Perfect privacy vs. good enough privacy

8th Feb, 2022#12

Privacy gets thrown around a lot these days. But talking more about it doesn’t often solve the problem of its lack of emotional resonance with most people. 

Although we instinctively know what privacy is, if you’d ask most people to explain it to others, they might feel puzzled. Because so many elements come together to form our privacy, it often becomes disconnected from what we care about the most. That’s what makes it so difficult for most people to react to aggressive, persistent attacks on their privacy.

It’s not just lack of awareness that has allowed many tech companies to viciously push the boundaries on the data they collect and how they use it. It’s the lack of emotional connection to this issue and an inability to internalize the consequences of this assault on our privacy. 

Today, we unpack what privacy means for us and what perfect privacy versus good enough privacy looks like. You’ll get to hear how we ended up becoming invested in protecting our privacy and some of the best practices that each of us has adopted.

You’ll learn about the small steps you can take to increase your privacy while continuing to enjoy technology and the benefits it offers. You’ll also learn two technorealism principles, along with their deeper implications for your life. Additionally, you’ll get a list of privacy-focused alternatives to the most used browser in the world, which shows how rich the list of options you have has become.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • What triggered Dave to look deeper into the issue of privacy (04:16)

  • Why you shouldn’t shy away from good enough privacy (10:14)

  • How two technorealism principles can help shape your understanding and practice of privacy (14:41)

  • An easy step you can take that has a big impact on your privacy (17:25)

  • Why Chrome is bad for our privacy and what to replace it with (21:38)

Transcription

[00:42] Andra Zaharia: So, perfect privacy versus good enough privacy – we chose quite a vast topic for ourselves today, haven't we?

[00:49] Dave Smyth: Yeah, I think so. It's easy to be a quite fundamentalist about this stuff. Yeah, it's quite an overwhelming topic.

[00:55] Andra Zaharia: Oh, well, we hope to be able to break it down into something that you, who are listening, can actually use and feel like it’s manageable and doable. Because yes, just as you mentioned, there is this false perception that it has to be all or nothing, which is actually not true in the real life of people on the internet.

[01:15] Dave Smyth: So, where do you want to start?

[01:18] Andra Zaharia: I actually wanted to share our personal perspective on what privacy is because I think that this term gets thrown around a lot. And while specialists have their own definitions for it, most people I don't think ever thought about “What is privacy, actually, for me?” What it looks like for a regular person who doesn't work in tech, who doesn't work in cybersecurity, and is just trying to go about their business. For me, for example, privacy, as a core topic, is the ability to do something that others don't have access to, and this is for whatever reason it may be. It's just the ability to have that space that is only yours, to have that space to think, to live, to have conversations with others, to keep for yourself. It's just a defined space that's only yours or shared with only people that you want to give access to. And to me, this concept extends and applies to everything, whether it's life on the internet or outside of it or a combination of both, it's still the same thing. And I believe that privacy is one of those things that we take for granted but we don't feel how important it is until it's taken away from us, or until we give it up entirely and feel exposed and have our secrets, because everyone has them, and it's okay and natural. It's doesn't involve dishonesty or lack of transparency. So, when these secrets get out, that's when you feel that “Whoa! My privacy is actually extremely important to me.” I'd say that that is it for me. I give a lot of thought about this, I've written about it extensively. And to me personally, that's what it is – it's that almost sacred space, if it's not too big of a word, that we need and deserve to stay sane and healthy, and to have healthy relationships with others, and to just exist as humans. I don't think that we can do without it, honestly.

[03:18] Dave Smyth: Yeah, that is an amazing summary; however, actually, I don't think it's possible to do much better than that. In permanent record, there's an amazing quote from Edward Snowden, he writes something like, “Ultimately saying you don't care about privacy because you have nothing to hide, it's like saying you don't care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.” To me, that sums the whole thing up really neatly. Because like you say, it's something we don't realize until it's taken away from us. I guess it also mainly comes down to having a choice about what people know about you. And in the world we live in at the moment, those choices have been made on our behalves a lot, or it's not completely open to us – the choices that we're making, or the implications of what happens when we press one box over pressing another box, or when we sign up to a service. Yeah, so it's a big old topic.

