Own the Data

With the recent public recognition of our governments intent to spy on us, it begs the question what we can do right now to subvert these attempts. My understanding on why the government has any right to data such as text messages or email is because they are stored with a third party. There are certain third parties that are protected from being queried such as the communication between a lawyer and a client, but these are few and limited. The vast majority of the time the third party can be forced to turn over records. A possible solution to maintaining our privacy is to take over the storage of the data.

There are couple issues with owning all your own data. The first is availability. As someone who has run his own website from home, it is difficult to provide a level of availability like that of other services. Tools like Gmail provide users massive amounts of bandwidth, storage and optimizations in order to create an excellent user experience. Owning your own data also means considering your own infrastructure, which may be difficult.

Another issue is transferring the data. When you use email or make a web request there are often many different systems listening in. You web host most likely keeps a caching web proxy in its localized data centers in order to save bandwidth and provide a better faster load times to users. It is nice feature that does save some time, but it also means that anytime you transfer data over the Internet, there is a good chance you’ve indirectly made that data available to third parties.

At the moment, there are too many modes of communication to make owning all your data practical. When you consider phone calls, text messages, emails, chat (IRC, skype, google hangout, facebook) among others, it seems exceptionally difficult to keep your data to yourself, while still making it useful. That said, from a technical perspective it is totally feasible to manage the vast majority of services. The user experience would be a nightmare currently, but the fact it is possible means there is hope we can avoid always having a third party in order to utilize technologies and networks.

I should also mention that this third party issue is not solely the blame of the government. Internet providers have long made attempts to listen in on communication in order to get a better view of their users. The move to curb piracy probably has more to do with making sure our pipelines to the web must go through a third party that does listen in. Hopefully laws can be passed that force network providers to be dumb pipes. This way, they provide access with the understanding that they aren’t responsible for the content. This is similar to utility companies in that they do not consider what you do with the electricity or water, only the amount you use.

It is pretty scary that simply conversing within a community is not safe. It is even more frightening that the reason it is not safe lies in the governments guise to keep us safe. While it can be scary for some, we need to recognize the government is a tool that we the people use to lower the complexity of life. A government takes care of some big details that are difficult to achieve on a local community level. Our government has gone well beyond this task and moved into the realm of a parent. As children we don’t truly own anything. Our parents can provide us with a bountiful life or a prison. The reality is we are not children and we must enforce our ownership of our lives and information.