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You are here: Home Bulletins 2022 fall Protect your freedom by managing your privacy

Protect your freedom by managing your privacy

by Zoë Kooyman Contributions Published on Dec 05, 2022 11:27 AM

Privacy is just one of the reasons we advocate for free software at the Free Software Foundation (FSF). The philosophy of software freedom encourages a culture in which computer users are not exploited, but respected. Being able to run, modify, copy, and share our software is a precondition to privacy. It allows us to trust the software we use, simply because we have the freedom to check it. These four freedoms protect us against the software we run on our devices. Proprietary software and unethical network services continue to violate the trust of users by collecting, studying, and brokering their data.

Today, the abortion rights conversations that are happening mostly in the US, but also in many other countries, are compelling the general public to face these concerns head on, and what we are seeing as a result is a growing public concern about mass surveillance.

image of two people communicating whilst companies and governments spy on their unencrypted communications

Beth Schlachter, director of advocacy with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPFF) warns that "the surveillance of pregnancy and abortions using technology and data is increasing." Users who collect reproductive health data in popular proprietary period tracking apps can have their information used against them. These apps not only collect and study data provided by users, but also send it to third parties, including data tech giants like Meta, where it gets linked to other data available about these users. Tech companies that store and broker your data can be ordered by a court to hand over user information, even if they don’t want to.

The trail of data people in today's society shed is easy to follow when they are not being careful, and it's reckless at best to think that the challenges this poses to our safety is limited to the situation in the US, or even to the matter of abortion. In recent years, we have seen similar concerns for the safety of marginalized communities, protestors, and even students.

How can we protect our privacy in a world where mass surveillance has become the norm? It's hard; it is nearly impossible to go completely unnoticed. Common cases show messaging history, cell phone tower location data, and IP address search histories are handed over to authorities -- sometimes even without warrants.

Our free software work is all about taking control over our digital lives and protecting our freedom. But the reality is that we cannot control every aspect of all technology in our lives. For example, many people have computers or phones from work or school that they are required to use. Users do not have any freedoms in regard to the proprietary applications they use, either by choice or because of expectations. We also don't control the software on the other end of our communications with our friends, family, or colleagues. In the end, all software has bugs or can have unforeseen consequences--even free software. And to top all that, it will be a long way before mobile phones -- the pocket-sized computers that track our movements, our interests, and our behaviors -- are fully free. These are enough reasons for us to be extra-vigilant about how we handle our data. This lack of control chips away at our freedom, and, sometimes, it affects our safety.

That does not mean you are completely at the mercy of technology when it comes to your privacy. You can install a free software operating system on your computer or phone. The fully free Android-based mobile OS Replicant, and others, will give you more control over the type of software you run and decrease your dependence on omnipresent tracking corporations like Google. You can also download F-Droid, a repository of free software applications where you can download apps for almost any purpose, like the free software period tracking applications Periodical or Drip, which were reviewed by Consumer Reports as having superior privacy practices, and they "show that it is possible to build a period tracker that doesn’t sell out users' information."

You can do things to protect yourself, such as monitor your own data trail. You can browse the Web using a privacy-respecting browser such as Tor Browser. There are also different search engines you can select from your settings menu in most browsers. These measures can mask your activity and block trackers, and they are available on your phone, too. You can also opt to mask your IP address using a VPN, but make sure it is one you trust.

Privacy is also a community effort, and your protection only gets stronger when everyone participates. Use the GNU Privacy Guard (GPG) for encryption. The FSF's Email Self-Defense Guide will help you and your friends implement this so that you can encrypt your emails and files as much as possible. We advise GPG because not all communication about encryption can be trusted. You can do some research, and insist on encryption software that is free software and studied by experts for security.

Private conversations are not for social media or microblogs. Fantastic apps exist for messaging, maps, storage, and specific needs like period tracking, all while protecting your privacy as well as your freedom. You can select, and research, many of these applications in the Free Software Directory. When using apps, it is good to remember some basic rules: do not allow apps permissions they do not need and remember to turn them off when they are not in use; look for ways to use free software applications as your daily tools instead of proprietary apps; and, in some cases, turning off or leaving your phone at home is a sensible thing to do.

The security of our data and control over our technology is constantly challenged, which is a difficult thing to process, because we would all like to believe we can live freely within the set boundaries of democracy. But what is accepted as free today may not be tomorrow, and in some cases it affects our safety. The FSF has been talking about these dangers for the past thirty-seven years, but right now, today, it is more important than ever to urge others to take measures to protect their safety and our own, as well as the safety of their communities. The more people implement free software, privacy-respecting applications and encryption into their day-to-day lives, the stronger our communities will be in withstanding oppressive mass surveillance.

Copyright © 2022. Free Software Foundation, Inc., licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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