It seems as if this dystopian nightmare forced upon us will never end. Everyday seems to bring up a new story of some random government spying on us. Starting with the US spying on the world to Britain possessing a system worse than the US all the way down to India building the capability to crunch through the mountains of data produced by its citizens, it’s amply clear that our data is not safe in the hands of those we trust to safeguard it. Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft; no wait, especially Microsoft have confessed to helping the government to our data. While Google and Facebook are still trying to do justice to their customers, Microsoft has been going beyond the call of duty at the behest of government agencies and providing them with information about bugs in its software which have not been patched in order to help them tap computers halfway around the world.
How does it affect you?
In all honesty? It doesn’t. Most of us aren’t journalists who need to keep our sources confident or Jihadis planning high-profile attacks on US towers of commerce. We’re mostly ordinary people who use our mail for the bare minimum. We receive newsletters, spam, a long mail from a girlfriend far away, a few photos… Nothing of consequence. (If you do use a Gmail account for sensitive mails, then you really need to get your head examined. Google states that it reads your mails in its terms of service.)
Social networks are in the same ballpark. The photos we upload on Facebook are the ones we want our friends to see. Or rather, that’s the logic behind it. But honestly, how many of us would call all our Facebook friends close friends? We have a few hundred (if not a few thousand) friends on Facebook and it would be folly to claim that we know each of them equally well. It would be greater folly to say that showing my holiday pictures to that girl I met in a country far far away in a small conference (who I’ve never spoken to since) is any different from showing them to a stranger. Most of our Facebook friends are virtual strangers to us. We breeze past their status updates without caring about their contents.
Twitter is said to be the company most protective of its users’ data. That’s quite ironic, because none of your data on Twitter is private, except perhaps your password. However, I doubt most people have any problems with their government reading their tweets.
Let’s face it. The data we put on Facebook and Twitter can’t be helped. Those two companies could secretly be helping the slave trade and we wouldn’t leave them. We’re bound to each other now.
However, mail is a different story. I like to believe that my email account is for my own eyes only. No matter how trivial my mails, I still like the feeling of having a private mailbox and knowing that if I write something as embarrassing as a love letter, then the only people who will read that mail will be myself and the lady I intend it for. If Google wants to read it and send us ads based on my writings, I sigh and grumble to myself, but it’s okay. Google’s providing me that service for free, I guess I do owe them that advertising money. I’ve made my peace with it, knowing that every service rendered has a price.
However, my government, on the other hand, is a whole new ballgame.
- I pay my taxes
- They rule in my name (as well as that of a billion other Indians)
- They are the protectors of my rights
- Manmohan Singh isn’t man enough to read my writings. Rahul Gandhi even less so.
I pay the government its dues. I expect it to be able to protect me without reading my private correspondence.
Patching your holes
There’s not many ways in which you can protect yourself from the government’s snoopers. However, the one you should be teaching the next generation is to:
Learn programming and not be afraid of the shell and ssh, for they are your best friends in this brave new world.
This one piece of advice shall save your inbox from many. While we all depend on Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, it would be much more expedient to simply remove the middleman from the equation, rent some server space, install CentOS (or Arch if you’re feeling extremely lucky), install OwnCloud and a mail server, purchase a domain and point it towards your own new mail server! This seems like a good place to do a PhD in the art. I’d suggest a simpler guide, but unfortunately it seems that all roads lead to this one. While it may seem a very big deal and pretty hard, for any privacy freak out there, it’s amazingly good. Once you have your own email server set up, you can encrypt your email to deny people from reading it. It’s also a good idea to understand the concepts behind PGP and GPG.
If at any time, you feel that this is too much, remember this quote by Ben Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA:
Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.