[04:16] Andra Zaharia: It is. And I think that that's why people tend to shy away from it, or just place it in a box somewhere; “I'm not a specialist. I can’t do this. It's too much.” Because once you started getting into it, it is completely overwhelming. Sometimes it's overwhelming even for us, and we read about it all the time, and we actively do things towards this and try to share this with others. So, I truly believe that in order for us to understand what good privacy is and what good enough privacy is for each of us, we need to understand what we're trying to protect and why we care about it enough that it determines us to actually act in this direction. So, for example, just to share my personal experience, I have lived and worked on the internet for a long time. And the internet, obviously, didn't look like this when I first started, just sharing information about myself and writing on the internet and expanding my identity across all of these places. And there was an inflection point, it was actually around the time of the Snowden revelations when I realized that my digital footprint – so, the total volume of information and details about me – was way more extensive than I realized. And just because you can’t see it, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist because the people who know how to search for it and how to compile your profile, they have very thorough methods of doing so. When I realized this, I knew that I had to find a balance between continuing to do work, which for me – as a marketer, as a communication specialist – means putting myself out there and being visible and trying to protect my private life in some shape or form. I was, for example, quite reluctant at posting pictures of my family and things like that and posting pictures of my partner at the time. I felt, instinctively, somewhere that it wasn't for me. Even when I used to be on Facebook and Instagram, that was a chore for me and it was a hassle, it didn't represent me, I'm not cut out for that. 

[06:31] Andra Zaharia: So, when I made the decision, a couple of years back, in 2018, to delete Facebook completely, delete Instagram, that was such a relief. It was such a relief because I felt that it was aligned with what I believed in. It was aligned with my need to, yes, keep a lot of things private, but at the same times be visible and generous and try to contribute the best I can to the communities that I'm part of, which means sharing information about how I think and what I do, why I do it, which we're doing right now. So I'm totally comfortable with this, but I still need that space where I can have my private life and not have everything about me exposed. So, I was wondering, what did it look like for you? When did this need to focus on privacy started to become a real area of concern for you?

[07:26] Dave Smyth: It's interesting. For me, it's been something that's been increasingly present in my mind. Over the past few years, it's been becoming more and more of a thing that I think about. I think it was similar for me, like the Snowden stuff, there was the Cambridge Analytica stuff, even though I didn't really act on them at the time. At that time, I think I was still a musician around those sorts of times, so I was in a similar position of having to be online and present and promoting myself and trying to put myself out there and stuff often, I think, in the end. I think it's one of these things where when you start to take steps on that path, actually, and you start to think about it every time you interact with something, you start thinking, “What are the implications of that?” So, that's been my experience, at least, so it's just become an increasing part of it. And something I'm becoming aware of, as well, is trying to not become obsessed with it. And this ties into the topic of “getting enough versus perfect,” because I guess in security, you can't have perfect privacy and exist in a way unless you're going to go completely off the grid. Just like in security if you want multiple people to work on something. Or if you have a website, it can't be perfectly secure. You can take all the best steps and have all the best advice, but you could still be hacked. And I guess the same thing is true for privacy. So, it's working at a balance, try not to be too concerned about it, but also taking steps to protect your privacy. I saw a tweet from Shoshana Wodinsky who is a reporter, who has done loads of stuff on Facebook and ad tech and digging into the weeds on some pretty complex stuff, and really amazing and human reporting on it. She's read all of the privacy policies of Facebook. She knows what they tell you they do, and also she knows what they don't tell you they do. And she said the more she learns about it, the more she's she thinks, “Well, what can I do about it? I've got to take part in society somehow.” And for some people that might mean that they have to have a Facebook account because their kid’s school meetings happen on there. There are all these implications, and I guess where I'm going with that is that it depends on the context. Everybody's situation is going to be difficult, so one person's good enough security wouldn't necessarily be the same for somebody else.

