Recognizing Progress (or, An Appreciation Post for Newbies)

In the past, I’ve talked about how privacy is a sliding scale, and that it’s possible to have some privacy without having maximum privacy and how that’s still an improvement over having little or no privacy. I’ve also talked in the past about some of the techniques I’ve used to make people around me care about privacy. But this week, I want to marry the two ideas and talk about how to recognize progress.

I have a coworker. Let’s call him Ed. Ed his in his early 40s, but honestly could pass for mid or late thirties. He’s got a wife and two kids that he adores. When Ed and I began working together, Ed was aware of privacy concerns but wasn’t really acting on it. He knew about the dangers of manipulation of social media, the fear of his kids growing up in a panopticon world, and the risks of public information from data breaches (especially as they pertained to his kids). That’s not to say that Ed is tech-savvy. He’s never self-hosted anything a day in his life or even so much as installed Linux. I think the most advanced thing he’s ever done was when he made a Windows virtual machine with my help so he could test out some Windows-only software for work (we use Macs at work). But he’s also not tech-illiterate.

You may or may not be surprised to know that in-person, I have a hard time shutting up about privacy. It takes a lot of restraint for me, which I fortunately have come to terms with, but even so I usually still sneak in snarky comments about Facebook or try to remind people that Amazon is evil from time to time. As such, it didn’t take long for Ed to learn about my interest in privacy, and as someone who’s passingly aware of these issues it was something he began to pick my brain about from time to time.

That was about two years ago. And the other day, it occurred to me how much Ed has changed in the time I’ve known him. When we first met, he was using a flip-phone for personal, non-privacy reasons. His first switch was to Bitwarden. For other unrelated personal reasons, he finally decided to get a smartphone recently. After consulting with me, he got a used iPhone. Almost immediately, he texted me to ask what sort of steps he should take to protect it for privacy. (Of course, I sent him this page). During one of our talks about privacy and technology, Ed asked me what browser he should be using. I told him Brave, maybe Snowhaze. Our most recent employee, who joined only a few months ago, was present for that conversation and has remarked several times recently how happy he is with Brave. He said he uses DuckDuckGo cause Brave Search is kind of slow sometimes and the other day he even lamented that his younger brother still uses Google Search in Brave. On desktop, I did get all of our department to willingly switch to Firefox with a the two add-ons I recommend. (I can’t afford to risk hardening Firefox or else things might break, which we can’t really have on the job).

Ed still has a long way to go. I haven’t managed to get him on Signal (or Matrix) or ProtonMail yet. He’s aware of both of them, we just haven’t had a slow day to really dig in at the office. I’m not sure if he’s started using two factor authentication. I’m also not sure if he’s frozen his kids’ credit yet, if I’ve ever talked to him about email masking, or any of that. But the other day, while at work, it occurred me to how proud I am of him and thankful I am that he’s come so far. You have no idea how many times I’ve banged my head against the wall to get people to just TRY literally anything other than Google Chrome. I’ve explained to so many people the risks of bad passwords and the benefits – even the peripheral benefits – of Bitwarden. I’ve even made my own Nextcloud server and offered it to family and friends, plus free tech support. Some people just can’t be bothered to actually take action no matter how hard I plead, try, or overexplain. But people like Ed – and our other new guy who switched to Brave that day – they’re a rare gem. I value those people so, so much because they’re receptive and they act on it. The more people like them who care, the more social pressure it creates for others to care. I think sometimes the reason I forget to bring up privacy stuff with Ed and push him to take the next step is because I’m so scared of pushing him too hard and undoing all that progress, even though I know at this point that’s quite unlikely.

Regardless of how often I (fail to) push Ed, the epiphany I had the other day made me realize that he’s made progress, and that should be appreciated. So many people pay lip service to privacy and security by saying that they worry about the world their kids are growing up in, or they’re scared of Big Tech’s manipulation, or identity theft, but then they continue to post every second of their lives on social media and reuse weak passwords. It’s rare to see someone who actually puts their money where their mouth is and finds time to make the changes, even if it’s slow and piece-by-piece. It’s people like that that give me hope.

It’s not uncommon for me to have people reach out to me and thank me for making The New Oil, Surveillance Report, this blog, or any of the other things I do that make privacy and security accessible to novices. I don’t do this for the thanks, but honestly it still feels good. It’s not about ego, it’s about knowing that I’m making a difference, and that I’m doing my part to make the world a little bit more private and secure each day. So to all the Eds out there – the people who are taking steps forward ( even slow baby steps), the people who are changing their ways to make their behavior match their values, and the people who act – thank you. I think the work is I do is important, but the steps you take are just as important. You give people like me hope, you keep us motivated to keep up the good fight, and you’re part of that change. I’m rooting for you. Don’t give up.

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