In the many fora online, netizens have made discussions without ever revealing their names and/or faces. Privacy, through anonymity, is an inert right we have been exercising long before big tech companies like Google and Facebook came stealing the scene.
One might think that being private-conscious in internet is a burgis problem (it isn’t). Yet as smartphones become more accessible to more people, so does the risk that spying eyes will have more access to personal data to do as they wish. And something as personal as smartphone is a treasure trove of data ripe for the picking.
While this post isn’t exactly a step-by-step procedure on how to become as private as possible on the internet, it hopes to at least give the readers an idea on what Internet Privacy is, and why it matters, especially in Developing Countries.
If you must take away one or two things from this right now…
One place to start learning about internet privacy is PrivacyTools which “provides services, tools and knowledge to protect your privacy against global mass surveillance.”
You can also take a look at the discussion in this smartphone hardening guide for normal people (non-rooted phones), and see if you can start applying some of it in your smartphone.
According to Internet World Stats, more than half of the world population has access to the internet, and by sheer number, Asians constitute the majority of these internet users. That number will increase in the coming years, as internet becomes more widely available. That you are reading this likely means you have access to internet through your preferred device, unless this page was saved and printed for offline, off-grid perusing.
As of early 2019, findings from Hootsuite and We Are Social rank Philippines in the top heaviest internet user in the world.
Filipinos, being one of the major contributors in web traffic, consumes a lot of info per day. On average, that’s about 10 hours worth. How does an average Filipino distill all this info into usable knowledge? How are we using all these hours spent on the internet?
In this information era, many of us can now access a cheap yet reliable computing device, mostly in the form of smartphone. Major telecoms offer free data for Facebook (and/or Instagram), which then becomes an avenue for cheap yet questionable source of information. Facebook, as you may have heard (then and now), doesn’t care about what its users think, despite Le Zucc saying that ‘The future is private.’
How can Filipinos stay private and anonymous in the digital space, in which their attention proves to be valuable to data-miners and advertisers?
But the everyday Pinoy would ask, “What do I care? I have nothing to hide.”
Edward Snowden couldn’t have said it better:
“If you think privacy is unimportant for you because you have nothing to hide, you might as well say free speech is unimportant for you because you have nothing useful to say.”
People tend to judge based on small fragments of truth they obtained online. In an ocean of information, it is reckless for someone to select partial truths to conform to the story they desire to tell.
Do you need to be alarmed, though?
Thanks to the implementation of its mass surveilance, Chinese governement can track down Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, and arrest them. The Chinese government can also rank citizens with a social credit system, which, depending on where a person currently is in the ladder, could affect what services would be available to them. A bad social credit score could ban you from traveling by plane. These are definitely extreme examples that are, by the way, in place now enabled by State Surveillance.
The UKUSA Agreement is an agreement between the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand to cooperatively collect, analyze, and share intelligence. Members of this group, known as the Five Eyes, focus on gathering and analyzing intelligence from different parts of the world. While Five Eyes countries have agreed to not spy on each other as adversaries, leaks by Snowden have revealed that some Five Eyes members monitor each other’s citizens and share intelligence to avoid breaking domestic laws that prohibit them from spying on their own citizens. The Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, USA) alliance also cooperates with groups of third-party countries to share intelligence (forming the Nine Eyes [Denmark, France, Netherlands, Norway] and Fourteen Eyes [Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden]), however Five Eyes and third-party countries can and do spy on each other.
So the short answer: yes, we must be alarmed. The longer answer will depend on your threat model, i.e.:
- who you are running/hiding away from
- why are you running/hiding away from them
- how capable are they in locating you
- what are the tools that are available to you that can keep you from their surveillance
Consider this: You don’t want advertisers (the who) to bombard you with their tacky, sometimes unskippable ads (the why). They could get your data from data brokers, or from when you click their ads in websites (the how). Good thing that there are reliable ad-blockers (the what) that can completely remove them from your sight.
In this example, we identify advertisers as the adversary. Such an adversary pales in comparison with authoritarian regimes that has complete control over a country’s flow of information.
In an ideal world, our every action isn’t under 24/7 surveillance; it wouldn’t need be. But ours is an imperfect one, and powers have risen to gain sight on the smallest details of what we do. What we could do now is to remain vigilant, watch those who watch us, and at the very least call out if they make us uncomfortable.
Staying private in a world that demands attention can be hard to do. Cameras, microphones, and GPS are only few of the items that can capture moments in our lives. If one would trust a company with servers and strong cloud computing systems to store our personal information for us, how do we know they wouldn’t use our data to benefit them; or hand them over to some third party? The efficiency of software services, though, relies on the information given to them by the end-users. The larger the database, the better the algorithm would be, the better the services. What, then, must be the compromise between Software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers and their consumers?
The number of privacy-conscious people online increases. Many are realizing their right to own their data and keeping and/or sharing it at their own discretion. They are also starting to see how big tech companies are trying to “mine” as much data as they can. And yet, this population remains a tiny fraction compared with the ones whose personal data have been shared on the internet, willingly or otherwise.
Why do we need to be private?
The choice must be ours if and when we want to share what data we want to share. We also need to acknowledge that not everything we do, online or offline, is for the whole world to know about. There are just some things that we’d rather keep off from as many people as possible (the passphrase of your email, your passionate dating life, secret family recipes, etc.). Highly likely that the things we do online do not constitute as crime, and yet privacy advocates demand for more private and secure designs in the programs and applications that connect us to the internet.
One of the best ways to stay private on the internet is to actually limit your time there. This limits what Google and Facebook can hoard, although this doesn’t mean that they can’t make a profile out of your online habits. Have something to replace the digital consumption, a hobby outside the digital medium. Remove as many social media apps on your phone and/or on your life as you can. Retain only close friends and family in your social media circles.
Google has grown over the years, from their humble beginnings as a search engine. It would only be understandable to have so many of the functions we require online can be efficiently performed by Google. But this search engine giant has become one of, if not the, biggest number data gatherer with which to analyze and profile its entire database of users. They sell these data to companies who will then make their ads targeted towards you. Big brother not only watches you, he’s an advertiser as well.
As soon as you can, ditch Google, Facebook, and other big tech softwares you’re using regularly. Look for replacements in PrivacyTools for your daily drivers, most of them are up to par, if not better than Google anyway. Convince your friends and family to do the same with you. It will not be easy, you know that.