The Case for Owning Your Digital Life

I’ve spent most of my life on computers, and I would definitely consider myself a digital native (I’m typing this sentence on the iPad software keyboard, in case that helps you put me on a scale).

My history with technology

I love technology, and I first discovered its immense power for connecting people when I installed MSN Messenger on my parents’ computer back in junior high school (circa 2000, I’m going to say?). Going through puberty at the dawn of the public internet was quite an ordeal, but I think it was definitely more manageable doing so then than it is now. I really learned how to talk to people most intimately through MSN, and in that space, I formed the foundation of my experience in connecting with others.

I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s really cool that MSN would store chat logs for all your conversations in easily accessible and well-presented formats on your computer. This meant that if you wanted to go and look back on your conversations (and you inevitably did), you could easily do so.

Fast-forward to now

Things are VERY different now from what we had back then. Today, those of us who chat on Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, or Slack have little to no control over what we’ve said to one another once it’s been said. The canonical version of our ‘chat logs’ are all online, controlled by the creators of the apps we use to talk to one another. Because the services we use are mostly centered on our mobile devices (phones and, to a lesser extent, tablets), there isn’t a lot of space (or screen real-estate) to permanently store and/or display things we’ve said previously.

Because of the way the internet has evolved over the last 10-15 years, ‘the cloud’ (servers located ‘elsewhere’ and controlled by corporations), is now the absolute truth when it comes to what we say to one another. In the case of Snapchat, the messages we send are deliberately short-lived by default, and that’s part of the reason why I have stopped using Snapchat.

In today’s world, our memories are being stored outside our brains on an ever-increasing basis (rather than storing important information itself in our brains, we store the location where the important information is kept). However, when we split our communication between services like email, instant messaging apps, social media, reminder apps, to-do apps, and a whole bunch of others, it’s easy to lose track and forget where things are, even if they aren’t actually missing.

I’d wager that most people in the their late 20s and 30s wouldn’t be able to list all the apps, services, and social networks they’re members of, even given an infinite amount of time (or maybe I just subscribe to and then forget about more things than most people). The problem with putting your time and energy in to an ever-changing and ever-increasing number of these kinds of apps means our life stories are being spread out over a huge area, with patches and sections disappearing on a regular basis.

As I get older, I’m starting to see this pattern develop more and more, and it makes me worry a little bit that in 5 or 10 or 20 years, our generation will be missing most, if not all, of our written correspondence and things we’ve shared over the years. Now, one response to this is to say something like ‘we should be writing letters again’, but first of all, I don’t think those are any more likely to remain legible
on a physical medium, or stay in one’s possession for that amount of time, and I’m also not interested in putting pencil to paper.

There’s an easier way to maintain your relationships and keep track of our communications with others, and it brings up a concept most people my age have only recently become familiar with…paying for things you care about.

Paying for (and with) what matters

When you think about your preferred instant messaging/communication platform, what are the incentives of the company who created it, and how does it benefit them to have you use it? If you can’t answer that question, you may want to find out more about the company, and what their policies are. In many cases today, the incentive is that the company can make money off of information they can learn about you through your interaction with the service, whether directly or indirectly.

Especially if you’re using a service that doesn’t cost you any money, the company isn’t running servers and using immense resources in order to let you connect better with the people around you, they’re doing it because it helps their bottom line in some way.

Now, the average person doesn’t really have the ability to build an application that lets them have total control over systems they use to store information or communicate. If I had to guess what percentage of adults in North America own and operate a private server, whether locally or virtually, I would say it’s much less than 1%, and perhaps not even 0.5%. And I’m certainly not trying to say that maintaining your own server is something everybody should do, far from it. However, I do think there is value in having a place that you control on the internet where you can store digital information that is important to you or has some value.

Virtual Private Servers and Their Use

In case some of my readers don’t know what a virtual private server is, it’s really quite simple. A server, to put it as succinctly as possible, is a computer that is usually specially designed to run web services or applications efficiently and to be reliable in spite of running 24/7 basically without interruption and with little maintenance.

