Private Parts

Ten years ago last month, Sharon and I were in Guatemala on a mission trip. When the team got back to the hotel at the end of the day, one of the team members1 spent all of his spare time on the hotel’s computer. The iPhone wasn’t even a year old, so being connected every waking moment wasn’t yet a thing. After a couple of days, I finally asked him what he was doing.

Do you ever think about life’s fateful turning points, dreaming about time travel and what it might be like to go back and change one of the bad decisions you made? This is one of those times. I’d like to go back and not worry about what he was doing and continue blithely on in my ignorance.

His answer was (you guessed it), “Facebook.”

Second bad decision: “What’s Facebook?” What, indeed. His answer hit the highlights, and it sounded intriguing enough that I signed up when we got home. (I might have done it while we were there; I don’t remember. I was occupied with other things.)

Of course, neither of us knew then what it really was. The world was a more innocent place in 2008. We didn’t have computers in our pocket, we’d never heard of “social media,” Google was just a really good search engine. We were unaware of how much was about to change, almost literally overnight.

We know now.

We know that Google and Facebook2 are ad-based organisms, gorging on our data in order to vomit out incredibly targeted ads. (Minority Report looked like crazy science fiction when it was released, but I expect retina-based ads any day now.) We know the result is they care not a whit about our privacy, because privacy doesn’t feed the machine. They not only don’t care, they are actively engaged in destroying it.

If you still want to argue about that in 2018, you’ll have to find someone else to do it with. The evidence is out there, it’s plentiful, and it’s easily available. If you want to ignore it, I wish you well.

If you’re one of those that say, “If you don’t have anything to hide,” then I’ll ask if you leave the stall door open when you go to a public bathroom, if you wear transparent clothes (or any at all), if you always use the speaker when you talk on the phone, and if you put the videos of your counseling sessions on your FB page? If the answer to any of those is “No,” then you understand that some things should be private, just because.

I’ll also ask if you’ve read 1984, which was still dystopian fiction ten years ago, but which is becoming more and more reality even as we sit here. If you haven’t, you need to. (Government who makes up stuff and declares it true? Government who declares that what happened yesterday or last year didn’t actually happen? Government that knows everything you’re doing, including in your own home, and uses it to keep you in line with what they want you to think and do? Check, check, and well on the way to check.)

With the past month’s revelations about how much Facebook and Google have on us and what they’re doing with it and what they’re allowing others to do with it, it’s past time to take some action. It doesn’t have to be drastic action (although it should be as drastic as we can live with), but it needs to be some action.

The Bare Minimum

Get rid of the apps. Go to FB Settings, then click on the “Apps and Websites” on the left. Delete them all. You don’t need them. You don’t want them. You should avoid them at all costs. You should be on FB only because you have to be. You want to play a game, do it on your phone3, or on your Mac, or on your console. (Console? Does anyone still use those?)

Get separate logins. Don’t use your FB login or Twitter login or Google login for anything other than FB itself or Twitter itself or Google itself. Create a different login for every web site. Use a strong password for each them. Use a password manager because you (and I) can’t remember all of those strong passwords which is why you like the convenience of just using your FB login and only having to remember one. Except that now FB/Google/etc. knows everything you’re doing on all of those other things, too.

Dump Google search. Start using DuckDuckGo for your web searches. Desktop, phone, everywhere. You’ll never notice the difference, and your every search won’t be tracked. If you do manage to find something that doesn’t return a good enough result, a “!g” before your search term will do an anonymous Google search. Best of both worlds. Most of your browsers have the option of choosing it, but you don’t have to know how to change it; just click the above link and the web site will walk you through it. (Yes, I know, it’s a weird name. Yes, “duck it” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “google it” and can get you in trouble if the listener isn’t paying attention. It doesn’t matter, use it anyway.)

Next Steps

Get rid of the FB app. Delete it off your phone, right now. There have been countless instances of FB doing things, chewing up CPU, etc., in the background, even when it wasn’t running. (Feel free to do a web search.) There’s nothing you’re doing (or anyone else is doing) that’s so important you need to check on FB on your phone. Use FB only on the web, and only after you’ve secured how you’re doing it.

Secure FB on the web. There are several options. One, only login to FB on a private page (File menu, “New Private Window”.) Two, only login into FB from a different browser than you normally use. Three, use Firefox’s Facebook Container. If you’ve ever seen an ad on FB for the same thing you bought five minutes ago on Amazon, you understand the need here.

Secure Amazon on the Web. Repeat the above, substituting “Amazon” for FB.

Ditch Chrome. Firefox and Safari are plenty good. Neither of them are out to track everything you do. They also aren’t owned by companies that want to control how the web works. You have no need of Chrome…

Delete your FB history. … except for this one thing. Chrome has an extension (I haven’t found an equivalent on Firefox yet) that will do bulk deletes of your FB data. It’s fairly simple, if a bit time-consuming (you don’t have to do much, it just takes the extension some time to do its work). I would suggest deleting a year at a time, starting with the first year you were on FB and moving forward from there. Use 4x speed, but make a couple of passes for each year. Leave the current year. Then put Chrome away for another six months until it’s time do this again.

Delete your old photos. The above doesn’t deal with your FB photo albums. There’s no reason for FB to have five thousand of your selfies on it. Go in and delete everything older than a month or so. And do that every month.

Nuclear

Dump Facebook. Delete your account. Get off it entirely. Yeah, you won’t be able to see pictures of what people you haven’t seen in five years are eating for dinner, or see three ads in the first eight items in your feed, but you’ll survive. You’ll also have more time on your hands to read a good book or spend more time with your family or do some other constructive things. This isn’t for everyone; that’s why it’s the nuclear option. But it’s for a lot more people than you think. Including you, probably.

Dump Google. Delete your account. Stop using them for anything. (Why? This is why. Warning: some NSFW language.) Yes, this can be done, pretty easily in fact. It might require you to get a different phone. So be it. (They still make dumb phones, a good friend of ours still carries one.)

If all of this looks intimidating, it isn’t. Most are things you’ll do one time. The rest is stuff you’ll do very seldom. (Once you’ve cleaned your history, you only need to do it again once or twice a year.) All of it will help protect your privacy.

“Help.” Everyone else is encroaching as fast as they can. (See here, e.g., along with the FBI’s continued efforts to get a backdoor into your phone.) This isn’t going to solve everything. But it will solve some things.

Let’s keep our private parts private. Life is a lot more pleasant that way.

  1. Who shall remain nameless but whose initials are Dave Cervantez.
  2. And to a barely-perceptible lesser degree, Amazon.
  3. That’s a whole ‘nuther discussion.

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