Miskatonic University Press

Robert Scoble, Richard Stallman, email and privacy

email privacy

Last week I was at the Augmented World Expo, a big conference about augmented reality. I’ll post more about it, but wanted to post briefly about one very amusing thing.

Robert Scoble gave the opening keynote:

He talked about privacy and the “creepy line.” Right at the end, at 21:57, he says this:

I’ve already noticed a new kind of digital divide: not between people who can afford technology and who can’t, although there is some of that with these toys, but between people who are all in, like me, and people who are all out, like—I had dinner with Richard Stallman, who wears a button that says ‘Pay Cash for Everything.’ Don’t use Facebook, don’t use credit cards. How many people here don’t use credit cards? Not a single hand. Yeah. So you guys have already gotten used to giving companies private information and I think you’re going to give more private information to more companies. Let me explain why in a few seconds.

I use a thing called Tripit. Tripit’s a mobile app that watches my travel behaviour. It looks deep into my Google mail. If we had this meeting fifteen years and somebody would have piped up and said you’re going to give access to third-party companies to your email, I would have probably said you’re nuts, but today I give, what, fifteen companies access to my email for different reasons.

Anyways, I was sitting in a plane in Chicago, coming home, and Tripit said your plane’s been cancelled, here’s a link to another flight out of town that night. I clicked it, it had my credit card, I bought a ticket. Turns out the pilot came on a minute or two later and said sorry, we’re having engine trouble, we don’t have a way to fly home tonight, we’re going back to the gate so you’re going to have to deal with our customer service personnel. I got one of three seats that night because I’m an all-in guy. Richard Stallman, if he was on that plane, would be sitting in Chicago that night. So this industry is going to bring us a lot of utility, but it is going to come at the price of being over the creepy line. With that, I hope you guys take us way over the creepy line.

Fifteen companies with access to his email!?

Compare Scoble’s approach to this Stallman quote from The Shaggy God, by John Sedgwick, from Boston magazine in 2008:

To avoid detection by “Big Brother”—a phrase he uses without irony—he tries to pay cash for everything; avoids Amtrak now that it demands the usual photo ID that Stallman, ever on the lookout for fascism, calls his “papers”; shuffles Charlie Cards with other people so that no single RFID (the radio-based ID system embedded in the cards) is linked to him; and, just in case, wraps Charlie in aluminum foil to mute the transmissions. Why would the MBTA care where he went? “I don’t know why,” Stallman replies, taken aback. “But they do. There’s this philosophy of ‘Let’s keep track of people absolutely as much as possible.’” And once they have it, they have it forever, he observes. “The record is permanent.”

Stallman also owns no cell phone, but will borrow one, if need be. He says he’s leery of the always-on GPS homing signal that some believe has allowed the CIA to off any number of Al Qaeda higher‑ups. “It’s on even when the phone’s off. You have to take the batteries out.” He pauses. “I learned that from the Palestinian Information Technology Association. They have important reasons to know if their cell phones can tell where they are. They could get killed.”

Of course, most of these precautions are pointless, since he outs himself every time he offers up ID to board a plane, then writes about every inch of his travels on his blog. So why bother with all the inconveniences?

“Fuck convenience,” Stallman snaps. “If you won’t sacrifice a little convenience for your freedom, you’re going to lose it.”

RMS’s own page about his lifestyle explains more:

“Loyalty cards”

I refuse to have supermarket frequent buyer cards of my own because they are a form of surveillance. I am willing to pay extra for my privacy and to resist an abusive system. See nocards.org for more explanation of this issue. However, I don’t mind using someone else’s card or number once in a while, to avoid the extra charge for not using a card. That doesn’t track me.

I do use airline frequent flier numbers because the airlines demand to know my identity anyway.

However, I won’t purchase other things with an airline-linked credit card to get miles, because I’d rather pay cash and be anonymous.

Credit Cards

I have a credit card, but I use it as rarely as possible. Effectively, only for airline tickets, car rental, and hotel checkin — because they demand identification anyway.

I pay some other bills with checks. Once again, the payees already know my name.

I’m with Stallman. I’d rather be stuck in Chicago than open up my email. Heck, the Chicago airport’s not a bad place to be stuck. Anyway, you could take the el into the city, stay overnight, maybe catch a show at a club that night, maybe see something at the Art Institute of Chicago in the morning.

Being stuck in Chi with Stallman would be a far more interesting night than escaping by plane with Scoble, too. But I do wonder what their dinner was like.