If you’re already familiar with surveillance capitalism and just came here to find out how to escape it, you can skip to the diary section below.
A few years ago, I watched a video that opened my eyes to how the internet operates - the persuasive Aral Balkan’s “The Camera Panopticon”. Until then I had almost entirely wrongly assumed that most of the online services we interact with were sustained either by selling passive advertisements, or by offering a free, limited service to consumers as a kind of marketing strategy, whilst making a profit from enterprise services.
In some cases, this is true, but on the whole, this is not how the internet works. Almost every time we use a “free” service such as email, messaging, social media, maps, search engines, news media, or web browsers, we are paying - with our data. Our moves are monitored, and our words recorded, as we fill up corporate data warehouses with precious information about ourselves. Why are we being farmed like this? Because the real products that these companies who own these services sell, to actually make money, are highly detailed profiles of us. Removing the barriers to our privacy is their specialism, and the free apps are just gateways for us to willingly, and often unwittingly, hand over the intricate details of our lives and personalities.
With this information, we can be dissected, analysed and understood. The primary market for the insights and our digital selves is precision advertising. In other words, our data is sold in one form or another to enable companies to show you ads that are specifically designed to make you react to them. To me, this has an invasive and dystopian feel to it, but when I mentioned it to others, I was met with either a reluctant acceptance of the situation, or a lack of concern. “So what?”, they might say, “Sure, it’s not very transparent that this is going on, but I’ve got nothing to hide, real humans are unlikely to ever look at my actual profile, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay. And targeted advertising is kind of useful anyway! It just helps me find the things I want more quickly and easily.” Quite clearly, I wasn’t totally convinced either, as I did nothing to stop myself being caught in the eyes of surveillance capitalism. In 2017, I was pushed into action.
Handing over every bit of personal information about every person online, to a small handful of wealthy, well-connected actors. That is what we are doing. What could possibly go wrong? In 2017, the extent to which this kind of intricate knowledge about us can be misused was laid bare. Investigations by the journalist Carole Cadwalladr and many others exposed the way that detailed data about the characteristics of citizens can be exploited to disrupt democratic processes and manipulate citizens. Discussions about how to deal with this problem have since erupted in several sectors, but it seems obvious that no single organisation should have that power in the first place.
Before, it was easy to think of these corporations as neutral third parties, who would use our data to tempt us into buying new shoes, but otherwise guard it responsibly. Now it is clear that this responsibility is too large for them, and the risks are too high for us. You might believe you have nothing to hide, but why would you trust organisations whose aims are to further their wealth, and therefore power? It’s not exactly unheard of for corporations to find new ways to put profits before people, or to collaborate with malicious governments for surveillance purposes if the price or pressure is right.
If this all sounds a bit gloomy and far-fetched, let’s turn back to the mainstay of these businesses; the ads. Little intrusive attempts to make us feel inadequate and unfulfilled, that most of us begrudgingly accept as part of life, and do our best to ignore. Giving over digital replicas of our minds to advertisers however has led to a new type of ad. They are targeted to exploit your vulnerabilities and your desires, making sure that the products being marketed to you are always the kinds of things that you would buy, and are displayed in a way that will make you buy them. All to fuel even greater levels of consumerism, which is already trashing the biosphere we inhabit and fraying the fabric of society. That is what our personal browsing, communicating, and sharing are being commodified for, and the wealth of multiple companies indicates that this is working. Saying that we don’t mind the ads is accepting increasingly pervasive consumerist practices into our lives.
The detriment of this whole business model on people has been made even more apparent in recent months. The confessions of remorseful Silicon Valley high-fliers have highlighted the levels to which online products are designed to keep us engaged for the most time possible, and maximise the social interactions we channel through their interfaces. Not only is the sector geared around getting us to buy more stuff, but it wants us to spend increasing amounts of time offering up the data to make that achievable. A team of former tech insiders calls this the “digital attention crisis”, and cite mental health problems for adults and children, the erosion of real-life interactions, and filter bubbles among the ramifications. They have essentially acknowledged that the industry actively wants us to be complicit in hollowing out our own lives, and replace them with a mindless stream of swiping, clicking, and tagging. All for ads.
