Some Thoughts on Privacy and Open Source

Creative image of a keyboard with the word "Privacy" as the only letters. Used under Creative Commons.

I recently became involved in a discussion on an iOS subreddit about email clients and privacy issues. The core of the discussion surrounded an article which broke the news that a popular email app on iOS was scraping users emails and selling their data to large corporate interests for marketing purposes without their users’ consent.

The article interested me because I’ve never used the app in question, and also because just about anyone in the tech industry is paying attention to privacy in our current climate. I hope that most casual users are, as well. In any case, there was great discussion surrounding the topic, and I contributed with a statement that I’ve heard frequently and that is over-used, but that carries a lot of traction with me:

IF YOU’RE NOT PAYING FOR THE PRODUCT, YOU ARE THE PRODUCT.

And let me say up front that I completely believe that statement holds true. For the first time, though (and this is why I love Reddit, incidentally), I was called out on a couple of very logical points, and those who called me out expressed legitimate concerns about the issues with that statement that I hadn’t considered before: That it implies the inverse to be true, and that it ignores open source. These objections caused a lot of introspection in me, and I want to discuss that, but first let’s get the background of the statement.

Privacy Issues and Our Society

I highly recommend the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which is a heavy read, but will certainly change your perspective on the technology with which you engage every day. Privacy first became a passion of mine when I deleted my Facebook account some time ago after discovering just how callously the network treated the personal data of its users. Since then, many of the corporations that the book discusses have been on my “to delete” list, Amazon and Google among them, although divorcing from those services is incredibly complicated. In any case, the quote above first popped up on a podcast and it resonated deeply with me. The idea is that nothing is free. Facebook, GMail, Twitter…the services that we use daily and which we expect to be free aren’t free, we’re just paying for them with our personal data and identity, often unknowingly. That trade-off is insidious, and I earnestly believe that we’re losing ourselves…both individually and culturally…in the exchange.

What About When It Isn’t Free?

One of the counterpoints raised in the discussion on the subreddit was that this idea is dangerous because it implies that the inverse is true: that if you are paying, you shouldn’t be concerned about your personal information. I don’t think that there’s anything in the statement that indicates that the inverse isn’t true, and we don’t have to look any further than Amazon for proof. Anyone using an Echo device has to have been paying attention to some of the privacy issues that have been raised around Amazon’s open mic into your living room. My point when I quote this statement is that we’ve become so conditioned to our email, for example, being free, that we don’t pause to consider how much data is being vacuumed up by Google about us. It’s not to imply that we shouldn’t have a cautious eye on Amazon, Microsoft, and other companies that we’re paying for services. I always advise everyone to take the time to read the TOS and privacy policies for every account that you open, and make certain that you’re comfortable with them. There’s always a competing service out there if you’re not.

But What About Open Source?

This is the objection that was raised in the subreddit that really made me pause. I’m bummed because, if you read the subreddit, you’ll find that the comment was deleted by the other user, and so that part of the discussion isn’t available any longer. Essentially, though, someone called me on the fact that this statement is a slap in the face to the open source community, and all of the incredible free software that it contributes to the open web, maintained by passionate programmers who volunteer their time to make the web a better place.

I’m actually really surprised, in retrospect, that I had never thought of this before, considering I make my living using open source technologies and consider myself a part of the community. I absolutely do not think that this logic applies to the open source community. So….why not? Isn’t this a contradiction? I’m also forced to pause and consider that large social media corporations have contributed open source projects to the world: Facebook gave us React (and we’re arguably the worse for it, but…), and Twitter gave us Bootstrap, one of the most popular front-end frameworks in use. Drupal and WordPress are two of the most popular systems on the web, and both are open source. None of these libraries (or frameworks, or applications, depending on which one we’re discussing) have any sort of business model, and are not taking our personal data to serve us ads or “personalized” content, at least not in and of themselves. So, the counterpoint is valid, here. The open source community, if not proving the statement wrong, proves that it isn’t always the case.

As is frequently the case with the open web, that gives me hope. And that’s the reason that I’m so passionate about working here. I suppose that one could argue that we are still the product, still part of the larger web of interconnectivity that the open web represents and helps to facilitate. That’s maybe a bit too philosophical for this post. I think that the takeaway is that, often, a service for which you are not paying is not free. Take the time to examine privacy policies, and be aware of your personal data and who has access to it. And give some love to the open source community by contributing back, or by donating to a project or buying the developer who built your favorite project a coffee. In doing so, you are paying for the product, just in a slightly less monetary way.

Image attribution: g4ll4is under Creative Commons.

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