by Emily St.

When we choose to engage with the Internet, we encounter a conflict between convenience and control of our identities and of our data. However trivially we interact with online services—playing games, finding movies or music, connecting to others on social media—we leave identifying information behind, intentionally or not. In addition, we relinquish some or even all rights to our own creations when we offer our content to share with others, such as when we write on Medium.

Most of us give this incongruity some thought—even if we don’t frame it as a conflict—for example, when we set our privacy settings on Facebook. With major data breaches (of identifying, health, financial, or personal info) and revelations of widespread, indiscriminate government surveillance in the news over the last few years, probably more of us are thinking about it these days. In some way or another, we all must face up to the issue.

At one extreme, it’s possible to embrace convenience completely. Doing so means handing over information about ourselves without regard for how it will be used or by whom. At the other extreme, there’s a Unabomber-like strategy of complete disconnection. This form of non-participation comes along with considerable economic and social disenfranchisement.1

The rest of us stride a line between, maybe hewing nearer to one extreme or another as our circumstances allow. This includes me. As time passes, I am usually trying to exert more control over my online life, but I still trade for convenience or access. I use an idea I call my trust footprint to make this decision on a case-by-case basis.

woman reading a technical book
credit: #wocintech

For example, I realized I began to distrust Google because the core of their business model is based on advertising. I wrote a short post on my personal website about my motives and process, but to sum up, I didn’t want to be beholden to a collection of services that made no promises about my privacy or their functionality or availability in the future. I felt powerless using Google, and I knew this wouldn’t change because they have built their empire on advertising, a business model which puts the customers’ privacy and autonomy at odds with their success.

Before I began to distrust Google, I didn’t give my online privacy or autonomy as much thought as I do today. When I began getting rid of my Google account and trying to find ways to replace its functionality, I had to examine my motives, in order to clarify the intangible problem Google posed for me.

I concluded that companies which derive their income from advertising necessarily pit themselves adversarially against their customers in a zero-sum game to control those customers’ personal information. So I try to avoid companies whose success is based on selling the customer instead of a product.

Facebook, as another example, needs to learn more about their users and the connections between them in order to charge advertisers more and, in turn, increase revenue. To do so, they encourage staying in their ecosystem with games and attempt to increase connections among users with suggestions and groups. As noted in this story about Facebook by The Consumerist last year:

Targeted ads are about being able to charge a premium to advertisers who want to know exactly who they’re reaching. Unfortunately, in order to do so, Facebook has to compromise the privacy of its hundreds of millions of users.

Most social networks engage in similar practices, like Twitter.

Consequently, my first consideration when gauging my trust footprint is to ask who benefits from my business: What motivates them to engage with users, and what will motivate them in the future? This includes thinking about the business model under which online services I choose operate—to the extent this information is available and accurate, of course.

Of course, this information often isn’t clear, up front, available, or permanent, so it’s really a lot of guessing. The “trust” part is quite literal—I don’t actually know what’s going to happen or if my information will eventually be leaked, abused, or sold. Some reading and research can inform my guesses, but they remain guesses. I don’t trust blindly, but it is still something of an act of faith.

It’s for that reason my goal isn’t to completely avoid online services or only use those who are fully and radically transparent. I only want to minimize the risk I take with my information, to reduce the scale of the information I provide, and to limit my exposure to events I can’t control.

The second consideration I make in keeping my trust footprint in check is to question whether a decision I make actually enlarges it. For instance, when I needed a new calendaring service after leaving Google, I realized that I could use iCloud to house and sync my information because I had already exposed personal information to iCloud. I didn’t have to sign up for a new account anywhere, so my trust footprint wasn’t affected.

The tricky part about that last consideration is that online services have tendrils that themselves creep into yet more services. In the case of Dropbox, which provides file storage and synchronization, they essentially resell Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (AWS S3), so if you don’t trust Amazon or otherwise wish to boycott them, then avoiding Dropbox comes along in the bargain. The same goes for a raft of other services, like Netflix and Reddit, who all use Amazon Web Services to drive their technology.

That means it’s not just home users who are storing their backups and music on servers they don’t control. Whether you call it software-as-a-service or just the “cloud,” services have become interconnected in increasingly technological and political ways.

It doesn’t end with only outsourcing the services themselves. All these online activities generate vast amounts of data which must be refined into information—for which there is copious value, even for things as innocuous as who’s watching what on TV. Nielsen’s business model of asking what customers are watching has already become outdated. Nowadays, the media companies know what you watch; the box you used to get the content has dutifully reported it back, and in turn, they’ve handed that data over to another company altogether to mine it for useful information. This sort of media analytics has become an industry in its own right.2

As time passes, it will become harder to avoid interacting with unknown services. Economies of scale have caused tech stacks to trend more and more toward centralization. It makes sense for companies because, if Amazon controls all their storage, as an example, then storage becomes wholly Amazon’s problem, and they can offer it even more cheaply than companies which go out and build their own reliable storage.

Centralization doesn’t have to be bad, of course. It’s enabled companies to spring up which may not have been viable in the past. For example, Simple3 is an online bank which started from the realization that to get started with an entirely new online bank, “pretty much all you need is a license from the Fed and a few computers.”

The upshot is that the process of managing your online life to be entirely within your control becomes increasingly fraught as centralization proceeds. When you back up to “the cloud,” try to imagine whether your information is sitting on a hard disk drive in northern Virginia, or maybe a high-density tape in the Oregon countryside.4

It’s not even necessary to go online yourself to interact with these business-to-business services. Small businesses have always relied upon vendors for components of their business they simply can’t provide on their own, and those vendors have learned they can resell other bulk services in turn. The next time you see the doctor, ask yourself, into which CRM system did your doctor just input your health information? Where did the CRM store that information? Maybe in some cosmic coincidence, it’s sitting alongside your backups on the same disk somewhere in a warehouse. Probably not, but it could happen.

My trust footprint, just like my carbon footprint, is a fuzzy but useful idea for me, which acknowledges that participation in the online world carries inevitable risk—or at least an inevitable cost. It helps me gauge whether I’m closer or further away from my ideal privacy goals. And just the same way that we can’t all become carbon neutral overnight without destroying the global economy, it’s not practical to run around telling everyone to unplug or boycott all online services.

Next time you’re filling out yet another form online, opening yet another service, trying out one more new thing, remember that you’re also relinquishing a little control over what you create and even a small part of who you are. And if this thought at all gives you pause, see if there’s anything you can do to reduce your trust footprint a little. Maybe you can look into hosting your own blog for your writing, getting network-attached storage for your home instead of using a cloud service, limiting what you disclose on social media, or investing in technology that takes privacy seriously.

Emily St. is a backend engineer for Simple. She is interested in how things work.

  1. For very technical people, this can mean fully embracing free software (which is limiting in its own way). 
  2. See or for examples of companies in media analytics. 
  3. Full disclosure: Simple Finance employs the author.