Such a computer can sit in your basement, run programs like email, and get you in a lot of trouble with federal intelligence agencies (if you use it for government business). With the advent of things like Google Apps GSuite and OneDrive, though, the need for, and use of personal private servers has undoubtedly dropped quite precipitously (I do not have *any* data to back this up).

Businesses like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the aforementioned GSuite and OneDrive all run on massive parallelized private server banks owned by those companies, who use them to run all their web and cloud services, because running a server these days is very cheap and distributed computing is very much in vogue right now.

However, if you’re a small-medium company, or somebody who wants the benefits of a server for their own purposes, there are big companies out there who run server farms and who rent out space on those servers for a monthly fee. The big benefit of this is that running these (virtual private servers) is that there is no physical space required on-site, and no expensive, specialized hardware to run (and power).

For a very small fee (all things considered), anybody can run any software they want on a computer they rent and access through the internet, and if you have any interest in technology, you will hopefully see what an amazing opportunity this presents in terms of being able to run things like email, websites, IM, or file sharing without relying on big companies (or at least, your reliance on ‘big’ companies lets you set up your own security).

What Does This All Mean?

If you are looking for a stable, free, easy to use system to use email, instant message, web design, or file sharing, and you’re just going to use the basics, it’s very easy to trade your privacy rather than money to use these services. But for less money than you’d think, and if you’re willing to slightly leave the mainstream, you can get a server up and running for pennies a day (quite literally), and run whatever you want on it, without buying any hardware. The possibilities are, quite literally, endless.

I would gladly delete my Facebook Messenger account (I already rid myself of Facebook) if I could get my friends and family off of it, and I do think that social media is ultimately a bubble that is bound to fall back down eventually, and personal websites will come back in to prominence as people seek to stand out and customize the way they present posts and photos/videos to the world. I think it’s only a matter of time before some *massive* privacy scandal makes most people realize they are far too trusting of Facebook with their information, and a backlash sees the service fade in to a historical footnote over time.

Rob, What Do You Do?

The service I use to host my server is called DigitalOcean, but there are many other companies who will allow you to set this up. I’m told that if this is something you’re interested in trying out, you can get up to $100 in credit over your first 60 days if you use my referral link (I don’t get anything for referring you unless you ultimately keep running a server, so don’t start anything for my benefit). I’ve been a customer for over 3 years, and the system is great with hourly billing so you can get something running to try it out, and if you don’t like it, you can just delete it and you’ll only be charged a few cents an hour while it was running.

FaceTime Isn’t Broken

Update: Update is out. iOS 12.1.4 addresses this bug as well as another security issue that Apple found while auditing the code for FaceTime.

On Monday night (January 28), talk of a serious Group FaceTime bug hit the internet in a big way.

New in iOS 12: Group FaceTime

If a would-be attacker used a specific set of steps that were not typical for a regular FaceTime call, they could activate the call recipient’s microphone on their iPhone (or, presumably, iPad) without them answering the call. There was an extra privacy concern that if the recipient of the call declined the request, their camera was mistakenly activated as well, even if the phone looked like it was asleep.

There is no indication this bug was exploited maliciously, and it appears to have been reported to Apple at least a week and a half before the explosion of attention on January 28. Moving quickly once this story went public, Apple shut off Group FaceTime (a new feature that was introduced with iOS 12 this fall), effectively blocking this exploit from being used. In all, the bug was active for about 2-3 hours with a large audience, as Apple presumably scrambled to find a way to quickly fix it.

Immediately, Apple put out a press release saying that a permanent fix for this bug would be coming later this week, and shutting off Group FaceTime has mitigated the problems associated with the bug until the fix is released.

Unfortunately, because the news is effectively entertainment now, the following evening (Tuesday), local news, all the way up to late-night comedy shows, all talked breathlessly about the story, and at least from what I heard, none mentioned that the offending problem has been completely disabled until a proper fix is in place. In other words, the window when anybody at any scale could have been harmed by this was exceptionally small, only a few hours at most.

