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Obsessing over Privacy

The irony is that thinking about digital privacy can lead to an increased obsession with screens. There is so much positive educational content in the field, but today I want to look at the dark side of digital privacy.

Learning is fun, but know when to take a break

There is a wealth of good educational privacy-related content. One problem with this is that it can be hard to keep up. How did I end up missing last week's episode of The Surveillance Report? Why does my podcast feed feel like a to-do list? Learning can become a chore.

Another problem I've seen in this space is tunnel vision thinking, and paranoia. The flawless logic of the arguments about privacy can become infectious, leading to unnecessary extremes. With some privacy advocates like Rob Braxman, who continuously put out alarmist, edgy-sounding content, you sometimes get a sense of an either-for-or-against mindset. Everything you believed up to now is WRONG! Rob will set you straight. This type of guru talk leads, unnecessarily for most of us, to paranoid or extremist thinking. It reminds me of a traveler I once met who had become so enamoured of survivalist camping gear, he was using a device to purify water in a dormitory room with drinkable running water.

To avoid falling into a trap of fantastical and paranoid thinking, I have decided to drop certain podcasts, blogs and channels. Sometimes, the pursuit of digital privacy leads you to a world of strange politicians, insecure men preaching about reclaiming masculinity, and end-of-days preppers. Some great interviewers, like Douglas Tuman on Monero Talk, will always prioritse keeping the privacy discourse going, and they end up tolerating the nuttiest of ideas from some of their guests. I do admire this open stance, but I don't need those other-worldy politics in my living room on a Friday night.

I continue to listen to the Surveillance Report and Seth for Privacy because I like their nuanced approach. SR's hosts Henry and Nathan almost weekly remind listeners that their aim is to "focus on privacy, not politics" and that they "won't read the comments section," though this last point is made somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Seth often reiterates how important it is to be realistic about your threat model and that it is fine to take small steps towards digital privacy in your own life, and that you should avoid judging others for not doing as much about their privacy as you have about yours. Everyone is on their own journey, and it is pointless to berate. But at the same time, never miss a good opportunity to share the tools you are using and explain why they are important to you. This is a healthy approach. Sadly, Seth doesn't seem to be creating new episodes anymore, but the published podcasts, linked below, are well-worth listening to and have provided some of my most important educational moments. Not only do these good teachers teach you about which tools to use and how to use them, they also teach a sensible approach.

Technical rabbit holes

Learning about a new privacy tool or device is exciting. There are so many steps you, perhaps, like me, a non-programmer, can take to improve your own digital privacy. It takes a bit of perseverance, but, if you are smart about using refurbished materials, you can forge ahead with relatively low financial risk.

In my own journey, I learned how to destroy a phone, and then how to de-Google the next one by flashing a ROM successfully. I learned why people build their own servers, and I spent a winter tinkering away on Ubuntu Server, Apache/NGNIX and Wordpress every evening, and then several years later a summer building my own Nextcloud instance. I researched proprietary privacy cloud storage options, made lists, downloaded demos, created accounts, tested things out, made decisions, subscribed. Ditto with privacy email. I learned why it's a good idea to use password managers, and migrated from LastPass to KeePass. I learned about encryption and two-factor authentication (and what a total pain it is to keep having to log into another app to get to your files or accounts). I learned how to manage my own hard drives and how to clone them. I bought my first set of tools and learned how to open up a Thinkpad laptop. I discovered why some privacy advocates prefer Monero over Bitcoin, and set up my own wallet, downloaded the whole Monero node, and learned how to mine. I researched minimalist blogs and learned Markdown for this blog. I discovered how Github works, and why people value open source software.

The cost of investing in all this problem-solving can be days, weeks, months of your time. I become a different person when I focus on a project. I watch all the tutorials, I take extensive notes. It is an addiction. I record all the steps and note where things when wrong. I highlight. I tell myself I am solving an important problem, improving my own privacy, perhaps even security. But once I have achieved the thing I set out to do, I sit back and wonder: what is this loud PC doing here next to my desk, overheating and mining 3 cents' worth of Monero per week? Whose idea was that?

Too many devices!

There's a hidden strain of consumerism beneath all the privacy talk. After watching so many reviews of dumbphones, you feel obliged to start comparing prices and buy one. Discovering CalyxOS naturally leads you to looking up the cost of a Google Pixel phone. The noble goal of privacy can conveniently blind you to your own gadget hunger.

At one point, I found I had four laptops, a PC (for the mining), a Nokia dumbphone, a Light Phone 2, Nokia smartphone with Murena, a Google Pixel with CalyxOS and a PinePhone with a whole bunch of Linux operating systems. That's too many devices. That's not digital minimalism...at all.


When you graduate from absolute noob to someone with a little bit of actual technical know-how, you might be tempted join the online discussions. It feels great when you are actually able to help someone for the first time. A 'It worked, thanks!' reply on Reddit is wonderful, especially after having depended on help so often.

But things turn sour on the privacy forums. People dig their heels in and lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that online vitriol is the worst kind of press for newcomers. Yes, I know about GrapheneOS, but Calyx is working fine for me - why get so worked up about it? I've debated the suitability of the name 'Tutanota', and I've gotten lost in (and lost) arguments in defence of /e/OS as perfectly good first step.

There are many discussions like this. They are documented and searchable, and someone genuinely interested in discovering how private email works, for example, may end up discouraged when confronted by threads of past arguments between mean-spirited know-it-alls, or tribes stupidly fighting for their preferred software.


Ironically, attempts to reduce your privacy and security can lead to quite a drastic increase in the time you spend worrying or even obsessing over the issue. I don't have a neat conclusion here. Digital privacy can be wonderfully alluring. You justify time spent because you are learning, and learning is lofty, but it's also important to know when it is time to switch off.


The Surveillance Report
Seth for Privacy
Understanding the Digital World by Brian W. Kernighan
Monero Talk
Mastering Monero by Serhack (free!)
Rob Braxman Tech
The Markdown Guide by Matt Cone

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