Privacy in the Internet Era: Social Networking

Privacy in the modern era seems elusive. The media has been a-buzz lately with revelations about how organizations are writing their own rules. Google’s hand was forced by an impending class action lawsuit to announce that users of the popular Gmail service (and perhaps by extension all of Google’s services) had no “reasonable expectation of privacy”. Less recently, whistleblower Edward Snowden announced that the National Security Administration (NSA) was collecting data on a scale grander than anyone knew and the law probably permitted. Since the announcement, Snowden has been forced into exile and branded a traitor against his nation. There is much irony in that the NSA expected privacy as they completely violated the privacy of every internet user on Earth.

Users of Google’s services attempted to bring a class action lawsuit to court against the Silicon Valley giant. The case alleged that Google spied on the contents of their received mail to track them for targeted advertising programs. If someone’s mother sent them a recipe, they could expect to see advertisements for the ingredients as they went about surfing the web. The case was thrown out because judge ruled that the plaintiffs were not “cohesive enough” to merit a class action suit, but this example is not unique.

The buzz word of “big data” is gaining traction in the industry. Companies may be flirting with the line in the sand over privacy laws, but it makes them successful in their practices. Those who do not play the same game lose their competitive edge and fall behind, which must not be allowed to happen in today’s cut-throat economy. The result is an increasingly powerful data collection and analysis operation designed to make money for those who have access. A reasonable question one might ask is: “What is my government doing to protect my right to privacy in light of this?” The unbelievable answer is: “The government possess the most comprehensive and potent ‘big data’ operation yet.

The National Security Administration has been in the spotlight recently for programs known as PRISM and XKeystroke. PRISM is a program which collects data as it travels through the backbone of the internet, which a majority of the world’s internet traffic does at some point. XKeystroke allows any analyst at the agency to sift the data and track one person across the globe and shift this “eye of Sauron” to any of their contacts. In practice, this means that anything you say or do on the internet is subject to search, seizure, and eventually be submitted at your trial. It is enough to cause a feeling of paranoia for the average internet user, and maybe even enough to justify it.

So now the internet user has been reduced to a data point in some eyes and a suspect in others. How did this happen? And how can we reclaim our rights in the digital sphere? Well, it is true what they say: there is no such thing as a free lunch. I would argue that this was inevitable as we shifted the burden of hosting a high quality social networking and internet browsing experience to companies. As more and more of our responsibilities as internet users were shifted to the likes of Google and Facebook, they leveraged this trust to pay for their servers, staff, and a little more besides. It makes good business sense. No, internet user, the fault lies within. The internet was established by those who wanted to build something practical and exciting for themselves. After the concept was proven, others followed with the goal of making the web more accessible and aesthetically pleasing than a collection of shared text files. Now those others are stepping on those they had meant to help. Let’s take a lesson from those born into a world before the internet existed. We the users need to “get informed” and “vote with our wallets”, both of which can be done from the chair you are sitting in right now.

There is a movement growing around the world to separate from the indifferent powers that be; to return the internet to its roots of ground-up, do-it-yourself ethic. It manifests itself as crypto-currencies, as file sharing networks, as crowd-journalism, as open and free software consortiums, and even as decentralized social networks.

diaspora* is an organization dedicated to the (seemingly contrary) philosophies of open software and private communication. The idea is that a social network can be built from the ground up with users hosting their own “pods” on private servers. New users can either request to join an existing pod or download the software to setup a new pod. The data is shared between pods which creates the social network, but the hosting is left to the users themselves. Thus, there is no data-hosting middleman to sell your secrets. To make it even easier to join, diaspora* was built to be compatible with existing networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Starting a pod of your own is both a great start to taking back your online privacy and the start of a great hobby in information technology.

As more lurid details come out about the business practices of conventional social networks, expect more of these decentralized social networks to come to the surface and grow in membership.