The most important sentence I’ve ever heard in my entire life went exactly like this;
“It’s virtually impossible to have a private conversation”.
In late May I went to a workshop in Rio de Janeiro called the Freebird Open Mobile Technology Workshop, organized by a group called The Guardian Project. It was a meeting of activists, programmers, developers, journalists and all sorts of interesting people all concerned about what it might mean to have a world where mobile technologies were completely free and open to use, and how to regain privacy and anonymity as users.
Yeah, I was confused when I first heard about it, too. Here in Trinidad & Tobago, it doesn’t really matter what the Terms of Service Agreement says about our Facebook pictures or the poems we post on our blog. We’re not concerned about the terms, just the service. And while I myself was perfectly aware that there was something that I wish I had seen when I first made my Facebook account, at the end of it I decided that it didn’t matter. But thanks to the lovely folks at The Guardian Project, I’ve been thinking more about what this means for the user. And so should you.
I’m not going to pretend to be any expert after one day in Brazil with these great people, but I can safely say that there is a great deal that we as users need to be more mindful of where it comes to websites like Facebook and google storing and using information about their users (and even non-users, too), and possibly selling it to anyone who can pay the fee, as well as internet and cellphone service providers who also have information about their users and even prevent users from having full control of the devices that they purchase for their personal use.
For those who are more interested or at least a bit more paranoid, the workshop was a chance to become acquainted with software to aid users in having a more private and secure experience online, like browsers that allow users to surf the net anonymously and applications that let people have secure web-based cellphone calls. My favorite was The Guardian Project’s own ObscuraCam, an Andriod app that anonymizes faces on photos to protect witnesses, while also saving data that attempts to prove that the photo was not tampered with and is genuine.
The existence of all these apps, and a meeting of all these minds to share about the issue of internet privacy kept bringing up the same question to me – why aren’t these discussions happening everywhere? Right here in Trinidad & Tobago in 2011, the government stated that they would invest in a task force to monitor citizens’ Facebook and twitter use. It would mean that our government could pay these sites for access to citizens’ user data, and they could very well get it. And that same idea has already proven to be a problem in countries like China, the Middle East and the US.
We need to be having these discussions in countries like ours, where there are hints of a problem and hope of a solution. If we’re not publicly speaking about our privacy issues, then we won’t be able to truly own those issues, or the idea of privacy itself.
I was glad to have been at this workshop. Not just because I met so many amazing people and was exposed to so many different tools and ideas. But because I think that these are the kinds of workshops that internet users all over the world need to be exposed to, for their own good.