Now, though, the viral story of ‘Turn Off FaceTime’ will circulate for years, even though in my opinion it’s probably one of the very best ways for a group of Apple device users to communicate with audio/video, and even when the feature is fixed, there will be no news stories saying ‘You Can Turn FaceTime Back On Now’, even though after Monday evening, there was no need to turn it off.

There are a few big lessons I take away from this:

  1. Basically every news story is as well-researched as the one you know the intimate details about beforehand (not at all well-researched). Take them with a grain of salt.
  2. Every piece of software has bugs and flaws at some point in its development cycle. Obviously, big flashy bugs like this are a BIG deal, but it’s a reality of software that they will come up. The best thing you can do as a developer is to put systems in place to be able to deal with them quickly, and in my opinion, Apple’s ability to pull the plug on Group FaceTime without taking the entire system down is an example of good design.
  3. Don’t take your privacy for granted. People are going to see this story and turn off FaceTime because this was a huge privacy issue. However, I promise you that there are much bigger and more severe privacy violations going on at huge companies around the world right now, and because it is status quo, we all kind of just give them a pass. You should ‘audit’ the programs you use from time to time, and if you’re able, do some research on the privacy over-reaches of companies like Facebook. You’d be surprised the kinds of things they are caught doing on an ongoing basis, but it’s not a news story for some reason.

So, I didn’t turn FaceTime off, and unless something changes, I don’t think you need to either (if you didn’t already). If you’re paranoid about being watched/heard in your home, FaceTime is far from your biggest concern (this bug is no longer a risk as it stands today).

Humans are flawed, so it stands to reason that the software we create isn’t always perfect either. But writing off technology because of one viral news story is harmful to all of us, because the news can’t, and doesn’t, cover everything.

Please, don’t turn off FaceTime and vow never to trust it again because of this story. Your privacy is, and always will be, at risk, but that doesn’t make this particular piece of software the problem.

Climate change is not just real, it’s obvious

Vox has posted this before, but it was updated recently with new clips to bring it to the present. It highlights the partisan shift regarding climate change in American politics, from acknowledging that climate change is real, to Republicans realizing the best (only?) way to actually fight climate change effectively from an economic perspective is a tax on greenhouse gas pollution, which of course would be very unpopular for their base (and the business interests funding their re-election campaigns).

It’s particularly galling to me when you hear the Republican politicians early in the ’16 year’ timeline making points that are good and true about what needs to be done, both with respect to acknowledging the outcomes of scientific research, and to the effects of climate change in general. This is skillfully juxtaposed with clips later in the video where those same people are reversing those previous opinions with industry talking points about the economic impacts of climate change in the coal industry, for example.

It’s very frustrating to see this all play out like this on a linear timeline, because the hypocrisy of politics in general is expertly laid bare by the editor, with no context or narration given other than sound bites. The conclusion this video presents is quite an obvious one to me, and I think I would be hard pressed to find somebody who wouldn’t agree.

It’s politically disastrous for a Republican to support the existence of climate change because it will require a tax increase on businesses in order to actually have an impact in the short term (before non-polluting alternative energy becomes more economically advantageous, which will happen in due course). So those politicians, almost exclusively old white dudes, I note, cling to their voters and the business interests supporting their re-election, rather than taking action to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

We, as humans, are not used to our actions having a global impact, and I think this is why it’s so hard for individual people to accept that something they are doing could ruin the planet and ‘habitat’ of millions of others, but that’s the reality of what’s happening here. Our biology and instincts haven’t caught up with the scale of our civilization, and empathy on a massive scale will be required in order for any real change to come about on this issue.

Climate, and the well-being of all humanity, should not be a partisan bargaining chip, and I just hope we won’t be too late to fix the problems being caused right now when presented with even more obvious symptoms of the problem. It’s worth bearing in mind this adage: “The Earth will survive humanity, but humans may not“.