Take your stuff back, Part 1 of 2

Take your stuff back, Part 1 of 2 Featured Image

The term “decentralised” is thrown around a lot nowadays, and it’s almost lost its meaning for the general public.

However, getting back to basics with lasting and reliable technology is so important for your privacy, security, and data longevity.

Especially when long-term and seemingly ever-stable commercial services crumble or corrupt with such regularity as they do now in the last few years.

Think of all the data breaches in recent years, the extremely low fines for consistent lawbreaking companies, and long-standing services being purchased and/or taken offline at the whims of uninterested venture capitalists.

We naively used to rely on these free online services as the backbone of the consumed internet. But now, anti-consumer practices and excessive commercial gain (gain beyond that which is required for services to operate profitably) are leading their users and the internet back in to the dark ages.

Data Dark Ages

I once read online, although I can’t remember where (a sentence that never ends well… -citation is always needed!-) that we’re living through a new sort of “dark age” as far as the historians are concerned.

And, although the first part of this post may lead you to believe, I don’t actually mean “dark ages” in terms of horror and despair, but rather dankness of actual information loss on a grandiose scale.

e.g. When is the last time you came across niche but important content from a long time ago? (a long-time ago, being only 6+ years)

If you’re old enough, think back to the early days of the internet. It was open and more similar to the wild west than a public service. An internet rife with emotionally scarring content, isolated forums and uploading and downloading plain-text as its core.

A haven for the few, but ultimately not what the masses wanted.

An unbelievable amount of specialist information or inspiration have been lost on forgotten hard drives. Lost at the deaths of their operators. Vanished when a company or website was taken over and axed, or simply lost to fluctuating interest, time and budget.

Today we can look back to real paper, books, physical art, or even stone tablets to understand our history. But can you imagine how humans (or whomever) in a few thousand years time could possibly understand our lives and culture today if our communication and data sources are so frequently lost on such a large scale as the internet?

Would they be doomed to repeat our mistakes again?

This is the darkness of the modern web.

Data loss is happening on such a grand and fast-paced scale that it’s not only effecting future historians, but also ourselves, in the now.

Think about those early digital photos you took 10 years ago, or important but digital documents and credentials stored only in your email account. In an email account some company conveniently provides for you at their digression, often for free, or even worse in an old or unrecoverable email account floating somewhere just out of reach on someone else’s cloud.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though.

There’s a flicker of light in this space.

There are a bunch of nerdy organisations, run by people not wholly unlike myself and readers of this site, who are focused on archiving public data for data security or simply to preserve our future.

Some notable large scale archival initiatives that I highly encourage that your check-out are; The Internet Archive (wiki), Kiwix (wiki), GitHub repositories source-code inside the Arctic World Archive and the Software Heritage Foundation (wiki).

And, since the souring of our trusted online services and extreme privacy and security breaches, more and more people are returning to the ground instead of floating away in someone else’s clouds.

This has lead to an up tick in personal-scale data preservation, too.

See the Part 2 of this post series on some specific options you can consider for taking back your data from the unreliable and anti-consumer parts of the cloud.

So what’s wrong with data in the cloud (and AI) anyway?

There’s nothing universally wrong with the cloud, or AI for that matter.

The cloud has its purpose, and although it’s often the default for businesses and services, it’s not always the best choice for your data.

The alternative is controlling the data yourself.

Think about the true cost of storing and owning data or services yourself rather than just renting them from someone else like Google, Microsoft, or Dropbox.

If you’ve got the right setup, you can access your services and data from anywhere, still have unparalleled data security but retain control of the things you rely on over the longer term.

You may have heard this saying for years, “if you’re not actually paying for cloud-based service, then you and your data are the product being sold to someone else”, but now it’s being felt more than ever.

Human error and poor company procedures can cause their own problems too. It only takes one automated or AI hiccup in a decade to lose all the stuff you’ve taken for granted without recourse.

e.g. maybe Google or Dropbox mistakenly decide your data is not the sort of data they want anymore…

Your account is now closed.

Your data inaccessible.

And now, you have no backups or local copies.

This is an often overlooked case, but Dropbox and the other storage providers will not return your data should your account be closed, even by mistake. Such as a false-positive alert during a scan or some form of AI behaviour based predictions are sadly not unheard of.

You’re at more risk if you’ve accepted their often potent and convenient features, commonly marketed as “cloud-only” or “data saver” as you’ll likely not even have local copies of your most beloved data.

The surge in poorly implemented AI based products and services is unlikely to slow down in the near future, and we’re currently only in the early days of AI being commercially implemented.

Generally speaking, we have very little oversight of how AI is used or built with our data.

Your privacy has likely already been violated by data scrapes for AI training, and that’s bad enough for me. But, imagine the data loss and personal difficulty has yet to be felt though AI flagging and decision-making in cloud-based services aimed at the public.

I’d like to add that I’m certainly not against AI. It has some great use-cases but the current unchecked usage and poor implementation on services and companies you rely on may soon become more troublesome IMO.

Are Governments a Concern for Everyone?

For those of us in those in historically politically-stable countries, we may not consider our governments access to our cloud-based data through companies as a concern.

Unless you’re in a particularly oppressive country, you’re likely an average law-abiding citizen, and surely the argument of “you don’t having anything to hide” stands strong, right?

Unfortunately not, as governments often have worse track records with your data security and transparency about their access than commercial companies currently abusing your data.

Even governments have to deal with internal bad actors, and poor actions of their contractors too, and so mistakes happen. If a sloppy government has access to your data, in the open or via a secret legal or technical backdoor.

So do their hackers.

And then there’s the unexpected and arguably illegal, cultural shifts.

We may be used to a relatively stable society, with stable standards and rules. But, just five years ago, most people would have not even considered a major western power such as the USA persecuting women for standard medical procedures, but now they do in some states.

What you consider just and legal now, may not be in the near future and your data could be used against you as we’ve seen lately.

What can you do?

In essence, keeping this in mind and making conscious decisions about how to live your digital life is key.

Focus on only supporting the services and practices you agree with.

And take back what you can with sensible data backup plans, choose better providers and maybe even host some of your own services.

See Part 2 of this miniseries on privacy and security for some actionable recommendations.

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