A small house with a big personality

Sometimes, it's important to have a Little space to ourselves, no matter what the neighbors think. Image source

One day, about 15 years ago, I got off a flight in a city I don’t know well. I was going to visit a friend, and I was supposed to pick up a rental car, call my friend, and let them know that I was on my way. Something strange must’ve happened while I was in the air, because when I landed, for some odd reason, nothing worked.

I was told that my credit card was declined when I tried to pick up the rental car. That was odd, because I knew my credit wasn’t overdrawn, and I had used the card earlier that day. When I tried to call my friend, my mobile phone didn’t connect. I didn’t have any cash on me, and my ATM card wasn’t working, either, so I couldn’t withdraw any. I felt helpless and frustrated as I used the coins in my pocket to call my friend using a payphone (something that was still possible 15 years ago!).[1]

In retrospect, I think that was the moment that I first realized the importance of my digital persona. I realized how much I had begun to rely on data, and on systems belonging to a small number of big companies—other people’s computers. I vowed to be more careful, and to regain control.

I promptly forgot that vow for about 13 years.

In my last post, I talked about my frustration with banks, and about the fact that you don’t really “own” the funds you deposit at the bank in a practical sense. Today, I want to talk about a different sort of asset: data.

Data don’t feel as valuable as liquid assets like cash because, well, you can’t exactly go to the store and exchange your data for a loaf of bread or a cup of coffee (at least not yet). But our data are very important to us, and they’re more valuable than most of us realize. We live in a digital age, and so many of our day to day behaviors are mediated by data and digital systems. This includes both explicitly digital-native acts like sending an email, as well as digital-enabled actions like boarding an airplane, picking up a rental car, or making a phone call—things that were previously possible in an analog world but that, mostly, no longer work without the help of a computer.

As bad as banks are, in fact, I think the situation with data is even worse. One reason is that we all intuitively understand that funds on deposit at a bank are ours, legally if not practically, and that they have value. If your bank really tried to seize your assets, you would take them to court, and you’d have legal recourse. A second reason is that banks introduce friction between us and our funds, e.g., taking cash out of an ATM. For this reason, we probably have some intuitive understanding that, at least in certain scenarios—say, a run on the banks—we might have trouble turning those digital dollars into physical cash. (As money becomes more and more digital these frictions are decreasing, albeit more slowly than one might have expected they would.)

By contrast, tech companies reduce friction as much as possible and make accessing your data seamless, so you may not even realize that you could lose access.[2] If you learned that First National Bank blocked Lee M. Cardholder from accessing his account for some inane reason, you wouldn’t be that surprised. On the other hand, you could be forgiven for not knowing that Google, one of America’s most trusted brands, accidentally blocked lots of people, including a number of journalists and critics of political correctness, in 2017 for “bogus terms-of-service violations.” When you get blocked, they don’t have to tell you why, and you have very little recourse: good luck getting a human on the line to help you. In my opinion, tech companies are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Have you ever asked yourself the following questions?

  • How much of your data do you actually own, in the “to have possession” sense of the word?
  • If your digital identity were suddenly deleted, what impact would that have on your life?
  • What recourse would you have?
  • How will you make sure this doesn’t happen?

You’re placing an enormous amount of trust in Google and other companies to keep your data safe—just as you’re trusting the bank (and government) to keep your financial assets safe. Do you really trust them to do that? Why? Stop and think about this for a moment.

Things didn’t used to be this way. And, even today, there is another option.

I’m just old enough to remember the Internet before the advent of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and the cloud. I had a personal website circa 1997 complete with obligatory, blinking “under construction” sign. I remember feeling two things at the time. The first was excitement and exhibitionism: this was a brave new world and I was making myself, or at least a tiny piece of myself, visible to the whole world.

The second was a feeling of pride and skill. Setting up a website in 1997 was hard. At minimum you had to learn HTML (there was no CSS, and JavaScript was in its infancy) and how to host your files on a web server. It was a pain, but those files were mine. The webserver was mine. So was my email. I still have archive files of old websites and email going back decades.

To anyone born after 1990, an ancient story like this probably feels quaint and a bit pointless—a bit like reminiscing over old modem connection tones. The Internet got a whole lot easier to use in the decade following 1997. That was good because it brought hundreds of millions of people online, but it had another consequence: everyone pretty much stopped hosting their own websites and email servers.

This seems to be a central theme of technology: as it gets more popular and goes mainstream, it becomes easier to use, but in the process the average user gives up a lot of agency. Probably the best example of this is the computer itself. In 1979, the act of using a computer was synonymous with the act of programming (in an ancient, esoteric programming language). In 2020, it means picking up your smartphone. This is a perfectly fine trade for most people. Most people just want products that work.

The problem with this line of thinking is that things work just fine until, suddenly, they don’t—and by giving your documents, email, contacts, calendar, text messages, and other sensitive data to a distant, faceless third party company, when something does goes wrong, you are literally helpless.

In an era of surveillance capitalism, mass data breaches, GDPR, and contact tracing, data is an increasingly contentious and important topic. We leave a data footprint with every digital action we take, usually without even realizing it—and, increasingly, our non-digital actions leave digital footprints too! The implications on privacy are genuinely frightening, and we need look no further than China (or Black Mirror—there’s increasingly little difference) to see why.

I work full time on blockchain and “Web3” technology. When you think of blockchain you probably think of Bitcoin and digital cash, but blockchain is about a lot more than money. The Web3 movement is about taking control not just of your assets but of your data and identity, too. This is a deep, fascinating topic and I have a lot to say about it. However, I don’t want to write about data hygiene, or privacy, or data unions, or any of those things today. What I want to write about is much simpler: how to own your own data. (To be fair, they are connected because owning your own data is a first step, albeit a small one, on the path to the much loftier goals I just described!)

