Another thought-provoking piece from our regular guest blogger, The New Oil's Nate Bartram.
I’m about to say something that might blow the minds of some readers: I do not always agree with everything my Surveillance Report cohost Henry says. For just one example, Henry is a huge proponent of Brave. While I do encourage Brave, I also have my reservations and still prefer to use Firefox as my daily driver (Librewolf, to be exact). I also disagree with some of the content on PrivacyGuides – formerly PrivacyTools – a team I once wrote a blog post for! My disagreements with them tend to come down to things like their endorsement of Startpage and their outright disclaimers against Brave. And yet, I still recommend both of those sources on my site without reservation.
We all have our loyalties: some of us are loyal to a certain sports team, Coke over Pepsi, Tutanota over Proton, etc. But in the world of personal finance, brand loyalty is largely considered a mistake. For example, it is widely known that store brand foods are just as good – and sometimes better – than name brand, and with medicine the “generic” brand – which is really just the name of the active ingredient instead of the arbitrary name made up the company (flouxetine vs Prozac, for example) – can cost as much as 18.6 times less than the name brand! Perhaps these aren’t the best examples, as in these situations the name brand is usually overpriced and not worth it, and that’s definitely not what I’m saying about Techlore or PrivacyGuides. Perhaps a better example would be Mac vs PC: there is no clear winner. Sure, PC is cheaper, but also comes with significantly more control over customizing (and for us privacy-minded types, hardening) your system, while Macs come with longer support, better life expectancy, and better virus protection.
Let me share a personal experience: I have mentioned many times in the past that I’m a full-time audio person – recording songs, mixing bands, etc. At the onset of that career – when I was still the lowly roadie pushing cases around and hovering around the soundboard hoping to pick up any nuggets of wisdom – I didn’t know what compression was. My audio readers may laugh at that: compression is one of the definitive, foundational tools of audio, along with EQ. Almost any audio plugin or tool you can think of is – at its core – using some type of compression or EQ to do what it does. Think of it like an IP address or the Linux terminal: it is impossible to overstate how vital it is to know what this thing is and how to use it, even at a basic level. I had about four or five people in those days try to explain to compression to me and for some reason it just never made sense. In some cases I left more confused than I did before. Then one day, I watched a YouTube video who said – and I quote: “basically compression makes loud things quiet and quiet things loud.” All of a sudden, everything just clicked. It was a life-changing epiphany. From that one sentence alone, years of explanations and things I had seen and heard and done just slid into place. Suddenly my skill exploded exponentially – not like I was suddenly an expert, but suddenly I wasn’t just applying a default setting, I actually understood each of those settings, how they worked, what they did, what my desired effect was, and how to use compression. Of course, there was much more to learn and I continued to learn that, but the thing that had been holding me back was suddenly gone. I wasn’t blindly applying a preset and doing what others suggested and hoping for the best and trusting that the magic rainbow unicorn voodoo was working. I got it. I knew what I was doing, and I knew how to dial it in to get the result I wanted.
And that is what this blog post is all about. In privacy, many of us have our loyalties: Tutanota vs Proton, Mullvad vs Proton, Firefox vs Brave, Graphene vs Calyx (or at least Android vs iOS). Sometimes that’s fine. Sometimes people have good reasons for those loyalties, and if you do I’m glad it works for you. But when it comes to our news, sources, and education we should be diverse. Privacy and security are constantly evolving fields, and it’s imperative that we stay on top of these changes. That’s the entire reason that Surveillance Report exists, so that people who can’t spend 40 hours per week wading through all this news can get the important snapshots and know the major changes. But it’s also imperative to remember that we’re human: we make mistakes and we carry biases.
Just this week, a viewer of Surveillance Report reached out to me to inform me that I was wrong about something. It was actually a misunderstanding – that’s not to say I’m always right, just that in this case I had failed to clarify something. In the previous Report, I had shared a story about how Microsoft is pushing very hard to get rid of passwords in favor of other methods such as biometrics. I mentioned that the reason companies were doing this is because a lot of people – despite the prevalence and growing mainstream use of password managers – still default to crappy passwords like “password123,” and that biometrics are stronger than bad passwords. I did note that biometrics can be risky because you can’t change your fingerprint or iris scan the same way you can change a password, but I did applaud that companies were trying to find solutions to the problem. What I failed to do was clarify that I still believed that a strong, unique password (or passphrase) was still preferable to biometrics, so the viewer reached out to inform me of cases in the past where biometrics had been bypassed in various ways, thinking that I was endorsing biometrics over a strong password. That story wasn’t even about being wrong, it was about not being perfectly clear and thorough. There have been other times I’ve been flat out wrong – like the time I accidentally read the article too fast and named the location instead of the person – or the story has evolved and now the information is outdated.
Likewise, we carry our biases. On the same episode where I discussed the now infamous ProtonMail/Activist situation, I decided to be cheeky and promote our Proton affiliate links. Some people took that to mean we were paid by Proton (spoiler alert: we weren’t), but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a soft spot for Proton. I do use Proton as my daily email provider. I use them as my VPN (though I do want to switch so I can compartmentalize a bit better). I also use Signal, and I have a soft spot for them. I’m biased against Briar for not being available on iPhone. That doesn’t mean I will blindly trust or distrust these services, but it does mean that I am prone to blind spots, and I appreciate when readers – like the one above – call me out and keep me honest. We are human. We are imperfect. We misread things, stories fly under our radars, or we just misspeak.
That’s why it’s so critical that you don’t listen just to me. Or Decentralize Today. If you’re reading this, I am truly grateful, but please don’t stop with me. In today’s age of political disinformation, it’s vital that we learn to take in multiple sources. I read Reuters and Associated Press – considered by experts to be among the least biased and most firsthand fact-based news outlets in the English-speaking news world. But I also read BBC, Fox News, Washington Times, and others. I want to get my news from a variety of sources, even those I don’t agree with, so I can hear all the arguments and facts. In privacy, I don’t think we (or at least I hope we don’t) maliciously omit facts to improve our narrative, but I do know firsthand that we make mistakes and carry our biases no matter how hard we try to stay neutral and just stick to the facts. And that’s not even taking into account the story I shared earlier: the fact that we all explain things in different ways and the way I explain one thing might not make sense to you but the way someone else explains it might make perfect sense. A question I hate seeing in the privacy community is “how do I get my loved one to care about privacy?” because the fact is we just don’t know. Different people have different values, experiences, fears, hopes, etc. What got me to care about privacy may not make someone else care, and I’ll never forget the one time I spent about 30 minutes explaining why I care about privacy to a coworker only for her to go “[that one sentence you said in passing and moved on from], that scares me and makes me want to care.” Something that meant nothing to me moved her.
I’ve had people tell me that I’m their favorite educator/content creator, but I hope those same people are checking out Techlore, Privacy Guides, Michael Bazzell, any number of other great sources out there for news, ideas, and opinions, because the more angles you hear something from, the better equipped you are to make a decision. The echo chamber is what has made the world such a divided and difficult place, rampant with FUD and frustration. The only way we can break out of it is to intentionally break out of that echo chamber, hear things that challenge us even if we don’t like it, and try to weigh what we hear with facts and sound logic. So it is that in mind that I leave you with this: get lots of different perspectives, but of course use critical thinking so you don’t fall for the completely insane ones.