Dennis Schubert

On communication, privacy and open source

2014-10-04 opensource, software

I feel like the internet is a bit ill nowadays and I fear most people cannot understand what is happening. We are facing an internet which seems to be more and more controlled by very large companies offering commercial services to its customers. Of course, there is absolute nothing wrong with people trying to make money with the internet, but the way they are trying to accomplish this is a huge issue.

Recently, I went out and asked people about their most used web applications. As expected, most people told me they use Facebook to share activities and news with their families and friends, WhatsApp to send messages, YouTube to watch funny cat videos, Instagram to share photos and Dropbox to share files with others. Surprisingly, very few people said they send emails to share information and they seemed quite surprised when I asked about email because everyone uses one of those big services. However, if they write mails, they are hosted at one of the larger mail services.

I wanted to know more. Unfortunately, most Germans are incredible busy people and almost nobody had time for a chat, but I was able to talk a bit. I asked them if they are fine with large companies reading and selling their private content on social network.

You’re asking your friend on WhatsApp if you should meet tonight. You agree to meet in a club nearby. Of course, you want to tell all of your friends that you have been there, so you check in using Facebook. And as you really enjoyed your dinner, you share a picture of it on Instagramm.

They agreed.

Now WhatsApp, Facebook and all of their advertisement partners know you like electronic music and you enjoy eating sushi. They also know where you have been since your smartphone added GPS tags to your Facebook post and the photo you uploaded on Instagram. The next time you visit Facebook, you will see advertisements from a premium class bar next door and you will receive 20% off on all drinks if you check in on Facebook. So you pay twice as much and your advertisement target profile will get even more precise.

Obviously, I exaggerated a lot, but it made people think. Using large platforms on the internet to communicate is nothing bad, but one really should think about what to share and what not to share. Sure, most services provide privacy settings to hide posts and profile information, but those settings only prevent other users from view such information, not the provider and certainly not their partners. As always, if you are not paying, you are the product and large free services need a lot of money to operate the servers so they will work with companies that pay for user profiles. Everyone should be aware of that.

The point I wanted to make: If you are not able to control the software, you do not own your personal data and you have absolutely no control about what is going to happen with the data. Even with very strict privacy settings, the people with administration access will have full access to your private data.

If you want true control who can access your data, you have to be your own administrator. The diaspora* network is a great alternative to centralized social networks. MediaGoblin can replace YouTube, Flickr and Instagram for private photos and videos. ownCloud can replace Dropbox and provides a CalDAV and CardDAV server and some basic document edit applications like Google Docs.

Of course, not everyone is able to host their own services, but everyone is able to use free and open source software. If you have no own server to install such services, ask your friends. If you have a tech-savvy friend, chances are high that he has a server to host your stuff, too. Even if that’s not the case, there are a lot of open instances running those services for you to use. Of course, you still would not own your data, but at least your stuff is not stored on large company servers and usually open source services are not going to use or share your private data.

If you do not host the service yourself, you can encrypt the data, especially when sending emails. It’s not hard at all, just give it a try. Encryption makes it very hard for service provides (and, by the way, intelligence agencies) to read your data.

Talking about free and open source software… Data stored in your mail client and your web browser is very personal, too, and obviously you should prefer free and open source alternatives like Firefox and Thunderbird and there are really nice and easy-to-use Linux distributions like manjaro to replace your Windows or Mac OS.

If you know what I am talking about, please do me a favor: Please teach people around you about privacy and encryption. Also, please share and promote free and open source software. Thank you. If you do not know what I am talking about, but you want to learn more, ask someone. You can even ask me if you want to, I will answer your questions! Using free and open source software is important and everyone should work on improving and spreading them.