Independence, freedom, and privacy

In my last post, I voiced the opinion that it can make sense to find software you like and run your own service on a computer you control. The benefit of doing that is independence — not having to rely on others. In light of the current PRISM scandal, it turns out that running your own software has another advantage: freedom in terms of privacy.

If you’re relying on someone else for a service, you will have to trust that they will keep delivering that service, and that they won’t trick you. Obviously, you’ll have to rely on others at some point — unless you are in the eccentric habit of delivering your messages personally to make sure that you’re in control of the entire delivery chain.

That would be an extreme, of course, but we often don’t realize that the other extreme is something like Gmail (or AOL, or whatever mailbox your ISP offers), which I’ve used as my primary personal email account since forever, and I still do. This means you don’t control any part of the delivery chain, not even your own mailbox (see what happened to Google Reader!).

  • Take a step back: run your own mail service, but run it on a hosted server — now you control your mailbox, but not the server it runs on. Many people do this.
  • Take another step back: run your own mail service, but run it on a server in your home — you control your mailbox, and the server, but not the Internet connection it uses.
  • No more steps: Nobody would set up their own Internet Service Provider, and it would be futile anyway because of the inherent open connectivity of the Internet.

Where do we end up? The farthest we can reasonably go is to run a small computer under the staircase at home that does our mail service, as well as any other services we’d like (a replacement for Google Reader; a file-sharing service; and so on). As I mentioned earlier, it boils down to two questions:

1) How lazy are you? Being lazy makes you vulnerable.
2) Are you skilled enough to not be lazy? You need skills to become self-reliant.

I don’t want to be lazy. When I’m done moving into my new home (yay!), I will set up a small “staircase server” and see for myself how well this works. Ideally, I would be able to become independent from other online providers (goodbye Gmail, it was sweet but I’ve lost trust). Running my own server, I would also be able to cancel my web hosting plan* and channel the money I save on that into a static IP address so my server can have a real domain name.

In light of PRISM (no pun intended), the prize is bigger now than before: it’s not just a matter of avoiding that somebody pulls the carpet out from under you, it’s now a matter of making sure that the things you think are personal and private, really stay personal and private.

Of course, the best way to protect your online privacy is to get off the Internet. But then you wouldn’t be reading this :-)

* referral link.

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