Distributist Resolutions for the Digital Age

I’ve been thinking a lot about becoming more responsible for my digital property in 2014. It’s not just the scandal with the NSA. It’s realizing how much of one’s life is essentially tied up in strings of “1’s” and “0’s” stored on large corporate-owned servers. If there is one thing I’ve learned in 2013, it’s how fundamentally essential my digital information is to my personal well-being.

This general attitude has only been reinforced since I heard from a friend who lost $10,000 dollars in BitCoin when he cancelled a cloud account without including proper backup. At first it sounded outlandish to be so invested in pieces of information that essentially didn’t exist beyond their presence on a third party server. Then I thought of the copious amounts of ebooks, apps, and music I “owned” but that could be easily rescinded by the party in charge of the DRM.

So in 2013 I will be trying out some new resolutions, not just to ensure my own information is secure, but to really become part of the collective solution that will eventually be needed to solve the issue.

1.) Use Non-Proprietary and DRM-free file formats

I think one of the main ways to ensure privacy is to establish boundaries between data owned by the user and the data owned by the service. Nothing has hurt this distinction more than existence of pervasive DRM. By now everyone if familiar with horror stories of people loosing their collection of ebooks or mp3’s based on legalistic mismanagement on the part of Amazon or Apple. But beyond ridiculous worst-case scenarios, the truly destructive part of DRM is the implicit understanding it embodies that a user does not own a digital piece of media the way they own a physical copy of the same material. In order for any sort of rational concept of information ownership to emerge, DRM must go.

For myself this is a daunting task. Like most users of my generation I bought intdataownershipo the digital marketplace early and without thinking of the in infrastructure I was creating. As a result I have invested thousands in media formats that are DRM locked. Yes, I can strip it off, but this takes time and is not exactly legal. For the time being, at least I can stick to the formats that are open. No more kindle books or iTunes media.

2.) Use the Open Source Alternative

Alright, Alright. I have already written about the general futility of trying to work without proprietary software. But I am also sick and tired of companies abusing their market dominance of applications to rope people’s data into their own personal cloud systems. There is no way to survive (in the corporate world at least) without Microsoft Office; but I’ve noticed increasingly that the application is trying to move my documents from the hard drive to the cloud. Creepy, but especially creepy considering that, due to Microsoft’s dominance, the open source alternatives for word processing and spreadsheet management provide no real alternative in a modern work flow.

For the time being it’s baby steps: using Firefox instead of Google Chrome, GIMP instead of Adobe Photoshop. Though, it might be a while before I can ditch iTunes or Microsoft Office.

3.) Keep Updated With Privacy News and Networks

There are plenty of ways to keep abreast of the various updates to the status of online privacy. However, I have to confess, as much as I love talking about privacy in the abstract, I hate actually following the day-to-day news concerning which new groups have, most recently, been abusing digital privacy. Still, there is no real way to handle the issue without being informed. Not to mention, I’d be a bit of a hypocrite to complain about user apathy when I can’t be bothered to read a three page article about the new Google terms of service.

I should have my work cut out for me for the next year. I also plan to exercise regularly, sustain a low-carb diet, and lose ten pounds; but, of course, that should resolution should be relatively easy to keep.

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Why I’m Praying for More Judicial Activism against Online Privacy

We all knew this was coming. Yesterday, the courts pushed back against earlier rulings on privacy and the NSA’s data-collection schemes. From the New York Times :

“A federal judge on Friday ruled that a National Security Agency program that collects enormous troves of phone records is legal, making the latest contribution to an extraordinary debate among courts and a presidential review group about how to balance security and privacy in the era of big data

In just 11 days, the two judges and the presidential panel reached the opposite of consensus on every significant question before them, including the intelligence value of the program, the privacy interests at stake and how the Constitution figures in the analysis.”

I do hope that the US Supreme Court picks this case up. Not that I’m expecting the court to rule in favor of privacy, I just want some definitive status-quo so that an honest discussion of the issue can take place. I get the sense reading the news that no one really understands what’s at stake or the relevant precedence in law for online privacy. The technology is changing fast and, consequently, no one feels like its worth developing a strong opinion. At this time, a large judicial decision might help people wake up and become involved with the issue of digital privacy.

I think this is more or less the role that Roe vs. Wade had on the issue of abortion. Before the landmark ruling, the anti-abortion movement was a disorganized coalition of church groups shell-shocked by the sexual revolution and unable to put forward any argument beyond dogma. Forty years later, with the specter of Roe vs.Wade still looming, the Pro-Life community had formed itself into a cohesive and burgeoning movement dwarfing its opposition on the national stage.

I would hope something similar might be possible for the advocates of online privacy. A setback wrought through judicial activism would be bad; but could anything be worse than the slow deterioration of privacy through apathy and public ignorance?

South Park pushes back against the paranoid

It looks like South Park finally weighed in on the NSA scandal during last Wednesdays show. True to form, Parker and Stone take the cool-headed approach to government spying and point to the central overlooked fact about human-based surveillance : it is completely intractable.

Cartman

Even though I spent last week’s post arguing against complacency to surveillance in an age where computers are rapidly taking over for humans,  I think Parker and Stone’s point is well taken. It is worth remembering that, in contemporary times at least, surveillance is still a human driven activity and we shouldn’t expect to see vast data-mining systems wrapping their coils around our personal lives.  Paranoids conspiracy theories are enemy of concerned citizens and the last thing we need is another Dylan Averary or Alex Jones intruding on a serious effort to understand the bounds of privacy in the modern era.

Still, given recent events, one might  wonder if the broken watch that is the conspiracy community isn’t also right twice a day……