Privacy 2014: Scroogled?

Tech aficionados and privacy advocates took notice in late 2013 when Microsoft rolled out an attack on Google’s Chrome OS computers.

For one thing, it’s unusual for any company to spend its advertising dollars attacking its competitors rather than promoting its own products. For another, Microsoft’s position atop the computer operating systems market is such that if its execs feel a need to go on the offensive, they obviously fear their market share is genuinely threatened (as was the case in 2002 or so when they finally deigned to take public notice of Linux).

As the year drew to a close, Redmond’s worst nightmares were confirmed. In October, Google claimed that 22% of all US public schools have adopted the Chromebook (closely correlating to the end-of-year claim that 21% of notebook computers sold between January and November were Chromebooks). In December, two of Amazon.com’s three best-selling laptops were Chromebooks.

So yes, Microsoft finds itself at a critical juncture and is reacting — not just with the “Scroogled” propaganda, but with consideration of making some versions of the Windows operating system free to device manufacturers to combat Google’s other free OS, Android.

The era of paying cash for operating systems (and most applications) is over. The era of free operating systems — and networked/cloud-based computing — is here. And since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, the obvious question for the rest of us is: What’s the trade-off?

The trade-off is privacy. Google makes its money by trading in the information we (often unwittingly) convey as we surf the web, send and receive email, engage in online commerce, etc. So will other and future providers of computer gear and computing power.

For obvious reasons, this upsets some users — particularly my crypto-anarchist friends who value privacy as such and have been working hard for decades now to make online privacy possible and convenient.

I don’t think the crypto-anarchists are over-reacting per se. The threat to privacy is certainly real. But, like Microsoft, they find themselves at a critical juncture. The new way of doing things is obviously catching on. Most people (myself included — my two main computers are a Chromebox and a Chromebook) are comfortable sacrificing privacy for convenience.

A new generation of privacy tools will obviously be required for this new era. And as with the previous generation of tools, the hardest bar to get over will be making those tools easy to acquire, install and use.

Like the old guy in The Graduate, I have one word for our would-be protectors: Steganography. The best way to protect a secret is for the bad guys — governments and criminals (but I repeat myself) — to not suspect the existence of the secret. Since trading pictures of cute kittens and so forth seems to have become an enduring Internet habit, what’s called for is a strong (but easy to use!) public key crypto-system for hiding messages in these kinds of ordinary, non-suspicious files, preferably only easily detectable, let alone readable, using the secret half of the key pair.

But that’s just a suggestion. There may be a better way that I, not being the geek I used to be, haven’t thought of. My main point here is not to point to any particular solution, but rather to emphasize that we have a whole new paradigm on our hands. Privacy may still be possible, but only if it accommodates the new way of doing things.

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