[10:14] Andra Zaharia: And there are no perfect decisions. And I think that, to me, specifically, working in cybersecurity and obviously being preoccupied by privacy as well, though they are separate but they work together, it has been a maturing process. I think that realizing that there is nuance. First of all, being able to work with nuance and understand nuance and make it work for you, I think that that's a step in maturity, an important milestone in your adulthood I guess, and this applies to everything. Just like you said, doing something rather than nothing is extremely important because the compound effect is huge, both for our lives as individuals and as participants in an ecosystem. That is a very powerful reminder. And thank God for Shoshana because she's probably one of the only people in the world who has actually read these things. And thank God for people like her who do the research, and who help us educate ourselves, and who translate all of these super complex, very convoluted implications in ways that we could actually understand, and they also fight on our behalf. And what we can do to support them and keep them on this path of challenging tech, big or small, or governments and so on, is to show them that we support them, to do the little bit that we can, and to advocate for more transparency and for more flexibility and more ownership over data. Because at the end of the day, I think that privacy is a matter of democracy identity at the end of the day. It is a matter of keeping systems in the power of the people, which I think that we can all resonate with, in one shape or form, no matter where we're from; whether I'm coming from Romania, which is an ex-communist country, which still reeks of communism in many ways, unfortunately; whether we're talking about the US. No matter where we are in the world right now, privacy is a big issue because our freedom and future depends on it, on a large scale.

[12:27] Dave Smyth: For sure. And I guess, as well, the internet has really thrust this too before. Because before the internet, previously was a concern, but if somebody wanted to learn about somebody, they would have to stand outside the house or going back the house or do anything along those lines of being physically present, or they might tap their phone or something like that – obviously, this is like spying rather than whatever everyday people would do to learn about people. Or companies might have records of their customers or something. But it's actually the privacy concerns that are reduced because there might only be one copy of that or it's only stored in a physical location. Everything the internet has given us has introduced a whole world of privacy issues that is hard for us to grasp, whether you're thinking about opting into your medical records being stored online so they can be more quickly shared between a doctor in a hospital or between doctors if you move doctors or something like that, or whether you're thinking about tech monopolies that are pushing the boundaries of what they can get away with to monetize our data and the societal harms that that causes. This pace of the technology has thrust all of these concerns on us in a way that, I think, probably no one could have predicted-- Well, some people definitely predicted, the experts, but everyday people wouldn't think about and it's a lot to consider and to take on and to bear responsibility for everyday folks for whom this isn't their job to be an expert on privacy. It's hard, and I think that's a really good case for good enough privacy because people need to take small steps that they can actually make part of their daily lives and build on those in small incremental ways where the immediate impact may be negligible, but actually the combined impact of making those changes over a period of time is significant.

[14:41] Andra Zaharia: Absolutely. And to your point, I just wanted to introduce here two of the principles of technorealism, which hopefully we'll cover in a dedicated episode because I find them fascinating. And I want to get back to this idea of what “good enough” actually is so we can share some very practical advice of what it really looks like. So, two of the principles of technorealism, which is kind of self-explanatory, so it's being very practical and, obviously, realistic about what technology is and what we can and cannot do. The first principle is that technologies are not neutral. Because the ones who created the workgroup, who created this principle, say that “in truth, technologies come loaded with both intended and unintended social, political, and economical leanings.” And every tool provides its users with a particular manner of seeing the world and specific ways of interacting with others. So, based on this, privacy will always be personal; it will be tailored to your use case, to your context. An internet business owner doesn't have the same privacy needs as a person who uses the internet in a way that's limited to Facebook and a few emails here and there, some newsletter, and reading some online stuff, and that's kind of it, and possibly, using chat apps. 

[16:05] Andra Zaharia: And the second principle, which I think is worth reminding here, is that the internet is revolutionary but not utopian. I think that us, who were one of the last generations before the internet, tend to idealize the internet as we knew it in the beginning: decentralized, a place of wonders, a place of meeting people – you never thought you'd ever meet in this lifetime. And we tend to forget that for all the opportunities that it provides, the internet is a reflection of society. So, it's a mirror of our behavior of how our society evolves. And we can see that so plainly today with power being just concentrated in a few places on Earth, just like it happens in politics, and other things, and cultural domination, and so many other things. So, I think that it's important to remember these things so that we may be kinder to ourselves; first of all, because there's no way, no matter how well prepared you are, that anyone can handle this perfectly; and then to find, throughout all of these options, the ones that fit us individually.

[17:21] Dave Smyth: Yeah, for sure. That's an amazing way to put it, that it’s not a utopia.

[17:25] Andra Zaharia: I was wondering if we might give listeners something very practical. So, what do these steps look like? And you have so much experience with this because you've de-Googled yourself, you've done many of these things. And I wanted to know what were the easiest things for you to do, which you think has made the biggest impact that you totally recommend people go for these things first?

