Our Work, Your Show: Fearless Freedom to Counter Data Control

As the industrial complex takes over an increasingly digital world, a free software proponent situates the question of privacy and the kind of value system that would emerge from its reclamation

Throughout history, and in the current day as well, we find numerous instances of absolute power, its malicious use and the fights of those it oppresses. While a bulk of these fights are incessant, with the aid of technology they have either become more difficult, or a lost cause already.

If you reflect on almost any form of power today, you might find that it is aided and empowered and consolidated via software. Even when software and technology aids those who desire power, it equally aids those who want to fight against such power. One of the simplest ways of “opting out” of others’ power and control over us is to make different choices with regards to the software that we use.

To begin with, a service provided as a substitute for software, a document collaboration system, a business management or accounting system, an email service and so on, give the software developer a unique type of lock-in — they get access to all the data we create or operate upon with that software. For instance, when we use Google Docs to edit, share and collaborate on files, Google scans the documents for what it might consider a violation of its terms of service (ToS). These scans are done automatically, via a program due to scale. To flag a document as something that violates its ToS, its programs have to obviously read these documents. Now, in 2017, many users were reportedly locked out of their documents on Google Doc because they apparently violated Google’s ToS. What was shocking though, was that the documents were harmless. It turned out, that the problem was not the content, but a glitch in the software itself. Google passed this incident off as an oversight, but it does point to two critical issues: first, Google can lock us out of our mailboxes or documents without telling us and for reasons that are beyond our comprehension; and second, it is the nature of software to have bugs in it. When such bugs affect our daily lives and lock us out of our data that is not admissible.

This only points to the power Google has over us and what they can resort to on their own volition.

A way this situation could be avoided is if we edited the documents using software running on our own computers. Yes – even that software could have bugs and such bugs could impede our ability to do our work. However, what we write is not getting monitored by someone else (unless we explicitly publish something and want others to read it).

Similarly, encouraging users to convert to apps instead of web browsers is another way of getting more information from them. For instance, ever wondered why shopping websites keep encouraging you to use their apps, even when it might be perfectly possible to use them via web-browsers?

While websites and web-applications are getting better at tracking us and profiling us, they will never have access to as much personal data as a mobile application does. It is also true that a lot more data on our phones is very valuable to those who wish to track us and know so much more about us.

So, while WhatsApp might not know what we talk about with others, they do know whom we talk to. They then share this data with their parent company, Facebook, which then builds large databases around our connections, how frequently we communicate with them, for how long and whether it is just messages or even voice/video calls.

Similarly, a shopping website can co-relate our shopping choices with our contacts, location, size of shopping expenditure and choice of payment methods. It cannot get all this information if we only use its website. It can get all this information if we use its mobile application.

Similarly, a shopping website can co-relate our shopping and payment choices with our contacts, location, call logs and messages – things that are only available on our phones. Using their mobile application, then, puts them in a great position to know so much more about us and use that to build richer profiles of us. While using these profiles for targeted advertisements seems harmless, the scary part is when this data is made available to third-parties or used to influence other aspects of our lives and decision making.

Once we enter the space of personal phones and applications, a whole other set of questions open up – can applications dictate what other applications we get to keep on our phones (like PayTm has done in the name of security, though it could very well be used to eliminate competition); and what other applications enter our phones using these as gateway – such as spyware?

Eva Galperin, the Director of Security at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), gave a very popular Ted talk on this subject recently:

Almost all of the forms of software describe above have one unique thing in common: they purport to provide us with a unique experience by knowing a whole lot about us. Their ability to know something about us, of course, rests on our consent. What is it that is possible for someone to know about us just by using their software or visiting their website? Quite a lot, actually. But, apparently, not enough.

An excellent way to know more about us is to surround us with more “sensors” – things that can hear us or talk to us or know where we are or know our choices (shopping / music / movies / books), the layout of our homes and so on. Since these are not that easy (or even possible to do) via traditional computers, software developers build enticing hardware products that contain sufficient software to sense us and send this sensory data back to their developers.

An alarming example of the way such data can be detrimental to our lives is from as recent as the early days of this year. Many cyclists use applications on their phones to record their cycling tracks. There are communities on the Internet where details of such cycling workouts can be shared publicly as well.

A critical thing to recording one’s track is a mapping application – such as Google maps. When we use google maps for tracking a route or a location on a mobile device, it also records our location in its location history (this can be disabled as well). Similarly recording a track, saves all the tracking data on Google servers.

Hence, when the police need to know who was close to a scene of crime during the crime’s time-window, they can ask Google for the locations of any people who might have been in the vicinity. That is what happened in Florida early this year, when an innocuous cyclist became a key suspect in a burglary case because he lived about a kilometre from the location of the crime, and had his location services on, which the police used to detect suspects.