Analogies can be helpful. For a moment, forget about data. Let’s talk about your home—you know, the place where you spend most of your time (especially these days!) and store most of the things that are important to you. Imagine that you don’t own your home, you rent it: you occasionally hand your evil landlord some money, and in exchange, they give you permission to live in a property they own (this exercise in imagination will require less effort for some readers than for others). Imagine, further, that you have no protections as a tenant. Your landlord can show up at any moment and tell you to leave immediately. They can even change the locks while you’re gone and confiscate any property you leave behind. Your landlord can enter your house at any time they like, without warning. What’s more, they can secretly monitor your behavior anytime, or all of the time. They act with total impunity.

Would you be okay with this state of affairs?

You’re probably thinking, “Absolutely not.” And you’re right in a sense because it’s not how things work today. If your actual landlord acted this way, you’d probably sue them, or at the very least you’d move elsewhere.

But what if every landlord in the world insisted on these terms? And, further, what if things had always been this way, and no one knew any better? As sorry a state of affairs as it would be, I suspect people would actually put up with it for two reasons. The first reason is that, in the vast majority of cases, on most days days for most people, things would be just fine. You would pay rent on time and your landlord wouldn’t take advantage of you, because it would be a hassle and they wouldn’t gain much by doing so. Once in a while something bad would happen somewhere, but if you even happened to hear about it, you’d write it off as a fluke, or maybe “fake news.”

This is, in actuality, pretty close to how things work with data today. We expect all of the software and services we use to be free. Our “stuff” is all piled into Google’s enormous “garage”—after all, “the cloud” is just a euphemism for “someone else’s computer”—and we “pay rent” by letting Google monetize our data. That’s the Faustian bargain we’ve collectively made with the perpetrators of surveillance capitalism. It’s the original sin of modern digital society, if you will.

Like most people, I didn’t think much about this situation for most of the past decade. The cloud made my life much easier.[3] Google and Dropbox seem pretty reliable, and in any case, I’m not doing anything subversive or illegal so I don’t have anything to worry about, right?

Sometime about a year or two ago, my feeling began to change. I began to think more deeply about how much valuable data I was storing in “the cloud,” where I was storing it, and the risk of doing so. The reality began to dawn on me that, to Google, I am not a human being, I am literally just a row in some massive database. If something I say or do happens to trigger some “risk prevention system,” then I’m just out of luck. This asymmetry is enormous and extraordinarily discomforting—take the “evil landlord” allegory I described above, and imagine that the landlord has billions of tenants and billions of dollars.[4]

I’m not sure what caused my feeling to change. Maybe it was seeing friends lose access to important data, and seeing them struggle to get anyone at Google to notice or care. Maybe it was the realization that, in an age of social media, full-stack publishing, and full-time work from home, my digital life, persona, and brand are now as important, or more important, than their offline equivalents. Maybe it was getting comfortable with securely storing private keys for cryptocurrency. Maybe it was the fact that storage has become so cheap, I don’t really have an excuse not to store my own data.

In any case, I finally decided that, once and for all, it’s time to take matters—and data—back into my own hands.

Easier said than done.

Regaining my own digital independence is very much a work in progress. I have a vague idea of how I’ll do it: figure out what data lives where, figure out how to export and store all of my data, and then actually go through the process of exporting and storing it all. Even that is only the beginning: I also need to figure out how to maintain this process going forward! That will likely involve some combination of diligence on my part (e.g., regularly going through data hygiene checkups, and regularly backing things up) and switching to better platforms and tools that give me more control. Ideally, I want to do things like run my own mail server, something I did in the nineties, but it’s become very difficult to do this today.

This is an extremely important topic to me. I have a lot more to say about it, and a lot more work to do. Hopefully, this first article provides enough context to understand why it’s so important, and sets the stage for the work that remains.

My goal at the end of this side project is to have a workable system for taking total control of my own data, at a reasonable cost (of time and of money), and without sacrificing too much convenience. Since I’m just beginning, I don’t know how long that will take, or even whether it will be possible, but I’m going to try. I’ll keep working on it, and I’ll keep writing about it. With any luck, I’ll be back soon to share my progress, and some ideas and tips.

If this is something that interests you, and if you’re interested in doing the same thing, let me know by leaving a comment below!

  1. In case you’re curious, the ending of the story is much less interesting. The whole thing must have been caused by some digital hiccup because, thirty minutes later, everything came back online. 

  2. Google Drive stores files on your hard drive for your Google-native documents, spreadsheets, etc.. Know what they contain? Did you know that Amazon can remotely delete books from your Kindle

  3. And not just in an abstract, feel good sort of way! I’ve always been very mobile and I’ve always worked across many different systems and platforms. I used to have jury-rigged rsync scripts in a vain attempt to keep my files in sync. It required constant tweaking and it never worked very well. Dropbox, Gmail, Google Drive, and AWS changed everything for me. 

  4. It may sound like I’m really bashing Google here. Let me be clear: I am not anti-Google, nor am I suggesting that Google is evil. Google is a company like any other, and by engaging in the sort of behavior I’m describing, they’re doing what all companies have to do: they’re putting the bottom line, and the interests of their shareholders, first. That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Many of Google’s products are genuinely useful and I think it’s even possible that Google is a net force for good in the world (although this is less obvious than it used to be). As cloud providers go, Google is one of the good guys—at least they let you export all of your data with just a few clicks. Nevertheless, my point stands: there is an important asymmetry at play here, and you should be aware of it when using products from Google, or from any other big tech company!