Privacy with Utility

June 3, 2020 • #

The winds of internet privacy1 shift all over the place. Certain technologies like encryption have given us important moves forward in security, but then big platforms like Facebook or a million small ad tech outfits have taken us the other way with invasive trackers and mishandling of data they shouldn’t have and most of the time don’t need. But the prevailing winds over the past few years have moved, on net, positively toward a focus on protecting personal data.

The nuclear options deployed by the pro-privacy EFF advocate to combat internet creepiness are to delete Facebook, block all trackers, use burner devices, and tape over their webcams. Of course that type of response brings a level of security in exchange for utility and convenience. Events like the revelations around PRISM, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and countless corporate data breaches have made it common knowledge for everyday people what personal data many companies had, what could happen when that data is exposed, and how easily it happens.

Internet privacy

Blockchain technology promises to enable a lot in this area, but most of it is still immature. On the political front the regulatory responses through GDPR and other challenges to corporate data handling have helped, as well.

I’ve never been too paranoid about this stuff. I still use Chrome, Google’s productivity services, and many more of your classic Big Tech platforms. As technology spreads to more people (the internet is for everyone now, not just techies) and becomes more complex (a natural side effect of improvement) the issues creep in depth and scope. Data breaches, browser cookies, IP tracking, and hidden Javascript trackers are different dimensions of the same broader issue: gradually boiling the frog of what users will tolerate, if they even realize it’s happening in the first place.

There are many companies in the market now getting traction by safeguarding privacy as a central tenet. I like seeing these challengers to the BigCos of tech building secure, privacy-first products. They’re finding revenue paths that don’t require invasive, privacy-encroaching models with advertising, bending backwards to support “free” products.

To try and wean myself off of some of these platforms and support organizations committed to privacy, I recently made two big switches: DuckDuckGo for search, and Brave as my default browser.

DuckDuckGo’s gradual growth is a testament to how little Google has done to address the privacy concerns with their technology, especially the Ads stack, Analytics, and Chrome. In the way that I use search today, DDG’s usefulness and speed rival Google’s results, as far as I can tell. On the browser front, Brave was created by Javascript creator Brendan Eich to rethink how web browsing works, to rid us of the creeping, bloated megabytes of JS trackers that have to load on every modern media outlet website. It’s got ad blocker tech built in, and brings an interesting concept to attempt to replace old media-style advertising revenue through its “Basic Attention Token” cryptocurrency model — as you browse the web and view ads through their secure ad network, you earn tokens which you can donate back to content creators. From what I’ve read there’s some controversy around this model which I haven’t researched much, but I’ll have to give them credit for trying something new. On the surface it feels like they’re onto something here. As long as we’re using the traditional ads and PPM model, we’ll be chasing ghosts on the privacy front. Content creators can push on this issue, too. Substack and Ghost have been building healthy businesses supporting content creators building properties to go direct to their audiences, disintermediating the ad networks and big media distributors from the business of publishing and owning customer relationships — consumer directly pays creator, with minimal indirections in between.

But back to the original title of this post. The interesting thing today is that there are compelling tools to replace the high utility (but low privacy) products that seemed irreplaceable a few years ago. Indexing on security has felt like a trade-off against having quality products available to you. But now there’s been a renaissance for personal, secure products by companies being transparent about where their money comes from. DuckDuckGo is still ad supported, as is Brave. I’ve read a lot about Fastmail recently as a Gmail alternative, and they’ve gone with the all-too-unique business model of charging money in exchange for a service (how novel!).

  1. You could use the terms “user data stewardship” or “security” interchangeably here and throughout this article.