Thoughts on Privacy Nowadays, or Why You Should Care.

Massive data flux. Ever-increasing bandwidth speeds. Information sharing through gigantic social networks. All-knowing search engines. Security agencies that do a little bit more than they should. And you are right in the middle of all this.

What is the problem ? (And is it a problem at all ?)

Answering the second question: yes, it is indeed a problem.

Now, for the first one. The problem is that websites and softwares are collecting your data, and making them freely available to governments and companies, without the proper consent of the ones they had spied on.

But all of this is done with the said purpose of protecting the citizens against terrorist activities. Well, although on the paper it would be a rather fair excuse to perform such actions, the very act of collecting people’s information and data without their formal knowledge could be considered a form of terrorism; one committed by the government against its own population. And we all know what could happen, right ?

George Orwell's 1984

George Orwell’s 1984

Well, it’s quite clear we won’t be facing the exact scenario described in Orwell’s 1984 . We have achieved a point where we are able to share information quite quickly, and social mobilization is much more easily achieved than what George Orwell had envisioned for his dystopian future. Although it doesn’t make all the spying activities look any better.

“But I’ve got nothing to hide !!”

If there is one sentence that almost comes out in unison is the classic “Well, I’m doing nothing wrong, why should I be hiding things ?”.

Sure, you might not be doing wrong things, but please remember that they are collecting almost ALL your personal data and information. Yes, they might as well know the videos you watch, the songs you listen to, the people you chat with and even your political convictions. And perhaps some of those you consider private information, and it could harm your professional or social life (your employers or workmates may not share the same political ideals with you, or they reprove your sexual orientation). Yes, it may be “lying” in some sort of way, but you are in your right to keep your information private as an individual person.

What is the role of free software then ?

Well, let’s take a look at the title of this blog.  While I’m not convinced that the NSA, PRISM and any other security agencies or malicious website are collecting data and information from your daily cup of Earl Grey, I am convinced that Free Software is one of the keys to win this “battle”. And  I believe it is a new way to view the whole problem, as most websites mention web services that are used to track the user, but often make no mention to the softwares installed on the users’ computers.

Well, that would be a hell of a plot twist, wouldn't it ?

Well, that would be a hell of a plot twist, wouldn’t it ?

“But how does using this particular kind of software help protecting my privacy ?”, you may be asking. Well, if we take a look at the main goals and ideals of the Free Software Movement, we can see that the essence of free software is that anyone can study and/ or change the source code for the software.

Richard M. Stallman, fouder of the Free Software Foundation.

Richard M. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation.

“But these softwares can still be harmful, right ?”. Well, the answer would be yes and no. Confusing ? Not at all, actually. Yes, one could develop a software that respects the famous 4 rules, and still fill it with malicious bits. However, as it is always directed at the community of users, such irregularities are easily spotted, and new versions are created by removing those nasty bits, and the original developer is most likely to be remembered as an “evil-doer”. Also, if the Free Software Foundation gives a software a sign of approval (usually characterized by being featured on their website, or being openly recommended by the head of the foundation). Then, you will always be able to install non-malicious programs on your computer, protecting your privacy.

The Free Softwate Foundation

The Free Softwate Foundation

This is going great so far, but you can go the extra mile. What if your whole operating system was in fact a giant spyware/ malware. Well, this is the case with the two most used systems on desktops nowadays (I won’t write their names here, because I think you are smart enough to guess who we are talking about). Fear not, my dear friend, now that we’ve come so far. You have indeed options for a free operating system, or an open source one.

The mascots of GNU (left) and GNU/Linux (right)

The mascots of GNU (left) and GNU/Linux (right)

What is the difference ? A completely free OS will come with free software only, and it really will respect your privacy. However, it may cause some trouble, as famous plugins such as Flash Player and video/audio codecs are examples of proprietary software, thus not being available on the official repositories (a “place where the supported programs are being kept”, on other words) of the OS. On the other hand, an open source system (e.g. Linux distributions, or distros, and BSD’s) may have those proprietary softwares on their repositories, but although you still have access to the source code and can change it, there are some bits that you cannot change. Also, as it is not recommended by the FSF, it may contain some kinds of malicious software – a great example is when Ubuntu, one of the most famous Linux distros in the world, started to be shipped with Amazon lens, which sent user information directly to the company.

Final thoughts

Security agencies around the globe are continuously spying on their citizens, destroying their privacy with the so-called purpose of guaranteeing peace and fighting terrorrism. These agencies make use of advanced technology and almost complete access to personal accounts on social networks, without the proper consent of the users.

One of the ways to fight this spying is to use free software, which is managed by the user community and its source code is available to anyone, making it easy to spot malicious bits. You can go even further, installing a free or open source operating system, which in most cases are much “safer” than other systems.

Image Credits

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