The other day, a friend of mine came to me and asked; Are computers dumb? That got me thinking for a while because naturally, the response would have been yes. You see, the idea of computers was that we tell them what to do because they know nothing. But then came AI, and with that giant companies saw a loophole, and they decided to exploit it by coming up with algorithms to feed on our data and use that to their advantage. We are now at a point where machines no longer do what we tell them, but we actually do what machines tell us to do.
It is pretty obvious that most people are pretty much more comfortable with the technologies and services offered by Big tech companies. This of course makes sense considering the many benefits the companies offer, apparently for free. But someone who has lived on earth long enough knows that nothing comes for free, at last not in the tech space. So what do the big boys sell in exchange for the “free services” you keep using? YOUR DATA! Yes, everyone is scrambling to get hold of your data, which can be used for anything in the hands of the people we don’t even know. These companies go to the extent of inventing new ways just to work in their favor so that they can continue mining and mining people’s data, even without their consent.
All this is done in the name of making the internet experience better for you. This is most of the time, if not all, a lie. Google has been accused of this like a million times. They go to the extent of inventing ways to bypass measures put in place to mitigate such things. Amazon is a culprit too. And it is now so obvious that Facebook has built its business model around this. Apple isn’t any better. While they might have one or two things they tend to do right, they are just as bad as their counterparts. They are all beneficiaries of this model created by its counterparts. These to mention just a few cases. Thousands of companies are always hungry for your data, and who knows for what reason?
The ugly side of Surveillance capitalism
It is said that in one way or another, we are part of the Surveillance capitalism, an economic system centered around tech monopolies that harvest personal data to maximize profit.
We tend to forget that privacy is a human right, yes a human right. When talking to people, their response is usually I have nothing to hide, because I do nothing wrong. And So I ask them, would you be comfortable if every single photo of yours was exposed to the public? What about messages between you and your friends, your biggest fears, the secrets that you think no one knows? Would you be okay if people just had access to such without your consent? Of course, their responses are usually the same; frowning and getting angry. Well, that is exactly what the big boys do and that is what we are fighting against
Nowadays, you wake up to countless stories and news about breaches, companies not respecting the privacy of individuals, lawsuits, name them. Thousands and thousands of laws have been set up and yet still they are being broken. Whoever has the ability t to argue through ends up winning the case, and this just sucks. So what do we do? This is where Free and Open Source Software, (FOSS) comes in. People are now getting tired of having their personal info being used against them, and it is high time we explored alternative options that will help us fight these so-called giants, who, for the major part, don’t care about the users’ privacy in any way.
What is FOSS
FOSS is not just a category of software but a movement. Free and open-source software is software that is both free and open-source in the sense that anybody can use, copy, study, and edit it in any way they choose, and the source code is openly released so that people can voluntarily enhance the software’s design.
What is the difference between free software and free and open-source software?
While the origin of both terms can be traced back to the same source, free software, described by Richard Stallman in The free software definition, means the software does not have any constraints on copyrights and respects users’ freedom and community. Essentially, the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Open-source software enables easy and effective collaboration on software development and distribution without any need for reverse engineering. The term open-source software must comply with the criteria of The Open Source Definition by the Open Source Initiative, of which Open Project is a member.
This is not to be confused with freeware, which is essentially proprietary software that does not require payment for basic use, which is usually bad for privacy most of the time. Remember, Nothing good in the Tech space is free.
Why is FOSS important?
Privacy and Security.
The most important benefit of FOSS is privacy and security. The fact that we have thousands of eyes looking at the same code trying to make it better, reduces the chances of the code having vulnerabilities. Besides, many of the people in the FOSS community really care about privacy, and they are always on the lookout in case someone introduces something that will mess up either the privacy or the security of the software.
It is hard for the “people in charge” to force their agendas into FOSS because usually the software is audited by the public, which minimizes the chances of such policies being implemented. This is often the case with proprietary software.
If it is public, isn’t it vulnerable?
The opposite is actually true. As more people collaborate, the more the security of the software is improved. Many eyes are always looking at the software and trust isn’t just placed in the hands of one individual but the public. And so any introduction of malicious code is easily spotted and mitigated.
Control and Freedom.
From our definition of FOSS, anyone is free to edit the code and customize it to his liking. This gives people much flexibility to customize their own software and even distribute it if they like. A good example of this is the different distributions of Linux flavors.
Besides, you are not locked into an ecosystem that will only work according to what the creators want it to work. A case in point is the Google ecosystem.
Free and Accessible
From the name, FOSS is free and accessible. There are usually no defined monetization models, and FOSS typically relies on donations from users. From there, you are pretty assured that the improvements and updates that are rolled out are not motivated by fat paychecks, but by genuine concerns from the community. For this reason, supporting such projects really helps in the development process.
The Steps to online security with FOSS
There’s a lot you can do to keep your gadgets more private while you wait for better privacy legislation. Here are some steps to replacing Big Tech with privacy-friendly, open-source software. The steps are however dependent on your Threat Model.
- Get involved in privacy. Online privacy, data exploitation, filter bubbles, surveillance, and censorship are all topics that may be discussed and learned about. Participate and spread the word.
- Choose a safe and private browser. Change to Firefox or Brave in case you are used to the chromium style. Trackers, cookies, and advertisements are all blocked. Make use of privacy-conscious search engines, like Brave Search, which comes by default on Brave Browser. Use Tor or a trusted VPN to encrypt your traffic.
- Keep your conversations private. Secure your emails, messages, and phone calls with end-to-end encryption. This of course includes using trusted services like proton mail. Ditch traditional social media, or at least take steps to mitigate their effects if you can’t do without. Alternatively, Switch to FOSS social media platforms that respect your privacy.
- Protect your data. Use long and distinct passwords. For each of your accounts and devices, pick a separate one. Keep them safe in a password manager that is encrypted. Use two-factor authentication if possible. Establish a backup schedule. Also, encrypt important information.
- Free your computer. Change to GNU/Linux and use free and open-source software. Choose a beginner-friendly distribution like Linux Mint or Ubuntu-based on your needs. Choose Debian, Manjaro, openSUSE, Fedora, or Gentoo Linux for more experienced users. Consider Qubes OS, Whonix, or Tails for privacy-conscious users.
- Free your phone. Change your smartphone operating system to LineageOS, Calyx OS, Graphene OS, or /e/. Prefer non-tracking open source apps from community-run app shops.
- Free your cloud. Choose cloud providers who value privacy. Alternatively, you can build up your own secure server and self-host services like cloud storage, photo galleries, task and contact management, and media streaming with services like syncthing.
I will be talking about each one of the listed steps in detail in subsequent articles. Subscribe to the newsletter to stay updated.
Online privacy is not a one-click solution. It takes time to replace Big Tech with free and open-source software. Installing Firefox or Signal, for example, is a straightforward modification. Other approaches necessitate more time and expertise. They are, nevertheless, well worth it. You’re not alone, either; you may rely on the help of a beautiful community. I will recommend FOSS over and over whenever I can because the benefits and the pros just outweigh the cons by far. It is time we put a stop to the shenanigans of companies doing whatever they want with our data!