Why I use a VPN (most of the time)

Control keyShort answer:

I’m paranoid and easily impressionable

Long answer:

Earlier this year, Congress voted to repeal rules that restricted ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and T-Mobile from selling information about the websites you visit. (Go here for a good overview courtesy of The Verge.)

I don’t have anything to hide; my internet history is basically just Twitter, New York Times, Amazon, and a few banks. But it’s not about whether or not you have something to hide. When combined with other publicly available data and information companies can buy about me (i.e. credit report, job history, location of home and work), my web browsing history can convey a fairly robust and accurate picture of my life.

It’s just another way we lose a bit of our privacy (and ourselves) to private corporations, so they can better target us with stuff to buy. Using a VPN is a way to get back a bit of control back.

How a VPN protects your privacy

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A typical internet connection links your device up right to your ISP’s infrastructure.

When you connect to the internet via VPN, there’s a middleman that encrypts all traffic to and from your ISP. This means that your data is anonymous to your ISP, and certain information your browser automatically shares with other websites are anonymized, too.

Why I said I use a VPN “most of the time”

I always use my VPN when on public wi-fi. Even if the coffee shop wi-fi is protected by a password, it’s super easy for a bad guy to steal your logins and passwords. (Learn more here.)

At home, my internet connection isn’t usually fast enough to support a VPN connection. But if you have a normal internet situation (i.e. cable internet) you probably won’t even notice a speed difference.

How VPNs work:

You can add a VPN in your device settings. Most VPN services come with their own apps, that make setting everything up super easy.

I use PureVPN, which has apps for Mac and iPhone. I tried another service, but it didn’t work as reliably as PureVPN. It’s usually $11/month, but they’re having a promo now for an annual subscription for $80.

Google, the enabler for the big-brother era of retail

If you click on an ad for the new Ford Taurus on a website that uses Google to serve ads (and Google serves about 13% of all online ads), then go to your local Ford dealership to check out the car in-person, Google (and the dealership) will be able to connect the dots without you ever knowing it.

This is old news, but it was news to me. This is creepy shit.

More from this Digiday article from 2013:

Dan Auerbach, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that users might not realize they’ve opted in to constant location tracking when they opt in to “location services.”

“The disclosure mechanism for these apps are pretty weak,” he said. “I think there’s a gap between user expectations and what apps are really doing.”

It gets even better for Android users:

It is easiest for Google to conduct this passive location tracking on Android users, since Google has embedded location tracking into the software. Once Android users opt in to location services, Google starts collecting their location data as continuously as technologically possible. (Its ability to do so is dependent on cell tower or Wi-Fi signal strength.)

The only way out of this tracking for non-Android owners is to uninstall every location-aware Google app from your phone, including Google Maps and Waze:

But Google can also constantly track the location of iPhone users by way of Google apps for iOS […]

Google’s namesake iOS app—commonly referred to as Google mobile search—continues collecting a user’s location information when it runs in the background.

You can apparently opt out of this on a per-app basis. Not sure how to do that, what it’s called in the app settings menu, or how many people actually do this.

See also: More about Google on this blog.

Why not Google

After the Snowden revelations back in 2013, I started to re-evaluate my relationship with companies like Google. The amount of info they collect makes me nervous. Like Obama often said, I’m more worried about the incentives behind using customer data for advertising than I am government snooping.

But the amount of stuff revealed by Snowden made me re-assess my relationship with those companies, beyond just the prospect of government surveillance. Examine their motivations. (Rushkoff contributed to this as well.)

And if you can live without having a big part of your digital life in the hands of one company, why not?

Enter Marco Ament, whose post, Why not Google? sums up a lot of my feelings toward this. Specifically this part:

…The reason I choose to minimize Google’s access to me is that my balance of utility versus ethical comfort is different. Both companies do have flaws, but they’re different flaws, and I tolerate them differently:

—Apple is always arrogant, controlling, and inflexible, and sometimes stingy.
—Google is always creepy, entitled, and overreaching, and sometimes oblivious.
How you feel about these companies depends on how much utility you get out of their respective products and how much you care about their flaws.

