In search of some digital privacy

I use Gmail, and have for maybe a couple of decades, or whenever it became common enough that its initial, exclusive invite-only clique had run its course and the “in-people” had a ton of invites they could just throw around freely.

And it’s been good, for the most part. It’s pretty intuitive and lets me email people and lets people email me.

Recently, however, I’m finding a growing interest in trying to cut down on the amount of chosen digital exposure I’m opening myself to. It’s not that I’m so paranoid or self-important that I think that anyone is peeking in on my texts or email–of course Gmail is doing exactly that latter one, formerly for its own ad targeting and now for third parties–but rather, I’m becoming increasingly of the mind that I shouldn’t even need to think about whether or not that’s a real, much less a likely, possibility.

I look at it this way: Texting or emailing someone are a couple of options to relay info without speaking with them in person. Now, if that person and I were the only ones in a room together, I’d know that no one is listening to what we’re saying. I can see it’s just the two of us. That’s how I feel a one-on-one talk, a text or an email, should be: This is just you and me talking, and no matter how flippant or private the topic may be, it’s between you and me.

But to take that analogy further, an insecure texting app–where you don’t know who at the app company can see it as or once it’s sent, or what they may then do with that information–is akin to us talking in a room but with blindfolds on. Which is to say, we can hear each other and respond, but we have no idea if there’s anyone else around us who may be listening in.

And an insecure email service, like Gmail, is basically me in a blindfold handing a printed letter to someone–I don’t know who that is, or whether or not they’re reading it or what they’re doing with that data–who hands it to someone else (ditto), an unknown number of times… but I know that someone somewhere is reading it because I start getting ads related to email content later… until it finally gets to its intended recipient.

Would you want do that with a physical letter you wrote to someone? I’d wager not. There’s a reason we have opaque letters that seal, after all. As said, it’s not a matter of how private the content I’m sending is, because the point here is that everything we send to one another should be as private as the sender and recipient want it to be. To quote that Edward Snowden fella, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

And again: With my not being high profile (sorry to break it to you), there’s almost certainly no one targeting me personally. But then there’s the reality of mass digital message surveillance (again touching on Edward Snowden), and if you’ve paid any attention to social media news, you’ve certainly heard something about Facebook–which not only continues to be the king of social media with 2.5 billion users, but now also owns the very popular WhatsApp texting app (1.5 billion users), plus the hugely popular Instagram property as well (1 billion users)–getting caught up and taken to task for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a topic too lengthy an issue to get into as an aside here (hence the link, see?), but let’s just say it was highly unethical use of some of the shit-ton of data they’d collected on their users that, in part, helped win the 2016 U.S. election.

I could go on. The sheer volume of data that enormous companies have access to by willing users these days gives those companies a dangerous amount of power. (And that’s not hyperbole: Affecting the outcome of a democratic election is a power that no one company should have.) So yeah, I’m hoping I won’t seem paranoid or tinfoil-hat-y if I’d like to get off that ride and get a little more digital privacy in my life and the lives of those I care about.

So I’ve changed my former texting app to Signal. I’ll let you do whatever research you want about it rather than throw around details and stats that may mean nothing to you or fall short of your technophile needs, but suffice to say it’s the pinnacle of secure, private texting apps. Enough that review after review says if you can’t talk in person, use Signal. And if you can’t use Signal, look at a really secure email service (none of which are as good as Signal). The problem there, such as it is, is that it takes two to tango. If I’m using Signal but no one in my contact list does the same (i.e. continues to use their other/less secure texting app of choice), then the security and privacy it offers doesn’t work. Me handing a closed, sealed letter to that same line of strangers knowing that someone down the line will be opening it and reading it before it gets to its intended recipient.

For email service, I already have a super-secure ProtonMail account, but I’ve recently heard about Tutanota, as well. I’ve been reading some head-to-head comparisons, and they’re both extremely well reviewed but overall Tutanota seems to get more nods than ProtonMail. Tutanota also has twice the storage (even at the free level) and the paid, upgraded levels (which I may bump up to) are more affordable. That they also run the email service from 100% renewable energy is kind of the cherry on the cake.
Happily, whichever I opt to use as my new primary account, both services offer options to encrypt emails even to people who don’t use the same encrypted email services (giving me the option, as it were, to ensure that the letter stays sealed until the recipient opens it for material that’s more sensitive).

I totally get that making these changes will risk me seeming a bit of odd(er) duck with a percentage of friends and family, but frankly I’m hoping that instead they’ll soon come around to the same conclusions I have and join me in reclaiming some of our dwindling privacy.