There are many other documented cases of privacy issues arising from the use of mapping applications, as well as home devices which use audio recording. It is well known by now that the companies building such hardware could record whatever it hears in its vicinity, which are then heard by human beings working at the company or even with third-party contractors. But the fact that these can be handed over to law-enforcement when the premise becomes a crime scene, and turned into incriminating evidence against you raises questions of privacy that the 21st Century must address.

There is yet another form of power that gets asserted by software who’s primary function is to “connect us to other people”. When such software systems become large and popular and serve thousands of users, they enter into a unique problem space — they are now at the “centre of the Internet”. Anyone who wants to solve their social networking problem now has to go to this service provided by their software.

Given that they operate in the realm of “connecting people socially”, they can now exert considerable power in terms of just how they allow us to do so. If they lock us out of their networks (they have the key and wherewithal, after all), we lose the connection to our friends and consequently, our ability to communicate with them as well.

For example, Twitter has a history of banning accounts across its micro-blogging websites and social media platform. While one could speculate widely on the reason behind such twitter account suspensions, the truth is that there is no clear or transparent process around this and Twitter does not have to cite any reasons for doing this. However, we do need to keep reminding ourselves that Twitter is not a public service but a corporation and is really free to do whatever it wishes on its website. The question we must ask here is how much we must rely on such platforms, and whether centralisation of this sort is truly ever an answer.

When a single entity builds software that encompasses all these forms of software, they have endless power and hence, control our lives. Together, this form of developing, distributing and using software creates an “industrial complex” where the software developers “pursue their interests regardless of, and often at the expense of, the best interest of society and individuals. The businesses within an industrial complex might have been created to advance a political or social goal, but mostly profit when the goal is not reached. The industrial complex may benefit financially” (or in terms of its consolidation of power) “by maintaining socially detrimental or inefficient systems”.

Information about us and control over us (at the cost of our privacy and freedom) is, hence, the most important face that imparts and consolidates power into such “industrial complexes”.

How do we regain power? The way out can be very complex.

Much of the convenience that we draw from the software, hardware and Internet services that we now use has become central to our lives. Some of these might even be addictive in nature!

While there might be a short-term side-effects in terms of productivity and convenience, these are important things to do on our long road to freedom from others’ power over us:

The first step is to eliminate (or limit) the tool that enables others’ power over you.

Can we carefully audit our use of various forms of software, hardware and Internet services to check just how much power someone else might have over us? Think about the worst case – what if that service or software went away. What would be the outcome of that? And then – how could you protect yourself against it?

From this assessment, we would realise what is essential to us and then, replace them with more ethical alternatives.

While this is more of a “top-down” approach, in that it helps us acknowledge where we are right now, what our vulnerabilities are and then how we can mitigate those, a more “bottom-up” approach is to define privacy via a core and useable value system for choosing technical tools that liberate, empower and protect us.

Let’s say you were able to throw out all your software, hardware and Internet services and were now building your technical lives from scratch. Where would you start? What questions would you ask yourself for each of your choices? What sort of value system would emerge from this introspection? Can you extend it beyond yourself to your family or community or workplace as well?

While technical answers to such questions can be found on websites discussing and supporting free software, such as this, I feel that this dissent against power cannot be pragmatic. It requires tough decisions that lead to long-term freedom and it all starts with us making personal choices and then extending those choices to our families, social structures, workplaces, schools and other institutions (whichever might be our circle of influence).

Before I end, I wanted to add a small note about how this might look like a defence or justification for one’s privacy or freedom. However, I don’t agree that one needs to defend this right with so much rationale. Our presumption of freedom should be as primary as our presumption of innocence.

Let me adapt the following passage from Kavita Krishnan’s book “Fearless Freedom” to our wider discussion about our freedom and privacy:

“Why should women provide justifications if they want to walk out on the streets alone, even if it late at night? Why do we need reasons such as ‘she has to work late’ …. to bolster such decisions? Is it a crime for women to want to go out at night…. ? We do not want to hear the defensive arguments that women can only leave their homes to go to work… We believe that regardless of whether she is indoors or outdoors, whether it is day or night, for whatever reason, whatever she is wearing, a woman has a right to freedom. And it is that fearless freedom that we need to save and protect…”

In the context of our discussion, we could ask:

Why should each of us, as users, have to provide justifications for wanting to do things online with privacy, respect and without submitting to tracking and data collection by others? Why do we need reasons such as ‘our work is important’ or ‘we care about our freedom’ … to bolster such decisions? Is it a crime for a user to want their privacy respected? We believe that regardless of the purpose of why we use online services or software, where we use them and for what purpose, a user has a right to freedom. And it is that fearless freedom that we need to save and protect…

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