I just got a new phone, which means a good chunk of time spent slogging through its OS, opening every menu I can find, and turning off any setting that might plausibly translate into packets of information flying through the air without my explicitly sending or asking for them.
As before, my new phone is a “dumb-phone” (what else?), but even candybar and flip phones these days are equipped with all kinds of geolocation, auto-updates, background data, and other transmission capabilities, turned on by default, that could translate into data about me and my life being captured, sold, archived on some corporate server somewhere, and otherwise used to lower my quality of life.
People who see me using a flip phone tend to have the same reaction: praise (“Nice! A flip phone!”), admiration (“Good for you!”), even statements of jealousy (“I wish I could have a phone like that!”). But occasionally I encounter the opposite response: a kind of huffy sneer, as if I’m rocking the boat and holding society back by not getting with the smartphone program. Indeed, if quality of life is defined as maximizing convenience and computer-assisted abilities, I am lowering my quality of life, as well as that of anyone who might want to text me a link (rather than email it), or have me download their app, or whatever else smartphone users do in their sleep but which I kept out of my life.
But in the most basic sense it isn’t true: in this case my quality of life is improved through inconvenience. I don’t have Twitterer’s brain, I don’t interrupt conversations to look things up, and I don’t Google anything.
I almost wrote “I don’t Google anything, ever” but eliminated that last word because it’s not technically true: from my laptop running a VPN and my location data concealed as best I can, I sometimes use Youtube, Google Maps, Google Scholar, and for some collaborative activities I go along with their use of Google Drive.
In each case I have taken reasonable steps to restrict access to my data, but I know it is never perfect, and I also know a motivated and skilled person can probably find a way to get it anyway. There is no perfect privacy or security, ever. In “meatspace” we live in houses with windows, after all. Parabolic and laser microphones are a thing. Camera drones are getting smaller and quieter all the time. You walk into someone’s house and you never know what devices are listening. Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous, from on doorbells to stoplights. In the virtual world, where everything can be recorded, copied, and sent to a million places at once, perfect privacy and security are even less plausble.
But to me, this makes it even more important to define and defend a reasonable expectation of privacy and security, especially on my phone and laptop. I know these devices will never be perfectly private and secure. I know that I could spend years learning the most advanced cryptography skills and tighten up my my privacy and security more. I also know I could take the path of least resistance and do nothing, opting for maximum convenience instead. I choose the middle path, of maximizing the privacy and security I can get right now, for a few hours’ work.
Data and tracking and updates and geolocation services are turned off. Caches are cleared. Privacy settings are thoroughly fiddled-with. My phone is as dumb as I can make it. It’s a great feeling!