Column A colleague was recently forced to spend 10 days in a public health-imposed quarantine after authorities used credit card receipts to determine he had visited a location that had also hosted a known case of coronavirus.
If he had paid in cash, they would never have found him because he had also been loose and not logged into the facility where he was potentially exposed using the required QR code.
Fortunately, they found him. Even more fortunately, he had not been infected. As he awaited the end of his quarantine, he pondered how he had been pushed by the sharp end of the continuous argy-bargy between public health and private life – realizing his data trail was giving to anyone who bothered to watch a full snapshot of their private life.
Is there still a place to hide, he wondered?
Since Eric Schmidt said âPrivacy is dead! â, We have suffered a continuous digital erosion of our private space. Smartphones that track our location, apps profiling our interactions, smart speakers feeding our conversations into recommendation algorithms, CCTV cameras that perform facial recognition – and much more. Sometimes it feels like the battle for some privacy is already lost.
In an effort similar to Canute’s to turn this tide back, I began to move more and more out of the public eye. Or rather, to be much more selective about what is presented to the public and what remains carefully hidden.
My messaging has been moved to Signal. My default browser is Firefox and my search engine DuckDuckGo. I have PiHole installed on my home network and Disconnect is running as a browser plug-in. Websites often squeak when loaded because they can’t keep up with the lifespan of every mouse click. This means that I can’t always follow the links – because they dive into one of the tracking services because they direct me to a webpage – but it also means that my online activities are much less visible than there is. a year.
It’s not really privacy, but at least it’s frosted glass.
It’s not something I could have done without a little technical expertise. Throughout it all, I’ve learned that reclaiming private space takes real work – and costs real money.
This is Apple’s argument in favor of its walled garden ecosystem of applications and services. âWe will keep your data private,â Apple insists. Unless, well, it goes through China. So you have privacy until business imperatives deem it unnecessary? It is not private life, it is the theater of private life. Yet people still seem willing to pay for the appearance of privacy.
I decided it was worth paying real money for a ProtonMail account that secures my communications with proper encryption. While it’s too late to undo the decade and a half I’ve spent glued to Gmail, I can at least stop feeding the beast. After that, I’ll need some reasonable alternatives to Google Calendar and Google Docs. (All with Microsoft? That’s a scary thought.)
As I find substitutes and subscribe to these services – businesses make their money from fees rather than monetizing my privacy – these costs will add up. How much should I be prepared to pay for my privacy? What percentage of my income can I spend on maintaining some sort of âdigital shieldâ from the prying eyes of surveillance capitalism?
Because privacy costs money, privacy has become a defining class marker. Below a certain income threshold, you fall prey to devices and ecosystems that are freely available – at the cost of complete privacy. (Hello Android! Hi Facebook!) The poor were once invisible – they are now part of the most visible segment of society.
For the very rich – Gates and Musk and Bezos and their ilk – not all the money in the world can buy privacy. Instead, they’ll use security to keep themselves safe and – as Bezos did when faced with blackmail – turn the tide in the face of those prying eyes. Money can’t buy everything, but it can finance revenge.
Between these two extremes, the middle classes will be offered a growing array of âsolutionsâ that promise privacy for a price – and sometimes offer. Just as modesty was for the Victorians, privacy becomes a middle class value. For the poor, it will be seen as an aspiration. The degree to which you are deprived becomes an indicator of success. Are we prepared to pay the price? Â®