So, no more. It’s time to cut off the supply chain. The plan: To find alternative services that do not engage in mass surveillance to support themselves. Some of those might be free, but I’m also completely happy to go back to a business relationship everyone understands: pay for a product, get the product you paid for. It’s actually quite bizarre that we ever thought that the complex, highly polished products, supported by expensive infrastructure, produced by an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people, could actually be used at no cost. We don’t think about any other goods like that. We’ll happily pay a few quid for a doughnut that lasts a few minutes (if that), but not for an app that we use every day. Maybe it’s time to rethink that attitude.
So let’s get started. The diary below will outline my attempt to replace all the spyware in my life with alternative tools. I will update it as I go along, to offer a resource to anyone else trying to do the same. There are already similar articles and videos out there, but I feel like there’s no harm in adding my experience as it may well differ. Along the way, I’m hoping to discover the positive alternatives to the current prevailing system. I believe that it is possible for the tools we use to enhance our lives, without detracting from them. As someone who works with data, I see the value in the information we can generate, but for so much more than ads. Imagine a world where we controlled our digital selves, and could choose to share what we wanted for our own health and happiness or for public scientific research, or where we actively cultivate more inspiring open projects such as Open Street Map, which benefit us collectively. I’m looking forward to better understanding the possibilities and potential of the open source, decentralised, and democratic digital tools that can make this possible.
This is the diary, where I am going to record each of the changes that I make to the array of online tools that I use in my daily life. At the end, there’s a summary table showing all of the old and new tools, as well as the time and cost of switching.
24th Dec 2017 - Email
This one was easy. Ever since a friend switched to Posteo I’ve been meaning to do the same. They’re service is secure, private, runs on entirely clean energy, and costs only €1 per month. What’s not to like?
I had been put off because it seemed like a hassle to make the switch, but it was actually super easy. Sign up for Posteo took about 2 minutes. I then set up my email client (about 1 minute with Thunderbird), exported my contacts from Gmail as a VCard file, and painlessly re-imported them.
|+ Easy and quick to set up||- Webmail interface slightly clunky|
|+ Great value|
|+ Green, private, secure|
1st Jan 2018 - Docs and Storage
Google Drive, and the services that can be used within it (Docs, Sheets, Slides, …) are not an essential part of my workflow, but I certainly do use them for collaborative work, and accessing documents on the move. With very little searching, I found Owncloud, and shortly afterwards, Nextcloud, its open source clone cousin. They are both essentially a replacement for Google Drive, but with apps that can extend the functionality, such as Collabora which is a collaborative office suite.
A bit more reading about features, updates and ethos convinced me to go with Nextcloud. The community version of the software is free (as with Collabora). The only hitch is that you need to set it up on your own server, requiring some time and cost. You can either run it on your own hardware, or rent a private server. I opted for the latter, partially because the monthly cost is small compared to the upfront cost of building your own server, but mainly because it’s hassle-free. It doesn’t rely on my home internet connection, I wouldn’t have to find space in my flat to put a bunch of computer hardware (though it will apparently run on a Raspberry Pi), and I don’t need to take care of any maintenance.
My main requirement for the server, besides the product itself, was that the company hosting the server used renewable energy. Thanks to an article in Permaculture Magazine, I discovered that Hetzner, a German hosting provider, fit the bill. Not only this, but they offer servers with Nextcloud pre-installed on Ubuntu. I signed up for one of their virtual private server packages that suited my current space requirements, jumped through a few hoops, and was ready to go.
Lastly, I did also want to be able to access my Nextcloud server through a web address, rather than an IP address. I bought a domain, pointed it to my server, and after a bit of fiddling around with configuration files (with help from plenty of available community support), I had that up and running too. My first impressions of Nextcloud are good. You can add users, and fine tune user permissions. Installing Collabora was simple, and I also got the Markdown Editor app installed quickly too. I’m just starting to explore all the other apps available.
|+ Self hosted solution||- Set up could be challenging for some|
|+ Customisable||- Haven’t used it enough to find more|
|+ Open source software|
|+ Good support community|
|Item||Old||New||Time to set up (hrs)||Initial Cost (£)||Monthly Cost (£)|
|Gmail / Hotmail||Posteo||0.5||0.00||0.90|
|Calling||Skype / Hangouts|