The Privacy Revolution That Never Came

February 28, 2017

There is a war waging today, and shots are being fired through the wire. You make your move. They make theirs. Who’s winning? The ones trying harder of course. In this game of oversized entities vs. techies, we are significantly out-powered.

Information. That’s all anyone ever wanted. For a government, it is its lifeblood. In the past, information was relatively easy to control and stiffen. Today, information is out of control.

Information travels at the speed of light, the fastest possible speed of anything in the universe. How do you possibly stop something like that? You can’t. Our troubles begin when an over-eager entity thinks it can.

This is the game of privacy we are all playing today. From controlling who sees what on our profiles, to encrypting our data or using a VPN to reroute it, we are Player 2 in this game of information. What’s at stake? Our future. Privacy is power, and the moves we make today determine the balance of power for future generations and societies. When this power is in the hands of those who have a monopoly on police and military force, mass murder is the inevitable outcome.

So where is the information privacy revolution we are all waiting for? That one climactic day where we all decide to get really serious about privacy? We say, “I’m keeping a close eye, but I’m not going to trouble myself too much for privacy right now. When I really have to, then I’ll start.” That day either will never come, or will come in a form that takes our country with it. I speak of America, but this applies to any country which has been built on solid and well-meaning principles — a new country is not easy to build. Lives are lost and blood is shed needlessly in the transition. Let’s keep our country, and fix it instead.

Governments may be intrusive, but neither they nor the people are inherently evil: it is scale that is problematic. The larger something becomes, the less you can make out how constituent actions and individuals make up the whole, until it becomes an autonomous entity of its own, capable of setting its own direction through the sheer force of its own scale.

So, where is our revolution?

It’s with the software developers.

Software developers and others who are deeply entrenched in technology are the only ones today with enough skill to possibly outmaneuver the over-powerful, un-restricted. It has become too difficult, or was never quite easy enough, for the average consumer to keep up with the best mechanisms of controlling their information and privacy. This made the game for Player 1 so incredibly easy that record collection occurred on the order of billions of data points per day. Then came the techies — real challengers, who started getting in the way and became real impediments for Player 1. Technologies like Tor, VPNs, Torrents, and Cryptocurrencies are making it extremely difficult for the over-powerful, un-restricted. But like all good games, each player hits back harder on every turn. And our team is losing sorely.

Even I must admit, as a software developer, that keeping up with the latest technologies in privacy is not easy. And if it’s not easy for us, it will never be easy for the common computer user. So when will the data revolution come? Never, at this rate.

While we enjoy the luxuries of modern society, lubricated endlessly with technologies that relieve any chore and fulfill any need, we must not forget from whence we came. Revolutions in history did not happen through 140 characters; they happened with blood, tears, sweat, and a carnivorous desire for a new world. Our war is less tangible, nonexistent but through electrical impulses traveling through a wire. How can it be urgent if I cannot see it! proclaims the foolish human today, operating under an outdated, recklessly biological operating system not able to fully make sense of the digital world.

But for many of us, our digital lives are more real than our biological ones. So, what is at stake? The way we move around town in our digital lives. Imagine living in a town where when you walked outside from your home to the grocery store, men in dark suits with dark sunglasses and an earpiece monitored your behavior, wrote down your every movement and detail, the color of your shoes on that day, your general mood, how long you spent in the grocery store, what you bought, how fast you were walking back home, who you were walking with, or talking on the phone with — this is all metadata. How might you feel if this information were being collected about your real physical life? Threatened, for sure. Biologically threatened.

Our new lives are digital. Welcome, evolution. Let us show you around our new world. It is not yet acquainted, nor can probably ever be. So how shall we start our new lives; our new country, our new world? In a world of secret monitoring and surveillance of our movements and metadata? Or as a new old-America, a place to be free, a place to travel thousands of miles to; the promised land.

Let us start our new world on solid footing. There are iPad apps today that teach children how to code — do you think the effect of this will be inconsequential? What is bleeding edge today, comprehensible only by the esoteric few, will tomorrow be known and internalized by children before the age of ten. We say, privacy will never be mainstream because of how difficult it is to get right. True. But where does it start?

It starts when those with the power to make change happen step up and do their part. Luckily for us, this won’t involve stepping onto a bloody battlefield. But it will involve inconveniencing ourselves to do what is right to protect the world for ourselves and for future generations. We must do what is difficult today to make it easy for others tomorrow.

As a software developer or techie, you are the main character in this game, and it all depends on your decisions and actions today. Too cumbersome to manage a small personal server? Future generations will never know data ownership. Too inconvenient to use that slightly-less-than-beautiful encrypted chat app? Future generations will never know data privacy. Too much work to install an open-source app on your own server? Future generations will never know data freedom.

It is up to us to step up and do what is difficult for what is right. It won’t be hard forever. It’s hard because it’s new. But once you, and your friend, and your co-worker, and tens of millions of developers are all doing the hard thing, how much longer do you think it will remain hard? Not long. Because as it is with market economies, these tens of millions of developers now become a market to cater to and sell products to, thus perpetuating and expanding the privacy mindset.

It won’t take ten years to happen. It won’t take ten million developers. It just takes you.

Thanks for reading

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