[17:52] Dave Smyth: I think the big one that everybody who doesn't do it already should do is get a password manager. It's such a simple thing. Obviously, you have to learn how to use the password manager, but that was actually the first thing that I did many years ago before I was really concerned about privacy or anything. It was just an amazing thing; I don't even think about having to remember passwords. There are plenty of people I know in real life who never use a password manager. And it's wild that their credentials for almost everything they sign in to are probably just on some database somewhere, in one exposed hack.

[18:32] Andra Zaharia: And it's so easy to go to HaveIBeenPwned and just put in your email and then realize, “Whoa! This was not what I expected. Where's my data? Who has it? Who are these data brokers? And what business do they have to fumble around with my data on the internet?”

[18:51] Dave Smyth: Yeah, and it's such an easy thing to do as well because for most of them it’s a browser extension or a phone app, and then you probably need to change five or 10 passwords immediately, which might take 10-15 minutes maybe. Start with the important ones like your email, your social media accounts. And then you can just do it every time you log into a service after that. Just make a point to change that one password from your default that you've been using for everything. That's an amazing thing. This is such a small step.

[19:25] Andra Zaharia: Yes. And plus, it's a tool for a huge productivity boost. It becomes so much easier to not have to retrieve passwords and go through those processes which are such a pain. And yes, I totally recommend it. I just wanted to highlight that the big benefit for your privacy when you use a password manager is that your credentials – so your username and password combination that you most likely reuse, we've all been there, we've all done that, there's some nothing to be ashamed of – will not be able to be reused to break into your account and extract more data, and then send infected links to your friends and family and your entire list of contacts. You're able to stop the snowball from rolling down the hill and taking everything with it. And that is one of the key things that you can do. Passwords are going to go away, but it's going to take a long time, probably longer than we want. So, until then, we still need to make sure that our stuff is safe. And I, for one, know that they are one of the top three tools that I recommend anyone uses. What's something else that you did, that you felt had a big impact on your privacy, something that you noticed right away that it reduced your exposure and that feeling of vulnerability that comes with it.

[20:52] Dave Smyth: Thinking of de-Googling, for instance, two things that are not really related, but an easy one was changing browser. So, I used to use Google Chrome. I think the EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I think they actually class Google Chrome as malware or spyware, one of them. That might be a missed accreditation, but I seem to remember they listed something like that. So, there are so many alternatives, whether that's using Safari or Firefox or even a chromium-based browser. I would imagine that using Microsoft Edge, which is for all intensive purposes is Chrome but without the Google bits, that would be a big step, and there’s Brave as well.

[21:38] Andra Zaharia: Could you share why you say this? I mean, why is Google Chrome, specifically, so bad for our privacy? I think that a highlight would help listeners to really understand why it is so toxic. 

[21:52] Dave Smyth: Well, instead of me fumbling my way through a half-remembered explanation, there are issues with Google in a wider context. But James Mullarkey, who is a privacy advocate. He runs the We Don't Stream podcast.  He has a website, notochrome.org, that talks through some of the privacy issues and some of the alternatives. It's just a good thing to de-Chrome oneself. And the other that's kind of related to that is to not use Google search as well. So, if you can switch to something like had Duck Duck Go. Also, Ecosia, which is an eco-browser. It's true, particularly with the Ecosia, the search results, they're not going to be exactly the same. With Duck Duck Go, the search results have improved greatly over the past few years. I think I saw that in 2021, they had something like a 47% increase in their searches on their site in one year, which is an amazing thing. But even if you switch to those, and if you find that there's a topic that you just can't use, then you can always use something like Startpage, which uses Google's results and it's more privacy-focused. Those would be a few small things that you can do to improve things. And if you can, delete your Facebook account.

