by S.E. Hackney
If you have any kind of presence online—which, barring extreme circumstances, you do, whether you know it or not—then information about you, your habits, relationships, location, and intellectual pursuits is in the hands of faceless strangers and/or corporations. If you use Google, your search history is compiled to paint a picture of your interests. If you use Amazon, your purchases follow you around the internet in advertising. If you use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or myriad other social media platforms, then personal information about your gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and interpersonal connections is fodder for advertisements, news stories, and essentially whatever else those corporations wish to do with it. Most of the time, we don’t know exactly what information is being collected and how it’s being used, much less how it might be used in the future. But what can you do? That’s just how it is—the social costs of leaving the digital world entirely are already far too high for most people to drop out altogether.
That’s what personal security is today—an opt-out situation. Your information is public unless you choose for it to be private, and choosing to make it private requires time, effort, and a certain level of digital literacy. When we take the time to engage with digital privacy, we find ourselves asking questions such as, “Will making my Facebook profile private make it more difficult for me to get my small business off the ground?,” and “If I create unique secure passwords for every new account I make, how on earth am I supposed to remember them all?” or even, “If I choose to transition, how will I remove my deadname from all of my old social media profiles?” And underlying all of these questions is “Is this worth it?”
Whether privacy is worth the effort is a speculative topic for a lot of people, but for the people at the margins of society—those that are already systematically oppressed and disenfranchised—having control over their personal information may mean the difference between life and death. This is why personal privacy practices are of the utmost importance for community care.
Even if you think you have nothing to hide (which is nonsense, we all have things we’d rather not be widely known), or that privacy practices are not worth the effort, a dismissal of privacy concerns generally also dismisses the right of undocumented people to access the internet without fear of deportation or other legal repercussions. It dismisses the rights of the closeted trans kid down the street who is just trying to figure things out, or the woman in an abusive relationship surreptitiously looking for resources. It dismisses the rights of people of color everywhere, who have the right to control their own images, to build their own networks, and live their lives without being criminalized for existing.
Committing to basic personal privacy practices is an act of solidarity for the most vulnerable people in our communities. This is a kind of “herd immunity” for privacy. Herd immunity is what makes vaccines so effective: immunocompromised people are protected from infectious disease, because when everyone is vaccinated, the disease has no vector to spread through. Consider some of the consequences we’ve seen in recent years when privileged groups withdraw from that social contract. People will die, and it will be the people who were already the worst off. But, when people do get vaccinated en masse, and herd immunity is built up, guess what? It works.
We can do that with privacy. The more people choose to learn to use Tor Browser and a PGP key, the easier it is for the next person to do so, because using those tools becomes destigmatized and there are more people to help teach, and therefore it becomes less likely that someone else’s vulnerable information will get into the wrong hands. Remember that although you may not mind if all your emails were suddenly made public, you can’t know about the status of everyone you correspond with, so encrypting your emails helps to protect them without asking them to disclose their risks or status.
So what can you do?
Back stuff up, and keep track of where it is! This may sound contradictory that in order to be more private, you should make more copies of things, and keep them in different places, but it’s all about control. Many online companies rely on their users not being exactly sure where their data goes in order to make money. By knowing what information you’ve given to which platforms, and keeping secure copies of your vital documents, you can be better prepared to spot and stop leaks.
Try stuff out, and talk about it! There is an abundance of resources online with lists of privacy tools and practices. The Electronic Freedom Foundation, the Library Freedom Project, and the HACK*BLOSSOM DIY Guide to Feminist Cybersecurity are some good places to start. Review these lists, pick some tools or new practices that you want to adopt, then tell your friends what you’re doing. Even if you add a new browser, plugin, or app and realize that it’s not going to work for you, you’ll be able to recommend it to your friends, or direct them to relevant resources. Talking about privacy tools helps normalize the critical thinking about privacy that helps keep up all safe.
Know your rights! While there’s nothing about it directly in the Constitution, courts in the United States have ruled that individuals have an implicit right to personal privacy, under the provisions of the Fourth Amendment which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. Many other countries do explicitly protect individual privacy in their governing documents. That doesn’t mean that governments, corporations, and/or other entities with institutional powers won’t keep collecting your data, or trying to exploit privacy loopholes, or assuming that you’re not watching them back. So it’s up to each of us to know what is and is not allowed, to call out violations, and to protect those with less power than we have.
But, as I’ve said, all this takes work. I believe that every person knows best about what will work for them, and how much labor they can dedicate to privacy. For all of us, the most important part of privacy and security online is being aware. Just knowing that business, educational, and government entities are collecting our information is an important first step. It can temper our eagerness to adopt new technologies, and create a culture of critical inquiry about the technologies that we engage with in our everyday lives. An important counterbalance to surveillance, which has roots in a French phrase meaning “to watch over” is sousveillance, which is used to describe the watched looking back up at the surveillers. We may not be able to escape the mechanisms that watch us, but we can notice that they are watching, and keep them in check to protect ourselves and our neighbors.
S.E. Hackney is a librarian and Ph.D. student in Pittsburgh, PA. Their research looks at the documentation practices of online communities, and how identity, ideology, and the body get represented through the governance of digital spaces. Their cat has more toes than yours.