Paying for the free services
You may be already tired of hearing this, or at the least, you must have heard a variation of this—"if something is free, you may be the price paid". While I think this is cynical, I cannot disagree that it holds up true in many things we happily consume today.
Like it or not, we are in an era of transition—specially when it comes to the way we think about privacy. For the most part, we have been complacent in selling our privacy in exchange of some conveniences. We are complacent enough to let Google track our every movement, as long as it can give us turn-by-turn directions with live traffic updates. We are complacent enough to let Amazon listen to us in our homes, as long as it can order things for us. We are complacent enough to let Apple deny customers full-ownership of the products they already paid for, as long as we get shiny new gadgets to carry around. We are complacent enough to let Facebook get away with blatant disregard of user interest and exploitation of the public psyche, as long as we can check on what other people are doing.
This invasive nature is largely a product of modern consumerism—businesses need to make a profit in order to continue running a business. When we no longer want to pay for things they sell, they have gotten creative with how they can make money—they will give things for free, as long as we pay with our privacy. So, an email company is able to give free accounts to us while they can make a profit by advertising (or selling our information to advertisers). Some so called “VPN” service providers can give us free communication facilities by tapping into what and how we communicate. This is merely where the rabbit hole begins.
Since I am not in the thought-leading business, I would not try to get you sold on a solution. Current technology landscape is complex and multi-faceted. For the scale of course correction we need, it will take a while and a significant shift in awareness. Fortunately, we are seeing signs of conciousness and self-criticism about the technology and its direction in our post-Snowden world. We do not know if we would get there at all, but there are lots of smart people and organizations working to make these difficult pushes—and they could definitely use our help.
In the meantime, we also can be more concious about technology choices we make.
- Try to pick products and services that give user interest the priority. e.g., Try Firefox instead of Chrome. Firefox is open source, privacy concious, and does not include tracking. Apart from the regular mobile version, there is also Firefox Focus, which provides a more privacy-oriented experience for mobile devices.
- Try to pick products and services that do not track you. e.g., Try DuckDuckGo for searching. I fully switched to it a few months ago and did not terribly miss Google Search. If you still occasionally need other search services, you can still use !commands.
- Try to use general-purpose blocking tools. e.g., Try uBlock Origin which is an open source, less-resource consuming, general-purpose blocking software which works with many browsers to block invasive advertising/tracking. You can set custom blocking rules, as well as enable/disable it by web pages.
- Try to use products and services which has end-to-end strong encryption with forward secrecy. e.g., Try Signal messaging service which provides a secure alternative to popular messaging apps. They are open source and use well-tested cryptographic software.
- Try to pay for products and services which support free users by subsidising—"freemium" if you will. e.g., Try ProtonVPN instead of using dodgy “free” VPNs. They have a paying customer base who receives added benefits, while free users can enjoy a non-compromised core service.
- Try to pay for products and services with encryption, instead of services which do not. e.g., Try SpiderOak One for encrypted online backup. Some other popular backup and sync services do not encrypt what they store online.
- Try to pay for pro-privacy and pro-encryption open source projects when you can. e.g., Try Bitwarden Password Manager, which is a project that provides an open source replacement to services like 1Password and LastPass. Also, try Standard Notes which provides an open source alternative to services like Evernote.
- Try to support open source projects aiming to build pro-privacy strong-encryption based software. e.g., Check WireGuard which is trying to bring an open source, easy to use, modern, secure VPN tunnelling solution to the mainstream.
Of course, the above examples are provided as just that. I may use these services, but you do not have to. You are free to consider the points I have tried to make here, but please make any choices with your own sound judgement. If you decide to try though, I can promise that none of the above links are affiliated.