Earlier this month, I read an interesting article on Gizmodo detailing a self-proclaimed “privacy pragmatist’s” week-long experiment to see if it’s possible to stay connected in today’s world without going through Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, or Microsoft; the unholy pentad of our tech-driven society. The writer, Kashmir Hill, spent five weeks with one of the five corporations being completely blocked each week. The sixth week was the grand finale of the experiment, which she spent with all five being blocked at once. And this didn’t just prevent her from using these company’s products either, it also prevented her from using third-party products that relied on any of the five corporation’s services to function properly. This meant things like Hulu, Netflix, and Spotify were out of the picture, as well as anything else that utilizes Amazon, Google, or Microsoft’s cloud computing services, which is a staggeringly large chunk of the Internet.
As I’m sure you can imagine, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Hill summed it up quite succinctly in the title of the article itself: “It Was Hell.” What used to be so easy it barely required thought became virtually impossible during the experiment, with long trial-and-error sessions being a regular occurrence that didn’t always end with a solution being found. The few alternative products she was able to utilize either offered a vastly inferior experience or required jumping through so many hoops that it was borderline comedic, and occasionally both. In many instances, her only course of action was to abandon digital products all together in favor of their physical counterparts, like paper books instead of Kindle and paper maps instead of Google Maps. Even communication became a chore because most email and messaging services are either operated by or rely on one of the five corporations.
The Painful Truth of Trying to Protect Your Privacy
I actually empathize with Hill’s struggle quite a bit. While I’m too much of a tech enthusiast to live the “digital vegan” lifestyle and too reliant on companies like Google and Microsoft for work to live out Hill’s experiment, I’m still an intensely private person who doesn’t want corporations and governments spying on them. I used to go to some ridiculous lengths to protect my privacy, to the point where a significant portion of my day was spent dealing with the countless inconveniences that come with living as strict a privacy-aware lifestyle as I was. Not a week went by without me having to find a cumbersome workaround so that I could perform a basic action like get a ride through Lyft or watch HBO Go. It was tedious as all hell.
I finally started to take it down a few notches when I accepted the fact that there’s nothing I can do, short of forgoing the use of technology entirely, that will truly protect me, and that most of my effort is superfluous. All the effort in the world to protect my privacy means nothing when I just invalidate it by having a Google account or using a smartphone or any of the other inherently anti-privacy things I do. I wouldn’t say my efforts were little more than placebos, but without going all the way with protecting my privacy, I still wasn’t nearly as private as I needed to be to justify my sacrifices I was making.
If most people are at the bottom of the deep end of the pool, completely submerged in that hyper-connected world where privacy is impossible, I was in the middle of the pool standing on my tippy toes and just barely keeping my head above water. I’m still in roughly that same position now, but I’m expending significantly less effort to be there. I’ve found a sort of privacy/technology equilibrium that, while certainly not ideal, is about as comfortable a balance as I can achieve with the state the technology world is currently in. It’s frustrating, even infuriating, but I’ll take what I can get at this point and just pray that things improve with time.
The Path to True Privacy Will be Hard, but Worth the Effort
I don’t tell you all this to discourage you from taking steps to protect your own privacy; quite the opposite, in fact. Barely being able to keep my head above water isn’t an excuse to give up and sink to the bottom, it’s a sign that I need to try harder to stay afloat and, maybe some day, get out of the pool entirely. That doesn’t mean I hope to one day forgo the use of connected technology, it means that I want to help create a world where I can enjoy the innumerable benefits of such technology without having to sacrifice my privacy.
That world is well within our reach, we just need to prove to our democratic government that we won’t tolerate our privacy being taken away from us. We can do this by supporting organizations that fight for our Fourth Amendment rights in the Digital Age, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and stop supporting politicians who try to infringe on those rights. As for tech companies, we need to signal to the free market that there’s a massive demand for privacy-friendly alternatives to the products offered by tech companies like Facebook and Google. We can do this by supporting the companies that already do this, like DuckDuckGo and ProtonMail or, better yet, create products of our own that meet that demand.
The Other Benefits of Protecting Your Privacy
Living a more privacy-aware lifestyle also has far more benefits to it than you’d think. For starters, many of the measures you should take to protect your privacy also protect your security. The time we live in is essentially the Golden Age of Hacking with countless of Americans being victims of cybercrime each year and massive data breaches being almost commonplace. What’s worse is that many of these attacks are being conducted by state-sponsored organizations working for our enemies. These enemies, mainly China and Russia, are themselves investing heavily into their cyberwarfare capabilities in order to prepare for a potential cyberwar in the future that we might not be able to win. By shielding your personal information from the prying eyes of corporations and governments, you’re also shielding it from hackers and other malicious entities.
If you’re even remotely concerned about your privacy and security online, and you’d be a fool not be, you need to get yourself a good VPN. There are countless products and services I could recommend to protect yourself online but if I only had to choose one, it would be a VPN. I’ve used IPVanish, NordVPN, and Private Internet Access in the past, and while all of them are excellent, I eventually settled on ExpressVPN as my go-to service. It doesn’t log your traffic and isn’t based in the United States, both of which are essential if you’re worried about government surveillance, and it’s torrent-friendly, which is important if you’re an inveterate and unabashed pirate like myself. I love their service enough that I personally sought them out as a potential partner, to which they agreed. I’m happy to say that you can now protect your privacy and security online while also supporting NOQ Report by using this link to purchase an ExpressVPN subscription. Seriously, browsing the Internet in today’s world without a VPN is like walking through a dirty crack house with no clothes or shoes.
A properly configured Firefox browser also goes a long way to not just making your web browsing more private and secure, but removing so much of the bloat from websites that you may not even know is there until it’s gone. The web is so much cleaner and faster with a properly configured browser that I can’t fathom returning to the vanilla web browsing experience. And yes, I do recognize the irony of blocking advertisements and trackers on websites, which serve as their main source of revenue, when I myself work for a website that’s barely able to operate month-to-month with its meager revenue. However, it was our distaste for advertisements and trackers in general that, in large part, motivated JD and I to remove them from NOQ Report in favor of just affiliate programs and user donations (please donate).
You see, even though you can’t be 100% free from data collection and spying while connected, there are still plenty of benefits to living a privacy-aware lifestyle. I genuinely believe that you would have to be a fool not to take at least some measures to protect yourself, like using a VPN, and even a fairly small step forward like that can improve your digital well-being immensely. And if enough people stop being so passive when it comes to corporations and governments spying on us or refusing to take cybersecurity as seriously as they should, we may be able to prevent the digital dystopia that our country is currently sprinting towards.