Take Back Your Digital Freedom!

English Essay Summer Semester 2016

8 minute read

Das folgende Essay entstand für den “Advanced Technical English”-Kurs im Sommersemester 2016. Das Thema durfte frei gewählt werden, mit dem Ziel grob 1500 Worte zusammen zu bekommen.

Take back your digital freedom

You think you are free? Are you sure about this? Well, you’re living in a western civilization you’re probably free to get a job you like. You’re able to meet the people you want and (mostly) travel where you like. But what about your digital freedom? Nowadays, everybody has a digital footprint. Like many people, you maybe share thoughts and photos on Facebook. Maybe you back up and share documents in some cloud service. Or maybe you synchronise your music using iTunes. They just help you saving and securing your data, right? But, do you really still own this data, or is it just served to you by the companies which provide those services?

Oculus, the company which develops the Oculus Rift goes even further. Their recently [May 2016] published “Terms of Service” for using the VR device include pretty fishy provisions. For example, when you use Oculus’ Tools to build apps or create other content and share it online, you forfeit any rights on it. Oculus automatically acquires the things you create. They can market your content like they want, including to sell it to customers or to sub­license it to partners. Just as you allowed Facebook to handle your private photos.

You’re basically owned by those big companies

“What? You’re exaggerating!”

No! I. Am. Not.

Then what are you saying?

Well, you may not be owned. Though, many people are relying heavily on such cloud services. To be honest, these services are really handy. They make things very easy and, of course, most of them are free. However, Facebook and Google could decide to shut them down or convert to paid services anytime. This may seem unlikely right now, because the companies have had a profitable business model for more than a decade. But studies say that the online advertisement market is going to crash, or at least scale back in the next couple of years. When this happens, new sources of income will be required to keep the services free of charge for you and me. One of the most probable solutions is to sell user data to third parties. And right now, we cannot be sure who they are, or what they are going to do with our data.

Another main concern is government surveillance. Since Edward Snowden disclosed secret NSA documents in May 2013 (yes, it’s already three years ago) people all over the world became much more aware of their privacy. I myself removed almost all photos from Facebook and I always think twice before posting anything online. And I am not the only one. A study published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly in March this 2016 calls this effect the Spiral of Silence. Conscious human beings are censoring themselves.

Isn’t that a restriction of freedom?

There is a reason we want to live in a democratic state, have a share and be able to decide what we want to do. I think we can all agree, too much power in too few hands can be dangerous. It is definitely time to take back your digital freedom too!

So what can I do?

The only solution is to take back ownership of our data and decentralise the locations of its storage. Though, I am not talking about saving our photos in a distributed cloud here.

Now, you may ask: How am I supposed to do that without Facebook, Instagram or Dropbox? I still want to collaboratively work on documents, sync my music and - most importantly - share pictures with my friends. Especially cute cats!

Well, one way would be to find a smaller service hoster you can trust. There are some out there who do a really good job. For instance, the Berlin-based Heinlein Support GmbH provides secure hosting for email archives and different server management services. I’ve had the opportunity to meet CEO Peter Heinline in person and convince myself about how serious the business takes security and privacy of their users. Top members of the company regularly give tech talks at conferences to share their knowledge and experiences. Heinlein Support also offers intense workshops and make most of their documents publicly available.

Nowadays, a couple respectable companies stand up for their customers in privacy concerns. Some firms deny handing over a users personal data (e.g. email conversations, IP adresses, location information) when it is requested in the course of an ongoing investigation. There are cases where a provider even fought court orders when they thought it wasn’t appropriate to hand over data. The infamous encrypted email service Lavabit (the one which Edward Snowden used personally) even shut down after the US government ordered the company to surrender private encryption keys.

Now that’s some dedication!

Obviously, you cannot expect the biggest companies to behave like this. Most likely, they happen to have automated systems to handle requests for detailed user data towards certain government institutions. When installing new software, make sure you read the End User License Agreement (EULA) carefully. When signing up for a new service make sure you read the Terms of Service Agreement! Remember the Oculus Rift thing?

Hint: When using open source software you read each of the popular licenses once. After that, when installing new software, you just look which license applies and you already know what’s in it without having to read the whole thing again!

Sadly, it can be pretty hard to find an applicable hoster in your country. The other solution is to host the required services yourself. For most needs, there is at least one decent software solution (out there). Many of them are open source and some are also free (Yes, there is a difference between free and non-free software, but that’s another whole topic in itself). Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) not only has the advantage of being free of charge, but can also overcome trust issues. Since everybody is able to look at the source code, the software can be independently audited and verified.

All the press articles about the NSA affair, releasing documents about government surveillance and the discussion about it would have been impossible without free software. Open Source tools for encryption (namely GPG) and anonymization technologies like the TOR network played a central role in the whole process.

Maybe you’re not the type who needs to securely communicate with journalists but just want to store your pictures and other files in a trusted space. Well, just set up some small machine or server along with some storage, install the right tools and you’re ready to leave the cloud.

Are you serious? That sounds pretty hard…

Wait! Don’t be scared away. Even if you’re not a geek, setting up you own document synchronization service became pretty easy. And cheap too! Software like Owncloud comes with an easy installer. If you ever managed to install a program on your Windwos machine or your Mac, you’re probably able to set up Owncloud. It brings the most wanted features. Those include file synchronization between multiple devices, image galleries and even music streaming.

Now, you can rent a fully configurable server for less than five euros per month. Those are run by experienced companies who can make sure your machine is always nice and healthy.

Or you could run your own little cloud inside your home. But you don’t want to use your laptop or the desktop PC to do so. They eat too much power and probably make too much noise to be always running. For once, you can buy a small single-board-computer like the Raspberry Pi. The newest version costs only about 38€, makes no noise (because it has no fan) and doesn’t need much power to operate. The required space is also neglectable, it probably fits in some small corner next to your WiFi router.

Maybe that still seems like too much trouble to install (or you think that little thing is too ugly for your living room). A company called cloudfleet.io which is based in Vienna, Austria builds a box with a nicer looking chassis. Their main product Blimp comes with preinstalled software to handle you emails, files, contact and even calendar data. You just need to plug in a USB stick or hard drive, connect it to your home router and done!

If that’s not easy enough, I really don’t know.

Good news for your freedom

In the last couple of years, especially after the Snowden revelations privacy, encryption and data security became a frequently discussed topic. Universities boosted reasearch for better, more solid encryption methods. The sort of encryption not even a quantum computer could crack before the unsiverse ended. Also, individuals and companies headed out to build better software and tools to make those new technologies available for normal users.

Maybe none of the actions above are free of charge or trivial to pull off. But isn’t your freedom worth spending a few bucks? Think about it. Only when you stop relying on big companies to hold onto your most valuable documents, your precious pictures and beloved music, only then you can be sure it is not abused. Your personality and preferences are not going to be marketed and unwillingly turned into cash by others. Also, if your data is not in some public cloud, it’s less likely to get hacked!

Now go, get started. Take back control of your data. Take back your digital freedom. On the way you will learn many interesting things. And isn’t that one of the main purposes of life? Being free and learn stuff. Have fun!