Our use of digital technologies – cell phones, computers, smart TV – has been changing in recent years. For most of us, this transformation translates quantitatively into an increase in the amount of time we spend on our screens, working, communicating, shopping and being entertained. The pandemic exacerbates these new ways of being. Inspired by my own experience of confinement, teleworking and the virtual cultural “outings” that I have been able to indulge in the last few months, I wish to share today a set of resources that have provided me with an enlightening perspective and useful tips for navigating the delicate issues of privacy, security and wellbeing in a digital context.
The Data Detox Kit is a very well done resource that offers concrete tips to raise awareness and equip individuals on these three specific issues. It is a project carried out by Tactical Tech, an international organization based in Berlin, whose mission is “to explore and mitigate the impacts of technologies on society”. Another equally relevant resource is the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defense project, which includes both fact sheets explaining some basic concepts and practical guides. Closer to home, the Independent Media Arts Alliance (IMAA) announced the release in October 2020 of a cyber security resource specifically designed for the Canadian arts community. We will be relaying information about the launch this fall!
One might think that the large and small companies we do business with online only collect the information we consent to give them (email address, name, location, etc.). However, we have to face a very different observation: the accumulation of this seemingly innocuous data can bring to light much more information than what we have consciously consented to share (movements, interests, habits, relationships, opinions, etc.). The business model of many of the “web giants”, for example, relies on the analysis of this data to identify trends and patterns, and sell this information to interested customers. This is the surveillance economy, which is what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff describes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (see also this documentary for an explanation of the concept by the author).
To minimize the amount of personal data that we share online, or at least to raise awareness of this issue, the Data Detox Kit has a few tips. Changing the name of your device (the one that identifies it for WiFi and Bluetooth use), disabling location-based services, cleaning up applications that you no longer use and using a browser that protects your online activities by default are all ways to frame our participation in the surveillance economy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also offers sound advice related to our use of social networks.
Whether the context is personal or professional, we perform many operations online that could be described as critical: paying bills, making an appointment at the medical clinic, consulting one’s account on a funder’s portal, having conversations that one hopes will be confidential with family, friends, partners, etc. It is therefore essential to stay informed about best practices to maximize our online safety.
The “Security” section of the Data Detox Kit and the Self-Defense Against Surveillance project first emphasize the importance of choosing quality passwords to protect each of our accounts. Other ways to protect access to our confidential information and our various online accounts include locking screens, multi-factor authentication, using a password manager, favoring services that use encryption and being vigilant against phishing attempts. The idea is not necessarily to adopt all of these practices en bloc (let’s focus on the quality of our passwords and vigilance against phishing!), but rather to familiarize ourselves with the various concepts and technologies involved in order to make informed decisions and adopt more secure behaviours overall.
This last theme is all the more important as the majority of our activities converge on the narrow space of our devices/the infinite space of the Internet! Those who would like to (re)establish a different balance between time spent online and offline will find valuable tips in the “Wellbeing” section of the Data Detox Kit. For an immediate impact, I recommend to start by sorting through your notifications. You can usually find the “notifications” section in the settings of the different applications you use.
If you want to evaluate and control the time you spend on your devices, this is also possible with different applications (especially, for smartphones, with Screen Time on iOS and Digital Wellbeing on Android). To make a brief parenthesis in connection with the tension between privacy and the collection of our personal data highlighted above, remember that these applications work because they collect information on all activity on our devices! While Google and Apple may encourage us to pursue digital wellbeing, the usefulness of these tools rests on the accuracy with which they observe and record our behaviours. There is something of a friction or discomfort when we realize how tightly intertwined our privacy is with these products and their inevitable business model. Doing IRL activities (in real life, to use the popular expression on the internet) once in a while can therefore do good for all sorts of reasons.
The Data Detox Kit then includes advice on how to navigate through the misinformation that circulates online and how to pay attention to the different design strategies used to modulate our behavior, to persuade us to click here rather than there, to attract our attention, etc.
Finally, at the risk of repeating it, in the context of telework, it is always a good idea to try to distinguish the moments devoted to work from those reserved for family, friends and relaxation. This can be done in different ways: by creating separate user accounts on your computer for professional and personal activities (learn here how to set up accounts on Mac and Windows), by disabling e-mail notifications, by going out for a walk, by closing the office door, by sitting down to check on a loved one, and so on.
In short, it is important to understand how the tools we use on a daily basis work to get the most out of them and to minimize unwanted effects. This is how increasing our digital literacy gives us greater control over our privacy, safety and wellbeing.