to people I don’t know.
I needed a new smartphone recently. I know my smartphone is a spy in my pocket, but at least I can leave it at home or in my hotel room if I choose – and sometimes I make that choice. I do not want any other personal or domestic electronic spies such as a fitness tracker, or an Alexa or equivalent, or a smart car, or home appliances operated by the internet. I can see the point but it feels, to me, like giving up too much control for what I get in return. The smartphone, though, is a different matter. So on my new phone I installed the few apps I like, one of which is Instagram. And I found, to my horror, that Instagram now only allows me to disable push notifications for a maximum of 8 hours. So to keep my phone free of push notifications, I had to interact with Instagram three times a day, or I would get irritating little pop-ups saying ‘Mizzlepoop, who you may know, is now on Instagram’.
I have uninstalled Instagram from my phone. I can still access it on my laptop, though of course I can’t post there. I may put it back on my phone, briefly, to make a final post. Or I may not.
I enjoyed Instagram. I liked it for keeping up with some of my real friends and family, and for learning more about what some marginalised people face. I learned a lot from following Indigenous people, people of colour, and trans people on Instagram, as well as from following people in different countries and continents. But I am not about to let a social network dictate what I can and can’t see on my own phone.
I have also started using Signal, and intend to move over there from WhatsApp at some point – I still want to use WhatsApp for a couple of things, but most of my messaging is now on Signal, and (thank goodness) I have always managed to avoid using WhatsApp for anything professional.
I want to do more. I now log out of Facebook and Instagram when I do check in on my laptop. I want to stop using Google Calendar and Google Docs – there are good alternatives, though I may have to persuade colleagues about the Docs one. I don’t think there is a sensible alternative to Google Scholar (if I’m wrong please tell me in the comments), but I want to reach the point where I can log off from Google and only log on when I need to use Google Scholar.
I may never be in control of all my own data, but I can certainly give less of it away. This helps to protect me against identity theft which can cause enormous problems. I can also use technological tools more safely, such as by using unique passwords and updating them regularly. This again helps to protect me against becoming a victim of crime. An article in the news only last weekend told of how a couple were accused of online child abuse because they hadn’t changed the password on their wi-fi router and someone had committed the crime by using their network. This caused multiple and lasting harms to the couple and probably to others too.
It is hard to educate ourselves about these things because they are both opaque and seductive. I am very grateful to Professor Véliz for her work.
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I’m totally with you about printing out tickets (just shove them in your pocket! no faffing around with PINs and apps and dead batteries), though I’ve stopped printing maps for most trips. Not that we’re travelling anyway…
And it’s a bit *too* convenient to just log into sites with a single account that ties everything together. I sometimes do that for services I want to associate (eg fiction sites get my author Twitter), but try to keep the other ones separate. It’s progressively more tempting not to bother.
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It is a real faff but I think worth the effort. I need to set up Last Pass, the hassle of doing that is putting me off but I know I’ll kick myself very hard if my laptop dies… I think there’s a mindset which wants all the convenience with none of the bother. And I seem to have developed this myself to some extent. Must counteract! Must counteract! (that was my Dalek voice in case you weren’t sure 😉 )
Helen, Thank you for this post – it’s very enlightening. I can highly recommend LastPass as I switched to it as it saves me having to remember passwords for each app or websites I opt to use. You mention possible alternatives to Google Calendar and Google Docs – could you share please?
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Linda, I got as far as finding some review sites, which I had open in browser tabs, but my IT person had to close them down before I got to the point of making a decision. I will get back there one of these days and then I will let you know.
Helen, Brilliant – and thank you.
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Thanks for your sensible advice, Helen. You’re an excellent model for how to limit the impact of the intrusive data-collection industry. I’ve followed your example in most respects, except that I don’t have a smartphone. Like you, I was impressed with Carissa Véliz’s book Privacy Is Power, and wrote a blog post about it: https://wp.me/p4CsLE-vi.
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Brian, you are way ahead of me as usual! I have now subscribed to your blog (don’t know why I didn’t do that ages ago) so I can keep track of your work. Thank you for your kind comments.
I’m with you on most of this. I print out tickets and I way prefer paper maps. You can’t get the big picture with sat nav, and the directions are often pretty poor. I don’t have the FB app or the Instagram apps on my phone. I have overall very few apps. I do feel the barn door is already open though and maintaining privacy is really just about impossible these days.
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Hello Cathy! I think you’re right that we can’t maintain privacy 100%. But the way I see it, there are small steps we can take to protect our privacy more rather than less, and it seems to me those are worth taking, because it sends a message to corporations – I know it often seems like what’s the point, it’s only me, but actually it’s probably not only me/you, it may be quite a few people, and only a small proportion of people need to take these kinds of actions for corporations to start taking notice.