“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
This is how Google CEO Eric Schmidt responded when asked if users should share information with Google as a “trusted friend.” His statement boils down to the following: if you desire privacy for something you are doing, then you shouldn’t be doing that.
That’s an odd take on privacy. If I have private conversations with my wife about, say, finances and our marriage, does the private nature of those conversations make them wrong? Of course not. As Michael Matheson Miller puts it, “Privacy is not ‘hiding’ or a sign of corruption. Privacy is good. Privacy is a place where we can share vulnerability and truth, where we practice love and tenderness.”
So, yes, we all have something to hide. The question, for each of us both in our personal and professional lives, is how.
In his new book, Digital Contagion: 10 Steps to Protect Your Family & Business from Intrusion, Cancel Culture, & Surveillance Capitalism, Michael Matheson Miller gives readers a few preliminary steps to avoid Big Tech’s prying eyes and greedy hands.
This is not a fool-proof privacy manual for digital technology. No such thing could exist outside of totally opting out of its use. Which, for most of us, is not a viable option. To work and live in the modern world requires digital technology, and using digital technology makes us vulnerable to intrusion.
There’s no way around that dilemma, so the goal for us is to maintain the benefits of digital technology, while limiting exposure to intrusion.
First off, it is important to highlight the goal. The goal is to be what Miller calls “operationally remote.” That is, you need to make your digital operations as decentralized and remote as possible in order to limit “exposure to surveillance, centralization, and data intrusion.” In pursuit of becoming operationally remote, Miller gives ten steps. Here are three that may be particularly helpful for you and your business or nonprofit.
“Free services mean you are the product, not the customer.”
How do we get so much free from Google, and yet Google is still the fourth most valuable company in the world? They are making money hand over fist from ad services and data collection. Your email services, photo storage, internet search is all “free,” but there’s a cost. They’re reading your emails, feeding you ads, and paying attention to all that you do.
For opting out of email, Miller suggests ProtonMail (among others) as the best paid email option. If you’re running a business or nonprofit, there is an option for you.
If you’re using Google Drive or Google Photos, they’ve got you there, too. Admittedly, it is an easy way to hold and transfer large files. But Miller cautions against this. It is immensely important, he argues, to own your own files. When you use Google Drive or Photos, your files are on Google’s servers. Miller explains: “It is like having all your files in a cabinet in someone else’s living room. They can see it. And don’t think it doesn’t happen.”
So, what do you do? One option Miller suggests is a paid Dropbox account. Dropbox is relatively easy to use, and the paid accounts are more secure than Google. However, using Dropbox is still using someone else’s servers. There are also decentralized servers that use Blockchain technology. Proton (of ProtonMail) is developing its own drive (which is currently available in beta). There are other options like Basecamp which Miller highly recommends.
Finally, you could set up your own personal server. As Miller writes, “this is more private, but it is also more complex and requires you to pay attention to your own security.” Miller notes that this is an area that is in need of more advancement. But, for the time being, if you or your nonprofit wants to truly keep its data safe, it is worth looking into blockchain based servers or investing in a personal server.
Does your organization do any marketing via social media? If so, how would you answer this question from Miller? “What would happen to your contacts if Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn shut down your account? How would you contact your customers, followers, connections?”
It’s important to maintain ways of connecting with your audience that do not rely on social media and Big Tech, especially as they become more censorious. Miller suggests collecting emails. As a nonprofit, this is a good practice anyway. Do your best to get people from your social media accounts to your website, so they can become a member or donate and make sure you get their email in that process. 50,000 Twitter followers is good. 50,000 emails is better.
Miller also points out that it is good to have back-ups for the data in your CRM or database. Services like Salesforce are becoming increasingly woke. The only way to protect yourself is by storing backups of all your data. Imagine the nightmare of losing in short order years’ worth of data in your CRM. You should store back-ups of your entire database—on your own server, or in a SQL database—on a regular database. Do this weekly or bi-weekly depending on how fast your lists are changing. It may never happen, but its good practice to be resilient in this way. You don’t want to be dependent on an imperfect technology and moreover, one that may be wielded ideologically.
Overall, Miller’s book is a great starter kit to keep you and your organization safe from Big Tech. Nonetheless, and he admits as much, it is not a comprehensive study.
In the first place, I found myself wondering about payment methods and protecting banking information when purchasing items online. Presumably you should never save your card number on your browser but how else can we protect that information? Miller does spend some time talking about cryptocurrency—and blockchain technology is a constant theme of the book—but he does not spend much time talking about using cryptocurrency. Of course, this is a rapidly developing field right now; nonetheless I found myself wanting to hear how we can keep money safe, both personally and for our businesses and organizations (and not to mention donors).
Miller ends on an inspiring note, giving an exhortation to what he calls the “Tocqueville Option.” A vision for a future where digital technology is not made for the isolated individual but rather built in such a way that recognizes human beings as embodied and embedded creatures. Nonetheless, until that future comes (if it ever does), we need to protect ourselves and our organizations from fragility caused by thoughtless use of digital technology. This book is a good start.