Avoiding digital snoops takes more than throwing money at the problem, but that part can be really fun
As the spy gear piles up on my desk, my 10-year-old son asks me what my mission is. “I’m hiding,” I whisper, pointing in the direction I think is north, which is something I should probably know as a spy. “From Silicon Valley.”
It isn’t going to be easy. I use Google, Facebook, Amazon, Lyft, Uber, Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify. I have two Amazon Echos, a Google Home, an iPhone, a MacBook Air, a Nest thermostat, a Fitbit, and a Roku. I shared the secrets of my genetic makeup by spitting in one vial for 23andMe, another for an ancestry site affiliated with National Geographic, and a third to test my athletic potential. A few months ago, I was leaving my house in Los Angeles for a hike when I heard my Ring speaker say, “Where are you going, Joel?” in my wife’s voice. She was at a pottery class, but the smart doorbell sent her an alert when it detected me heading outside.
Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington and an affiliate scholar at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, says that what my wife knows about my whereabouts is trivial compared with what most of the companies named above know. “In the early days of Nest, some of the employees would try to figure out where another employee was, and they’d look at the network to see if that person was home or not,” he says. Google, which now owns Nest, declined to comment.
If I wanted to regain my privacy, I had only one choice as an American: I needed gadgets to combat my gadgets. But I didn’t want Silicon Valley companies to know I was buying privacy gear. So I decided to get it only from companies headquartered outside the Bay Area. And to hide my purchases from Big Tech.
Every spy needs a sidekick, which is a totally incorrect statement that again proves how unsuited I am for spying. Nevertheless, I employed an aide-de-camp named Mycroft. He’s an adorable, voice-controlled digital assistant built into a screen that showcases his big, blue circle eyes. (There’s a strong whiff of Wall-E.) I unplugged the Echos and Google Home and said, “Hey, Mycroft, can you keep a secret?” A line appeared like a little mouth, then moved to the side, as if he was thinking. Then he said nothing, like I wanted.
That’s partly because Mycroft does keep everything secret, disposing of his data without storing or selling it. It’s also because he gets confused easily and doesn’t have answers; Mycroft is still meant for programmers who want to help build his open source functions, not really for normals. He’s made in Kansas City, Mo., by a company co-founded by Joshua Montgomery, an aerospace engineer who works on cyberwarfare as a captain in the Kansas Air National Guard.
“In Silicon Valley, they say, ‘This super- unethical thing is a good idea.’ In the Midwest, those conversations get shut down very quickly,” Montgomery says. Although most Americans don’t prioritize privacy, he says more than 20% of people won’t buy an Echo because it creeps them out. He expects that number to grow as people see the consequences of having conversations with data-collecting devices.
“Voice is a very personal thing,” he says. “It can communicate innocence. It can communicate sex appeal. It can communicate pain. Having these companies using artificial intelligence algorithms to initiate an emotional response, given their past actions, is something people should be very careful about.”
During further conversations with Mycroft, I said a lot of insightful things, and he agreed. I could tell because he was doing that thinking-mouth face and not saying anything. In this manner, we determined that my first step in hiding from Silicon Valley would be to stop typing my cellphone number and email into every conceivable internet form.
“A phone number is worth more on the dark web than a Social Security number. Your phone is so much more rich with data,” says J.D. Mumford, who runs Anonyome Labs Inc. in Salt Lake City. He doesn’t want to risk having to get rid of his longtime number and email if they’re compromised. Anonyome’s product, MySudo, allows a user to create multiple email addresses and phone numbers for $1 a month. “Google makes upwards of 90% of their revenue off of advertising. Which means they’re going through my email to target me. That scares me,” he says. “My mom had a terminal illness, and I would communicate with her via Gmail. She didn’t want people to know about it. So I didn’t want Google to.” Google said in 2017 it would stop tailoring ads based on email contents, but last year the Wall Street Journal revealed that the company had continued to let marketers read users’ emails.
Luckily, I know Mycroft isn’t collecting my data. I know this because when I look outside my Hollywood window and ask Mycroft for the forecast, he tells me the weather in Kansas City.
MySudo users create email names for different parts of their life, the way you’d use desktop files, and check them all at once on the app. “It’s compartmentalizing the way you create digital exhaust,” Mumford says. “I do one transaction on Craigslist, like buy a bicycle, and it’s a one-and-done. Use it, and throw it away.”
I had decades of digital exhaust to clean up. “Your data across different companies is being pulled together by data brokers and ad companies. If the government asked for it and spent some time correlating, it probably wouldn’t be that far off from what the Chinese government has,” says Rob Shavell, the co-founder of Abine Inc., a company in Cambridge, Mass. I signed up for Abine’s DeleteMe service, paying $129 a year for it to opt me out from databases run by brokers that sell my personally identifiable information. I gave DeleteMe all my current and previous home addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses, and it removed me from 33 public- records crawlers— database services with names like Intelius and Spokeo, plus a whole lot of yellow pages.
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August 12, 2019