[23:17] Andra Zaharia: Oh, yes. I wanted to advocate for this. So, for the third thing on the list, after password management and trying to limit your usage and reliance on Google, would be: do you need to be on all of the social media platforms? Besides the fact that it takes a huge toll on our mental health. And I felt this firsthand; I mean, Instagram was completely toxic for me; Facebook had become just a huge, massive burden and a source of constant anxiety. It is the simple fact that we expose ourselves in so many ways over the years. I mean, if you just go and download all of the stuff that Facebook has on you. And it's not everything. I mean, they give you a lot, but it's not going to be everything. You're going to be amazed at the tons of pictures that we've posted over the years, and all sorts of things from your private life which you probably didn't want on the internet, looking back, you probably wanted to keep some of those for yourself. I think that when it comes to sharing stuff on the internet that we regret less the stuff we didn't post than the stuff we did post. I still use some social media; I still use Twitter, I still use LinkedIn. Like we mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, you can't completely extricate yourself, completely step out of society as it works. And I don't want to do that. I love the people that I was able to connect with, you included. We wouldn't be having this conversation if it weren't because of Twitter. But that doesn't mean that we have to be everywhere, that doesn't mean that we have to overuse and consume up to the point that it makes us sick, emotionally, mentally, and then physically as well because those are real consequences that it has on our biology and our bodies. 

[25:13] Andra Zaharia: I truly believe that privacy is one of those values that's kind of built into us from the beginning. It is an instinct. And the more we go against this instinct, the more it gets eroded. And that lack of internal alignment really hurts us, it creates that thing that's called cognitive dissonance, that creates internal conflict, then that sucks the energy out of our days and it damages our focus – which we're going to talk about soon – and a lot of other things. So, if you can limit your social media use, if you can deactivate your accounts for a while and see how that goes for you, you might be surprised at not just taking a huge step to improve your privacy, but also taking a huge step to simplifying your life. And I think that we could all use more of that.

[26:09] Dave Smyth: I’ll have to disagree with that.

[26:12] Andra Zaharia: Yeah, I think that we have a few things that we disagree on. We might have to dedicate an episode to finding them and debating them, that would be probably interesting to see. Any closing thoughts that you want to round this up with? Something around your experience with privacy, and of course, there are. If you're listening to this episode, go to Dave's website and check out all of the things that he's written about, there are tons of resources. We're going to add all of the things that we mentioned and talked about in the show notes so you can actually use them and start picking apart at this topic, as little or as much as you want to, that's up to you, of course. So, before we sign off for this episode, Dave, what is something that you truly believe about privacy? Why do you think that it is so important to us? And maybe you can share a thought around why you chose this as a core principle for your business at the end of the day because that's a pretty big decision.

[27:15] Dave Smyth: Just going back to what we talked about earlier, really, I feel like it, in a way, kind of happened to me that I became interested in this through things I was reading about, and then it made sense for it to be something that we created a business around. Thinking about a last takeaway of this is, these are such big topics, there are so many steps you could take with this; you could send Subject to Access Requests to every company that you've ever interacted with if you wanted to go to an extreme, and then send them erasure requests. So, there are so many things you could do if you wanted to, but it's not practical to do that, and there are lots of reasons why you probably don't want to do that, like you don't have time, for instance. So, I think it's just really important to take small steps to think about what sorts of steps you can reasonably take and build them into a routine. Like the password manager, that's more about your security, but there are privacy things there as well. But that's an example of something that's a really small step you can take, that you can build on. When you first do it, if you change five or 10 passwords, that is a very small number, even though you're probably protecting the most important things like your email accounts. But then over the course of one year, and then over the course of two years, three years, four or five; after a couple of years, you probably have changed your default password on almost every service that you actually use and anywhere that has your previous password and username – even if they're hacked, they’re not using those for your big stuff anyway. So, I think that's just a really good example of the compound effect of these small changes. Just be easy on yourself because you can make small changes that have a big effect.

[29:11] Andra Zaharia: I totally agree with that. It's just like eating an apple a day for your health. It may not be that big of a deal, but at the end of the year, you will have eaten hundreds of apples and you'd be in a much better place regarding your fiber intake. I want to build on the same thing and remind you that privacy is titled complex and constantly a changing system, and then doing the best you can do right now with the information that you have is just the best effort. No one has all the answers. These are not definitive solutions. This is a living, not-breathing-yet ecosystem but, hey, who knows? And Just prioritizing this when you can, and as much as you can, will take you so much further than you anticipated. And it might just make you a bit more mature and a bit wiser about how the internet works, and how all of these systems work together to influence society to shape it, to ensure that we're comfortable and that we have stuff that we need, and a lot of stuff that we don't but sometimes like, and that's okay too. So, just finding that balance and finding what works for you, I feel, is just the most important thing here. And I've seen people make great strides with this approach. I've seen them a lot happier and more in control and more clear-minded. And if we can help at least one person do that for themselves, then this episode and this conversation will have done its job.