Simply put, Apple’s benefits are usually worth their flaws to me, and Google’s usually aren’t.

I still use Google for some things (their biking directions are a really good resource when embarking on a new route).

But the web services I use are from different organizations. I’m spreading out my data, making it more difficult for a single company to get that detailed of a profile of me.

For search I use DuckDuckGo and I have my own email provider through my hosting domain. It’s not as convenient as Gmail, but I think the tradeoff is worth it. I do use a lot of Apple products, but I trust their “we honestly don’t care what’s in your iMessages” stance.

Maybe this is just an illusion of control. But it makes me feel better… so that’s all that matters?

Friday Link List: Tech & Media Edition

1. The App I Used to Break into My Neighbor’s Home {wired}

When I broke into my neighbor’s home earlier this week, I didn’t use any cat burglar skills. I don’t know how to pick locks. I’m not even sure how to use a crowbar. It turns out all anyone needs to invade a friend’s apartment is an off switch for their conscience and an iPhone.

2. Behind Comcast’s Truthy Ad Campaign for Net Neutrality {washington post}

In an ongoing ad campaign, Comcast touts that it’s the only internet service provider (or ISP) legally bound by “full” net neutrality and that the company wants to expand that commitment to even more people. This sounds great for consumers; it’s the kind of thing that might convince skeptical regulators to give Comcast the benefit of the doubt. But the advertising claims come with some big, unstated caveats that could be confusing to consumers who already find the net neutrality debate a jumble of jargon and rhetoric.

3. Riding the Juggernaut That Left Print Behind {david carr/new york times}

I am a faithful reader of The Journal’s and The Times’s print edition. Both are built on a wonderful technology for discovering and consuming news, and a large part of their profits still reside in that daily artifact. But when big things happen, I stayed glued to the web, at The Times and other great news sites.

Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now, and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on.

But once a sponge is at capacity, new information can only replace old information. Last month, researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand published a study that found that comprehension, concentration and retention all went off a cliff when information was taken in online. (Then again, there are those who say that we see everything and remember nothing because we don’t have to, that the web now serves as our memory.)

4. Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy {new yorker}

Talking so freely about your life helps you to know the weight of those feelings which are too vague, or too spiritual, to express—left unspoken and unexplored, they throw your own private existence into relief. “Sharing” is, in fact, the opposite of what we do: like one of Woolf’s hostesses, we rehearse a limited openness so that we can feel the solidity of our own private selves.

“With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility”

I think we desperately need to pay more attention to the companies who are manipulating us and selling our data while disclosing these practices in the middle of rarely read terms of services agreements.

Om Malik is on the same page:

Forbes tells us that even seemingly benign apps like Google-owned Waze, Moovit or Strava are selling our activity and behavior data to someone somewhere. Sure they aren’t selling any specific person’s information, but who is to say that they won’t do it in the future or will use the data collected differently.

And this uncertainty should be sparking a debate.

It is important for us to talk about the societal impact of what Google is doing or what Facebook can do with all the data. If it can influence emotions (for increased engagements), can it compromise the political process? What more, today Facebook has built a facial recognition system that trumps that of FBI — think about that for a minute.

As for me, the NSA revelations have prompted me to change my digital ways. I removed almost all of my information from Facebook. It took hours. I then deleted my Google account, although I maintain one under a pseudonym so I can easily login to websites that require it. I also login to Waze with a pseudonym. (Fake name generator you are awesome.)

These are imperfect solutions and I am still engaging with these companies and giving them my data; I recognize that. And I still interact on Instagram and Twitter. But I feel as though this is as far as I am willing to go and I am now engaging with these companies in a more deliberate manner. Which is what we need more of.

Read With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility.