Data Privacy Day 2024

At the time of publication, tomorrow is International Data Privacy Day. Like most “days” of this sort, the focus is on spreading awareness of data privacy and as such companies routinely post articles about some beginner tips, why privacy matters, and other similar ideas. This year, I want to do something a little different. With tomorrow being Data Privacy Day and most of us being chronically online, I want to encourage us all tomorrow to just disconnect. To be clear, those top 5 tips and philosophical musings are important and matter, but I’ve already seen plenty of interesting posts this week covering those bases so I don’t feel a need to add to the chorus. Instead, I thought it might be useful to focus on one thing that nobody else seems to be talking about: digital minimalism.

The most effective data privacy strategy is simply not to make data. Period. What doesn’t exist doesn’t need protection. Of course, in 2024 most of us can't “airgap” long-term like that. It simply isn’t sustainable to just not exist online (with a few exceptions, I'm sure). Even the most digitally disconnected people I’ve met still have an email address and a couple social media accounts they check once in a blue moon. Most of them even have a phone – usually a smart phone – and if not they typically use a tablet instead. But I think most of us – myself included – are online way more than we really need to be. To cite just one example from my own personal life, I have a plethora of audiobooks, movies, e-books, and even Duolingo on my phone but for some reason, when I’m sitting around bored, I choose to “lurk” on Reddit. I don’t even sign in and I don’t even have the app on my phone, I just open the browser and navigate there. It’s ridiculous when you think about it. I'm going out of my way to waste my time when I could do something productive more easily.

This isn’t a post about the value of self-improvement though I am a strong believer in that, but I think it’s extremely common for all of us to develop habits and then fall into them as a routine. James Clear in his seminal book Atomic Habits (which I strongly recommend to everyone) says that “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall the level of your systems.” In other words, your habits determine your future, good or bad. You can make plans and set goals and dreams and aspirations, but if you don't create new good, habits, you won't change. If you want to lose weight but you keep buying snacks, you’re going to keep snacking. For most of us, when we first get into privacy we make a lot of changes: we change email providers, browsers, messaging apps, operating systems, etc. And sometimes we make small changes after that – we may try out a new messenger or graduate to different operating systems as we get more comfortable and our lives change (I talked about that last week). But I suspect that overall it’s very easy for us to fall into our routines and never really stop to ask “why am I doing it this way?” until something comes along and forces us to. For the record, I suspect that because I’m like that: for all my emphasis on self-improvement and growth, it’s not always easy or obvious to me to question and change certain things in my life – both privacy-related and not.

I think tomorrow is one such opportunity to really shake that up for all of us. As I said earlier, I think many of the other Data Privacy Day blog posts I’ve read this week are great and valuable and have a reason to have been written. I don’t see a need to add to or contradict what was said. But I also haven't seen any of them address the value (both privacy-related and not) of simply not putting your data out there in the first place. So tomorrow, let’s do that. Many of my regular readers know that I love technology: I play video games, I have many long-distance friends and family that technology enables me to stay close to, and I love podcasts and music. This post is not me decrying the harms of modern technology (of which there are many, for the record). Technology can be great. But the internet can be a toxic and exhausting place, and even offline tech can be detrimental when we overuse it. It’s important for all of us – myself included – to unplug and go “touch grass” sometimes.

So that’s my Data Privacy Day tip for 2024: tomorrow, let’s all unplug for a little bit (as much as we can) and rethink our relationship to technology. Read a book. Go for a walk. Go out to eat (if that’s still affordable). For most of us, I think we’ll more or less come back to tech afterwards. I certainly have no intention to quit playing video games or throw away my phone. But maybe we’ll realize “you know what? The front page of Reddit is all low-quality garbage. I should read a book when I’m bored instead.” Even if all you can spare is thirty minutes or if you have to leave your phone on because you're on call, tomorrow let’s take some time to get away from it as much as we can for even a little while and rethink all our digital relationships: our accounts, our communities, our apps, our devices. What can we get rid of? What we can use less? What guard rails and restrictions can we put on those things to ensure they serve us and not the other way around? Again, this is not just about privacy (though that's always a consideration) but also about our mental health, our relationships, and ourselves. Privacy should be something that enhances our lives, not hinders it, but many of the same end-user problems of Big Tech – social media addiction, for example – can easily follow us into more privacy-respecting spaces if we’re not intentional and careful. This Data Privacy Day, be intentional. Don’t put out data you don’t need to, and then protect what you do.

Happy Data Privacy Day, y’all. Enjoy your time off (if you can).

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